The Scoop: 1985 PG-13, directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie and starring Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Angelo Rossitto, Paul Larsson, Angry Anderson, Helen Buday, Frank Thring and Robert Grubb.
Tagline: Hold out for Mad Max. This is his greatest adventure.
Summary Capsule: A futuristic parable involving Max, some kids, Tina Turner in chain-mail, and lots and lots of pigs.
Deneb’s Review: In the complicated world of movie franchises, there is a common occurrence that I shall term here the ‘Third Movie Fizzle’. You’ve got a movie – it’s good! People want more! It gets a sequel – it’s still good, maybe even better; people want more, more, more, even more than before! The sequel gets a sequel, and… that’s pretty much all she wrote.
Getting a franchise-launching movie just right is a delicate business, and it’s no wonder that it doesn’t happen as often as you might expect. To then repeat said success and kick things into overdrive is also pretty impressive, but in some ways it’s a lot easier than what comes afterwards. If the second movie is like the first, only bigger, then the third is going to be under considerable pressure to make things still bigger than that – and it’s no wonder, therefore, that a number of them succumb to the Fizzle and just aren’t very good. Pressure will do that.
This isn’t to say, of course, that all franchises suffer a TMF – many don’t – but enough do that it’s become noticeable. For instance, Spider-Man 3, Terminator 3 (from what I’ve heard), and, some might say, the recent Dark Knight Rises, to name just a few. It’s enough to make fans hold their breath in agonized anticipation after a sequel goes well – will #3 fall to the dreaded TMF?
Well, it’s all down to opinion, of course – and an opinion that a lot of people seem to hold is one regarding the current movie in question, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. They think it’s a Fizzle. Are they right? Well… let’s see.
The groundwork for Beyond Thunderdome, as any good movie-goer should know, was laid in the original MM and its sequel, The Road Warrior. In those, we see a near-future Australia exhausted by war, its resources nearly gone, and, by the second movie, its civilization in ruins. Through said ruins strides one Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a bitter, badass ex-cop with good aim, skill behind the wheel, and, most importantly, an ornery disposition that will under no circumstances let him quit and leads to him being a good guy despite himself – because all the bad guys are worse.
As BT opens, a good decade-and-a-half has passed since the end of Road Warrior, and during that time the collapse of human society has escalated to a full-on avalanche. Never mind battling over fuel, people are now scrabbling to survive, scavenging whatever they can from the landscape and the remnants of pre-war technologies.
Max himself, meanwhile, has remained just as much of a hard-bitten antihero as ever. So when a couple of bandits (Bruce Spence and Adam Cockburn) hijack his ride and leave him stranded, you can bet your life he’s not going to stand for that sort of behavior.
You’d be right, too. In short order, Mr. Rockatansky follows their trail to Bartertown, a small settlement in the middle of the howling desert. I say ‘small’, but it’s really the biggest show in town at the moment – as the moniker implies, people go there to trade, obtain the necessities of life and maybe have a bit of fun while they’re at it. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it’s pretty hot stuff.
Max, predictably, could care less – he just wants his possessions back, and now. It’s not quite so simple, though, as this rapidly turns out to be a good news-bad news situation. The bad news is that it’s too late; this being Bartertown, it’s already been, well, bartered. The good news is that he may have a chance to re-supply.
Here’s the situation – Bartertown is run by a woman known as Auntie Entity (Tina Turner). She founded the place, and rules over it with an iron hand – mostly, anyway. You see, the place is fueled by methane gas, which is produced via a subterranean pig-farm and the *ahem* leavings of its porcine inhabitants. It’s known as Underworld, and the big boss down there is the dwarfish Master (Angelo Rossitto) and his hulking bodyguard, Blaster (Paul Larsson), who operate as a single unit, Master-Blaster. It’s Master’s engineering skills that keep the town alive, and he’s gotten a trifle power-mad of late.
