Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

It takes less than 10 seconds after the Warner Brothers logo to know that this is going to be an awfully big comedown. Perhaps there is a version of Mad Max that gels with gated drums, pop synths, and Tina Turner’s crooning, but George Miller is not the man to do it, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is certainly not a movie that did it. That makes sense, in a way, since Miller’s heart had gone out of the project since the death of his longtime producing partner Byron Kennedy. The once-mad, now-deflated action maestro eventually went ahead with it, but enlisted George Ogilvie as a co-director, and the result is the one Mad Max film that doesn’t feel like it sprang roaring from its maker’s soul.

In all honesty, I don’t especially mind that Tina Turner song, and I don’t mind the notion of a post-apocalyptic family adventure film; what I mind is that this is such a bloodless affair. It is, on one hand, by far the densest of the films in terms of the world it presents, but if The Road Warrior was a vast collection of details serving a simple story, Beyond Thunderdome is a simple story serving a vast collection of details, and the difference in emotional resonance is basically the difference between a heroic legend and show-and-tell.

When we come upon Max, he seems as worn out as ever (indeed, not only does the character arc of Mad Max 2 not seem to apply here, the only reference to his backstory at all is when he mentions he was once a cop). Max, in search of his stolen car, enters a crowded desert outpost called Bartertown, whose skimpy, pseudo-medieval, methane-powered hive of traders is as close to a metropolis as the Wasteland’s ever likely to get. After making a brutish show of force to gain entrance, Max is taken to Bartertown’s ruler, Aunty (Tina Turner, who is the least convincing member of post-apocalyptic society in the cast, and that winds up to be saying quite a lot). Aunty is in a going feud with Master Blaster, who runs the methane production in a squalorous cave called Underworld. Master Blaster, in fact, is a duo: a vernacularly challenged but technically brilliant little person called Master, and a grunting, statuesque enforcer in a Mask called Blaster. Max agrees to assassinate Blaster by provoking a fight in a legally sanctioned, gladiatorial arena known as Thunderdome, and the bungee-corded brawl there winds up being the only ingenious, suspenseful action Miller manages to conjure.

Bartertown, in general, is a pale imitation of its predecessors, not only because the feud between Aunty and Master is totally undeveloped, but because there’s no sense that anything is at stake for Max except his car. Still, the production design of Bartertown is undeniably impressive, if a little nonsensical, and the power struggle is clear enough to give a sense of purpose to the proceedings. What’s more, Maurice Jarre proves a capable replacement for Brian May, even if his lovely melodies and lush strings have lost the edge that May’s blunt and beautiful style lent to The Road Warrior. If the qualities of the first half of Beyond Thunderdome were carried through the whole, it would be an enjoyable if disappointing finish to Gibson’s Max.

Alas, Thunderdome’s second half takes a turn, and not for the better. After a “This wasn’t part of the deal!” moment that is both confusing and painfully predictable, Max is exiled from Bartertown, and through sheer chance winds up in a near-feral oasis colonized by children who survived a plane crash some years ago, and now wait for a prophesied saviour called “Captain Walker” — whom, of course, they presume Max to be. In bizarrely broken English, they explain that they expect Walker to reanimate their crashed planes and take them to “Tomorror-morrow Land”, which they know only through a photograph of a pre-nuclear Sydney.

Those kids are insufferable.

Everything falls apart in this segment, from the production design (it is not convincing at all that the kids would have formed their tools and clothes with the resources on hand) to the over-earnest, gratingly numb-skulled performances (extending across the child actors and to the two early-20s tribe leaders who serve as mother- and father-figures) to the way Max’s initial cold-hearted threats of violence towards the tribe turns on a dime to risking his life to save them, to the nonsensical introduction of mysticism and destiny to the proceedings. After Max finds them in a failed expedition, they realize the only place with the means to survive is Bartertown and, given that Bartertown is run by cold-blooded bastards who would sooner let a child die than take them in, they set out to rescue Master (who goes from a grotesque Steampunk villain to a warm, professorially-dressed ally without a word of explanation) and escape on a truck that’s been repurposed to drive on train tracks.

What follows is an unintentionally comical reversal of everything that made The Road Warrior’s climax effective. While that scene had characters whose plight we had come to care about, and who suffered and died and struggled through every inch of the elaborate, lightning-paced final conflict, not a single person gets killed in Beyond Thunderdome’s final chase. Nobody even gets seriously hurt, besides a spear to the leg that winds up inconsequential to the action that follows and is removed with relative ease. It would seem that the two “shit”s and one scene of dark bloodletting of the film’s first half were the farthest they were allowed to stretch their PG-13 rating (the only time that rating has been applied to Mad Max to date, and hopefully the last). The result is that villains and good guys alike mug for the camera, make wacky “Waaaaah!” sounds instead of real screams, and never do much real damage to each other before the film comes to its unceremonious end.

That’s unfortunate, and the downgrade in visual storytelling from exemplary to decent is unfortunate, and the kids are very unfortunate, but what pisses me off most about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is that not a single person changes in any meaningful way, ever. Max is never clearly defined at the beginning, and when he winds up being a selfless hero at the end, it’s not really clear exactly how much he’s changed or why. Ironically, the character does more stuff here than either of the preceding Mad Maxes, but makes the least impression. Maybe that’s down to the pressures of big-budget studio filmmaking. Maybe it’s down to Miller’s grieving detachment from the whole affair. But one way or another, it would be a shame if the apex of Mad Max’s budget and sweep was a mess like this. Thankfully, it isn’t.


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