If critical and audience reviews are to be believed, thank god Fury Road has come out, because for the longest time Beyond Thunderdome was the awkward finale to the Mad Max story. Since it's been thirty years between films, it's hard not to wonder how much damage Beyond Thunderdome did to the Mad Max brand. So now we'll dig in with part three of Max Revisited. You can read my thoughts on Mad Max here, and The Road Warrior here.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls....dyin' time's here!"
It's pretty incredible how a series as inherently batshit insane as Mad Max can somehow find a way to jump the shark. And yet, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome found a way. The third, and for thirty years final, film in the Mad Max series was a radical departure from the previous entries. A PG-13 rating, increased studio involvement, and subplot involving a group of children that feels like it should be in a Spielberg film instead, make this entry a headscratcher as fans are left wondering 'What the hell happened?'
It's worth noting that Beyond Thunderdome almost didn't get made. George Miller's longtime producing partner Byron Kennedy was killed after The Road Warrior was released in a helicopter accident while scouting filming locations. A grieving Miller was reluctant to make another movie, but the studio pressured him into it. Miller was involved, but brought in co-director George Ogilvie to help direct. Ogilvie was responsible for the story while Miller handled the action (though one wonders how much studio involvement really affected the overall production). The film was released in 1985 to mixed to positive reviews.
But the reality is that this is the weakest of the franchise by far. Mad Max was weak due to its amateur production values, but Beyond Thunderdome is just bad for traditional reasons. It's first act, while different, isn't completely terrible, and the final car chase is Mad Max in fine form. But the second act of the film is so far out of left field and not befitting a Mad Max film that it nearly derails the entire picture.
Beyond Thunderdome takes place 15 years after The Road Warrior. We meet Max in a camel wagon and not his iconic V8 (already a sign of things gone wrong) when he is attacked and robbed by Jebediah, The Pilot. Jebediah is played by Bruce Spence, the same actor who played The Gyro Captain in the previous film. But it is not the same character which, yes, is very confusing (Gareth Evans made a similar mistake with actor Yayan Ruhian in The Raid and it's sequel, and it was equally confusing then. Directors take note!). The Pilot even has a son who would fit the age of a son The Gyro Captain might have had since the last film. Irregardless, Max tracks the pilot to Bartertown, a small city that runs on "pigshit." Specifically, it runs on the methane produced by burning the pigshit. The metaphors are a struggle to ignore.
Bartertown is run by Aunty, played by Tina Turner. Yes. That Tina Turner. Yes, I'm being serious. Aunty is in a power struggle with Master-Blaster, a midget who rides a giant human being to form a symbiotic relationship. Master-Blaster holds Bartertown hostage because of his hold over the methane farming. Aunty sees Max as someone who can defeat Master-Blaster which would help her gain power in Bartertown, and encourages him to pick a fight in Thunderdome. If he wins she'll give him the location of The Pilot.
For what it's worth, the fight in Thunderdome is actually pretty great. There is some initial awkwardness (likely due to 80s action choreography) and the PG-13 rating (a downgrade from the hard-R of the first two films) is felt. That being said, it's still an engaging and entertaining sequence that harkens back to a time when action filmmaking was fun and tried to be unique. And the "Two men enter. One man leaves." catchphrase will forever be a part of the pop culture lexicon. Max proves he's still the best in his fight, but refuses to kill his enemy after gaining an undeniable upper hand. Aunty, who deeming Max has broken the rules of Thunderdome (which it's made explicitly clear there are none) has Max banished to die in the desert.
You know, it really is something special when you can point to the exact moment a film went to (pig)shit. This is where Beyond Thunderdome loses its way. Max is banished to the desert but is saved by a tribe of wandering children. The children have formed a small community around an oasis in the desert. We learn these kids survived a plane crash as a result of a nuclear blast from the apocalypse years before, though the timeline doesn't quite add up. None of these kids should have been alive when the bombs fell (since this happened at least 15 years before). Anyway, ignoring that particular script mishap, the children somehow did survive the blast and have spent years waiting the return of Captain Walker, the pilot who saved them, and who Max unfortunately looks an awful lot like. They presume him to be their Messiah, despite his protests to the contrary.