As such, Auntie has a proposition for Max. To prevent any escalation of hostilities, all violent disputes in Bartertown are settled via a gladiatorial arena known as Thunderdome, where the only rule is that “Two men enter, one man leaves”. If Max can provoke Master-Blaster into such a bout – and, of course, survive it – Auntie will be more than happy to kit him out with a new set of stuff and send him on his way.
Except, of course, that things don’t go quite that easily. For reasons that I won’t go into here, Max finds that he can’t quite fulfill his end of the bargain. As punishment, he gets stranded in the middle of the desert with no food or water, a near-certain ticket to Goodbyesville.
Here’s where things start getting… odd. Max is rescued by a group of children living a near-tribal lifestyle in a small, hidden oasis. They’ve been living there for quite a while, all their lives, basically, and are ecstatic to see him. They’re under the impression (and again, I won’t go into why) that he’s someone named ‘Captain Walker’, a near-messianic figure who will lead them back to ‘Tomorrow-Morrow Land’ – or, in other words, civilization.
Well, this is one heck of a peachy situation, now isn’t it? On the one hand, you know that our boy Rockatansky can no more not go back to Bartertown and kick ass than a falling rock cannot go down. On the other, the man does have a conscience, and it’s plain that he’s got to do something for these kids – but what? Bartertown would chew them up and spit them out, and ‘real’ civilization is all but gone – the chances of actually getting them to this Tomorrow-Morrow Land are pret-ty darn slim.
What to do? Mad Max will find a way.
OK, let’s start with the less-than-nifty stuff, for less-than-niftiness there is here. There are reasons why some might consider this a Fizzle.
The first impression one is likely to get of Beyond Thunderdome is that it is essentially two Mad Max movies crammed into one. There’s the Bartertown part, and then there’s the bit with the kids, and both seem like they belong in different films. The Bartertown plot is rolling along at a fair clip, and then Bam! The kids, and Captain Walker, and all this business about the “Pocsaclypse”. Neither of them are bad in and of themselves, but what on Earth does the one have to do with the other? It’s no wonder that some people get whiplash.
Furthermore, I would venture to state that this is just not the sort of thing that people think about when they think of a Mad Max movie. When people think of Max, they think of car chases, things blowing up, a bit of the old ultraviolence. Mind you, all of those things are in BT to some degree, and they’re good; the movie has some great action scenes in it – but to a large extent it is focused on far divergent themes that don’t, at first glance, seem to make much sense as an extension of the series.
Finally, there is one small personal gripe that I have to add. For all that the series has sparked an astounding number of post-apocalyptic copycats over the years, the actual apocalypse established in movies one and two is not the nuclear Armageddon that cinematic apocalypses of the period tended to be. Indeed, it set itself considerably apart from the herd by implying that the source of the world falling to pieces was a more standardized war, a WW3 that ultimately went on so long that the infrastructure of civilization simply collapsed. This was A: an interesting departure from the norm, and B: made sense – you couldn’t really get to the Road Warrior state of things if you also had to worry about radiation poisoning and such. I mean, hell with fighting over fuel; everyone would be holed up in fallout shelters. Now, in the third movie, we’re explicitly back to the same old someone-pressed-the-button-things-went-boom scenario, despite the fact that the basic set-up is exactly the same as in #2. This makes me grumpy.
All that being said, I, for one, do not think this film is a Fizzle. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty darned good.
You will note, if you flick your eye slightly upwards, that I said BT is focused on things that ‘don’t, at first glance, seem to make much sense as an extension of’ blah de blah de blah. The emphasis there, though, should be on ‘seem’ and ‘at first glance’. For the truth is, Beyond Thunderdome actually fits pretty well into the series if looked at in the context of the whole.
Let’s examine this. The original Mad Max, as I said in my review of it, is essentially about how Max became mad, an origin story, if you will. Road Warrior is an extension and elaboration of that, showing Max in all his Madness and antiheroic glory. He is not very nice in that one, but he shows his underlying good nature when it counts.
