Revisiting the Reviled — ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ is Half a Good Movie

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

As Mad Max: Fury Road is blowing the minds of moviegoers, it may seem hard to believe that just 30 years ago the original Mad Max trilogy came to an unceremonious end with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. As a whole, Beyond Thunderdome isn’t a bad movie, merely the weakest of the original Mad Max trilogy. That’s not to say there aren’t truly thrilling moments, wonderful set design, and at least one excellent chase scene – it has all those – but it’s lacking in the narrative efficiency of predecessors. Taking into account the death of Byron Kennedy, the producer of the first two films who was killed in a helicopter crash while scouting locations, and the fact that this is the first Mad Max film financed by a major studio, it’s a minor miracle that co-writer and director George Miller was able to craft something this interesting and unique.

The film takes place 15 years after the events of The Road Warrior. The gasoline that loose tribes of people once fought over is all but gone as the world is in total ruins following an atomic war. After finding his transportation stolen, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) treks through the desert until he finds himself in Bartertown, a hastily reassembled society built upon rules regarding trade. In order to regain the items stolen from him, Max strikes a deal with Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), the founder of Bartertown who is in a struggle for power with Master Blaster, a two-person entity with a little person as the brains on top, Master (Angelo Rossitto), and the massive hulk of raw force on bottom, Blaster (Paul Larsson). Master Blaster has rigged Bartertown with power fueled by methane gas from pig feces and will shut it down to exert his will on the town. To fulfil his deal with Aunty, Max must fight Blaster within the Thunderdome, a metal cage where “Two men enter, one man leaves.” When Max refuses to kill Blaster because he’s mentally disabled, Aunty and the denizens of Bartertown banish him to the cruel wasteland of the desert. Near death, Max is rescued by a group of kids who have formed their own civilization and religion from the ruins of a plane crash. Prophesized to lead them away to “Tomorrow-Morrow Land,” Max stages a raid on Bartertown with the intent of getting Master so the kids can fly away to a better tomorrow.

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George Miller makes the most of his expanded resources, creating Bartertown as an intricately designed, textured city. Without a doubt, the most interesting work in the film is all within the confines of the dusty shanty town built on the ashes of society. As Miller does in all the Mad Max films, Miller doesn’t over explain the little nuances of this new city. The rules that dictate Bartertown are whittled down to easily repeated one-liners – “Break a deal, spin the wheel.” It’s no coincidence that the most quotable and memorable moments of Beyond Thunderdome all occur within Bartertown – “Who run Bartertown?” But Bartertown is a society that operates through a level of brutality and control, and it’s a world that is literally powered by shit.

But the textured world of Bartertown only makes up about half the film’s running time. When Max finds himself banished, the film takes a turn for the worse when it becomes Mad Max Meets Lord of the Flies. It also leads the film into some of its more baffling character decisions – namely why in the hell does Max take the kids with him when he returns to Bartertown? These scenes are ones that I can respect for their ambition, presenting a different form of a rebuilt society. Regardless of the ambition, though, these scenes just don’t work as they feel like they belong in an entirely different movie.

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As much as this is about taking the world of Mad Max further beyond the apocalypse, it simply betrays the expectations of what people consider quintessentially Mad Max – crazed cars crashing and careening across the screen. Though the battle between Max and Blaster within the Thunderdome is truly an impressive feat of filmmaking, the fact that Beyond Thunderdome only has the one climactic chase is entirely disappointing, especially when you consider that there’s more time spent with Max and the exiled children of the future. But George Miller admits that his interest in the film had waned following the death of Byron Kennedy, and Miller only directed the action scenes with George Ogilvie directing the more dialogue based scenes.

In Mel Gibson’s final turn as Max Rockatansky, the Aussie actor and renowned anti-Semite takes on a look that seems to blend the desert garb from Lawrence of Arabia while having the same hair that he would don in his Oscar-winning Braveheart. Like Braveheart, Gibson’s lengthy locks are tamed by ample amounts of hairspray. Hey, the end of the world may have brought about an end to civilization and depleted the world’s natural resources, but hair care products rank among the top of survival needs. It’s truly amazing that in a film where he co-stars with Tina Turner, Mel Gibson would have the wilder hairdo. Even with her hair seemingly tame in comparison, Turner’s character of Aunty is a half-baked villain. Not only are the moments where she goes full-on over-the-top crazy relatively limited, the character makes some extremely confusing decisions, most notably letting Max live at the very end even though he’s destroyed the town that she built. Never mind her earlier howl of “No mercy!”

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Time has been kinder to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome than many other entries in this column. The reason is simple: half a Mad Max movie is better than no Mad Max movie. And that’s all Beyond Thunderdome is, half a good movie. This is a film that meant to close out a trilogy. Max walking into the sunset is a form of character redemption and closure even if it isn’t wholly satisfying. Thankfully, George Miller has revived the character and the desolate wasteland he calls home with Fury Road to astounding acclaim. Though Beyond Thunderdome doesn’t reach the visceral energy of The Road Warrior, it has enough of its own personality and memorable moments that it isn’t, like Bartertown, powered purely by shit stacked knee-high.

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