It's hard for a film to lose me completely, but during a scene where the kids tell their story to Max in a style that is reminiscent of C3PO telling his adventures to the Ewoks, I checked out. For some reason Max decides to take the children back to Bartertown, and when they get to Bartertown they get discovered and chased out by Aunty, which feels like an excuse for a Mad Max classic car chase. Max, being responsible for saving these kids (reluctantly, of course) then sheperds them out of Bartertown, crossing paths with The Pilot. He gets The Pilot to fly the kids away to the remains of Sydney, where they start a new community while fondly remembering the legend of Max. Aunty, meanwhile, seeing Max complete his mission drops her beef with Max, but again I can't care to remember what it was. The film forcibly wraps up everything in a neat bow leaving Max once again alone to tackle the challenges of the Outback.
Beyond Thunderdome tries so hard to be different and yet retain the Mad Max qualities, and somehow manages to fail at both. Whether this is script, studio involvement, or co-director George Ogilvie's doing is up for debate, but the end result is still the same. The movie is a tonal mess at odds with what came before it.
It might have turned out better if it had simply stuck with which story to tell (spoiler alert-not the one with the children.) There are two films here. The first is about Max being a new element in a struggling bit of civilization. How will Max fit into this new attempt at society? And is this new world going to be any better than what came and fell before? Indeed Aunty's power struggle seems all too familiar. These are themes we see frequently in post-apocalyptic tales. It seems to be the driving question behind all of The Walking Dead.
The other film is ironically enough a retread of The Road Warrior. Instead of being a reluctant hero for a group of oil rich survivors, now Max is a reluctant hero for a tribe of lost children. This story is the worse of the two options because it is clearly trying to soften it's content for a wider audience. We've seen this happen far too often. The Terminator went from being rated R to PG-13, as did The Expendables between the second and third film. Indiana Jones now has a kid, and his adventures feel like family outings. It's a time proven tradition of tampering with a proven formula for more money.
The subplot involving the children clearly is trying to harken back to Max's relationship with The Feral Kid from the last movie. But the key difference is that in that film, The Feral Kid is kind of fucked up. He speaks only in grunts, has no problem killing a grown man, and has never known a 'normal' existence. He identifies with Max, not in a paternal way, but in an animalistic way. In Beyond Thunderdome, the kids are supposed to be lovable. This is frustratingly reinforced by the children's 'cute' broken English (they survived the "Pocky-Eclipse").
Somehow, despite the flaws, Beyond Thunderdome seems to be the film in the series with which people are most familiar with, which is a shame. It's safe to say this is the weakest of the series. The charm and subtle world building of what came before is gone. Whereas before Max spoke softly and carried a big stick, here he has no problem wasting shotgun shells just to reinforce that he's a badass. The eccentricity of what came before is now pure extravagance (I'm looking at you Tina). For a movie as big as this, it is somehow strangely forgettable.
I can forgive the problems of Mad Max. Here, I can't. I can't even say confidently that this is a must-see for fans of the series. It doesn't completely screw the pooch, some of the Mad Max touches are still here. The Thunderdome fight is a lot of fun, and the final road chase is still Miller delivering his signature automotive madness. But the film around all of this doesn't work. And much like the Prequel Trilogy (The Hobbit or Star Wars, reader's choice), it tarnishes the good name of what came before. It isn't the worst film ever by any stretch, but it certainly stands among the many other tragic third films in trilogies that failed to stick the landing.
And so we come to the end of an era. Mel Gibson's uneven tenure as Max has provided some of the best and worst action filmmaking in the past 40 years. Next week I'll be reviewing Mad Max: Fury Road, which has absurdly good reviews. I'll finish my series with an overall look at the franchise as well as its effect on pop culture.