In Beyond Thunderdome, a fair amount of time has passed. Max has been wandering around the wilderness for years and years, and some of the anger has been leeched out of him. He’s still a tough guy, but he’s mellowed slightly with age. This is a Max who plays a bit better with others, and perhaps one who isn’t quite so Mad anymore.
As such, BT’s departure from the tone of the first two makes perfect sense. Those were more brutal films as fit the depiction of a more brutal hero. They were, in essence, tales of him working out his anger. The third, on the other hand, is that of a certainly older, maybe a bit wiser Max, and as such, of course it has a different tone. This is not a story of bitter revenge or reluctant compassion; this is one of a man forced to come to grips with the nobility he has shoved deep down within himself. By the end, it could even be called one of unambiguous redemption. Over the course of the movie he goes through an arc, and is changed. Not drastically so – he is still the hardened badass wanderer of the postapocalyptic wastelands. He is still Max. But he is a changed Max, and the movie would not be true to this if it itself was not different in some ways from its predecessors.
With that said, I suppose it’s time for me to stop fiddle-faddling around and actually tell you what, besides the evolution of Max himself, makes Beyond Thunderdome so gosh-darned different. Well, to start with, it has a very unique look and feel. If the second movie had a sort of junkyard future-barbarian element to it, what with all the scavenged bits and bobs used to create various odd costumes, makeshift weapons/vehicles, etc., then this one is that after it’s had a good while to percolate and evolve. The stylings of Road Warrior are still here, but they’ve been codified and set in stone; no longer odd conglomerations of whatever people could scavenge, they’re now, well, styles. Australia still consists largely of an uncivilized wasteland, but it’s obvious that some forms of metalworking, tailoring, etc., have been revived, so that things have a less makeshift, more sophisticated look. This allows for all kinds of bizarritudes that the first two couldn’t get away with; for instance, Auntie’s elaborately be-mohawked enforcers, Master-Blaster’s overall look (I tried to give a description here and failed – just trust me, it’s weird), or what appears to be an entire car made out of cowhide. And that’s just in Bartertown – the tribal kids’ piecemeal outfits and overall pseudo-Aboriginal styles are a sight to behold, what with all the furs and the feathers and the bone necklaces and random bits of face paint.
All these visual oddities feed into the second aspect of BT that makes it stand out – the story. I don’t mean simply the events that make up the story, although as I’ve already stated, those are far from the norm. I mean the tone of it, part and parcel with the way it looks and feels – and here is where its actual contents start to make sense.
‘Speak plainly!’ you say. ‘What do you mean?’ I mean that Beyond Thunderdome, taken as a whole, has a decidedly mythic, legendary feel to it – and myths have an internal logic of their own.
Now, I’m not the first person to note this sort of thing, and so I won’t go too deeply into the details here – a quick Google search will bring you to several sites that analyze the movie quite exhaustively. (Needless to say, copious spoiler warnings; I recommend you actually watch the movie first.) I’ll simply lay out the bare bones of the situation.
Bartertown, it could safely be said, is the main focus of the movie, and it could have remained so without too much trouble. But – but but but – that would not have fit with what they were going for. Not by a long shot.
The town, you see, is not just a place; it carries symbolism. It is a little mini-microcosm of our own modern world, our technology-obsessed, dirty, filthy, corrupted world. This only becomes truly apparent, however, once we have left it and encountered the kids in the desert. They are youth and its innocence; they both represent an earlier, unspoiled way of life and a yearning for something better, for our own society, something that, at the time of the movie, no longer truly exists. They are, in short, the essential contrast to Bartertown – where it represents the dismal reality of what currently is, they represent the idealistic view that we are better than our grimy outer shell, that despite humanity having fouled and warred and polluted itself, we have also created wonders, and even after they have been all but destroyed, we may yet create them again. They are, essentially, our second chance, and Max their… well. I’ll leave it up to you to discover what he is to them, but it’s all very mythic, I assure you.
Or, you know, you could ignore all that, as I’m sure most do, and just see it as a movie where Mad Max does stuff. Either way, it works.
Now, as to characters. Movies in this series have a habit of introducing eighty-five bajillion characters, each one with their own name (many of which you never actually get to hear) and distinctive visual look, and only a few of which you will actually remember. So I’ll confine my profiling to those of them that actually affect the plot in some way, or are simply too interesting to leave out.
I’ve already talked about Max’s role in some detail here, so I’ll just say this – some actors are so closely associated with an iconic role that they essentially become that character, and just as Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, Mel Gibson is undoubtedly Max. I’ve heard that there’s a new, Gibson-less MM movie coming out before long, and OK, fine; I’ll give the new guy a chance – but he will never be the definitive Max. That will remain Mel. I know that he’s picked up a pretty bad reputation as of late, and I’m not qualified to say that he doesn’t deserve it, but he is awesome as Mad Max and always will be; end of story.
The only other hero of any real note is Savannah Nix (Helen Buday), one of the leaders of the tribe of children. Buday has apparently since gone on to become a respected Australian stage actress, and y’know what, I can see why. She is basically the tribe’s spiritual leader, its priestess, as it were, and the amount of shining optimism Buday puts into her role is quite impressive. What’s more so is that when said optimism is inevitably crushed (oh, like that’s a spoiler; this is Max we’re talking about here), she doesn’t let that stop her. She keeps her faith strong even after the larger details of it have been quashed; instead of succumbing to despair, she just gets more determined to follow what’s actually behind it. That is admirable, and makes her a memorable character.
On to the villains – well… sort of. The fact is there aren’t really any cut-and-dried villains here. Oh sure, there are people who fill the roles of villains, and they get their comeuppance, but you don’t get the undisputed evil of a Toecutter or Lord Humungus in this flick. The most we get are authority figures that have perhaps overstepped their boundaries just a touch.
If one were to declare a main villain, though, it would be Auntie Entity. This one really took me by surprise – it sounds like the worst kind of stunt casting; I mean, Tina Turner? The hell?
However, I’m pleased to announce that I was dead wrong. Turner really knocks one out of the park here. This is due at least in part to her physical presence; the lady had quite the Amazonian quality to her back in the day, and this is put to good use here. Striding around in her slinky chain-mail outfits, high heels and a waist-length mop of blonde hair making her seem about a foot taller than she already is, Auntie stands out, to say the least – she overall just looks like she’s in charge of the situation, because who else in this post-apocalyptic scenario would look like that? It’s more than just physicality, however, as you quickly come to understand just how someone like her could have founded a place like Bartertown to begin with. The lady’s got guts – she’s hard-edged enough to keep her minions in line with a barked command, while at the same time retaining a theatrical charisma that allows her to retain control of a settlement that is clearly only this close to mob rule. She has little bread, so she keeps them distracted with circuses – specifically Thunderdome and all the rah-rah spectacle surrounding it. This is her world, and she is undisputed mistress of it.
That being said, she has a definite motivation for all of this that is completely understandable. Sure, there’s the fact that she gets to be essentially a queen, but in a sense, her driving force is the same one that drives the kids – she’s trying to rebuild civilization, and while her my-way-or-the-highway tactics are clearly a step too far, she is at least having some small modicum of success. Furthermore, she has an interesting relationship with Max – while on one level the two quickly become enemies, on the other she seems to genuinely like and admire him, which leads to a denouement that I’m sure many won’t be expecting. Auntie is far from the perfect Mad Max villain, but she is undeniably interesting, and I enjoyed watching her.
Next up, I suppose, should be Master-Blaster, but honestly, he/they are not so much villains as they are an ‘enemy of my enemy’ sort of thing. That’s about all I can go into without spoilers. The only other one that really qualifies is a chap called Ironbar (Angry Anderson), one of Auntie’s main henchmen. He’s notable mainly for two things – one, he has a very memorable outfit (I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say a Kabuki mask is involved), and two, this guy takes more punishment over the course of the film than a freakin’ Looney Tunes character. I mean, seriously, this guy is like an Australian, post-apocalyptic Wile E. Coyote; every time you think there isn’t anything more the poor sod can go through, he goes through it. You’d wince in sympathy if he weren’t such a thug; as it is, it’s one of the film’s best running gags.
So in a nutshell, how would I rate Beyond Thunderdome? I’d rate it fairly high. I certainly wouldn’t call it a Fizzle. People say it’s not as good as Mad Max or Road Warrior, and they’re probably right, but those are two damned good movies – it’s no shame being the least of three if the first two set the bar extremely high. Yes, it has flaws, and yes, it’s not for everyone, but it’s still better and more memorable than a lot of films out there, and most of said flaws are the result of something interesting being tried that didn’t quite work out all the way. I respect its ambition, if nothing else. If you liked the first two movies, I’d say it’s at least worth a watch – and if you didn’t like them, maybe you’ll like this one better.
So, whenever it comes – happy Pocsaclypse, everybody! Mad Max is coming to kick your rears! Yay!
- Angelo Rossitto, who played Master, had quite a career. His first film role was in 1927, and he subsequently acted in such films as Freaks and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Wikipedia and IMdB disagree as to whether this or a 1987 horror film called The Offspring was his last role, but either way, it was one of the last films he was in. He died in 1991, at the age of 84.
- Max’s left eye in this film is permanently dilated. This is due to an eye injury he received in Road Warrior.
- The entries on ‘the Wheel’ are as follows: Underworld, Death, Forfeit Goods, Spin Again, Gulag, Aunty’s Choice, Acquittal, Amputation, Hard Labor, Life Imprisonment.
- The film is dedicated to Byron Kennedy, producer of the first two films, who was killed in a helicopter accident while scouting locations.
- That is one damn smart monkey.
- Tina Turner has said that being involved in Beyond Thunderdome was one of the most enjoyable experiences of her career.
Repeated line: Two men enter, one man leaves!
Savannah: This ain’t one body’s story; it’s the story of us all. We got it mouth-to-mouth, so you gotta listen it, an’ ‘member, ‘cause what you hears today you gotta tell the birthed tomorrah.
Master: Who you?
Max: Me Max.
Dr. Dealgood: This is the truth of it – fighting leads to killing, and killing gets to warring, and that was damn near the death of us all. Look at us now – busted up, and everyone talking about hard rain! But we’ve learned – by the dust of ‘em all, Bartertown’s learned. Now, when men get to fighting, it happens here, and it finishes here!
Auntie Entity: Well, ain’t we a pair, raggedy man.
Max: What are you?
Kids: What are you? What are you? What are you? What are you?
Kids: Quiet! Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!
Max: Shut up!
Kids: Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
Max: I’m the guy that keeps Mr. Dead in his pocket.
Auntie Entity: Remember where you are. This is Thunderdome. Death is listening, and will take the first man that screams.
Master: Who run Bartertown?
Crowd: Bust a deal, face the wheel! Bust a deal, face the wheel!
(Pig-Killer has something stuck in his leg)
Max: We’re gonna count to three! One… (pulls it out)
Pig-Killer: (whimpering) What happened to ‘two’?
Blackfinger: It’ll blow the crap out of this place – literally.
Dr. Dealgood: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls – dyin’ time’s here.
Master: Me King A-Rab!
Max: Sure, me fairy princess.
Savannah: He’s got word-stuff from his arse to his mouth!
Pigkiller: No, mister, I can feel it! The dice are rollin’!
Kids: Fly, Walker, fly!
Auntie Entity: How the world turns. One day cock of the walk, next a feather duster.
Savannah: Time counts, an’ keeps countin’, an’ we knows now, findin’ the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride. But that’s our track; we gotta travel it, and there ain’t nobody knows where it’s gonna lead.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Mad Max
- The Road Warrior
- Planet of the Apes