Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Films of 1985: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Before he was simply Hollywood's modern-day "Mad Mel," Australian actor Mel Gibson was genre cinema's Mad Max, a futuristic hero and "man with no name" dwelling in an apocalyptic, and then, finally, post-apocalyptic world.  

In terms of narrative structure, the three Mad Max films of the 1970s-1980s (Mad Max [1979], The Road Warrior [1981] and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome [1985]) chart an interesting and highly artistic parallel trajectory. 

Both human civilization itself and Max's original persona as a decent family man collapse at approximately the same time, in the violent, emotionally-searing Mad Max

Then, in the absence of law and morality arises much chaos and violence (Road Warrior). Oil is scarce.  The law fails. Nobody trusts anybody on the desolate highways of the future, and survival -- not morality -- proves paramount. Max loses much of his humanity in this world, but manages to hold onto a kernel of it.    

Finally -- at last -- the process of re-building and achieving redemption begin in earnest in Beyond Thunderdome, both for the individual man, Max, and for all of mankind too There is hope. Civilization starts again, and it lights the way home for the road warriors...

It's a terrific  story/character arc, played ably and movingly across three very strong and memorable genre films.

Yet Mad Max fans still debate with passion which film in the action-packed trilogy from George Miller (and the late Byron Kennedy) remains the finest. Like many, I prefer the middle part of the trilogy, the absolutely unsentimental, unrelenting The Road Warrior, by a wide margin. 

When I reviewed that film, I called it "one of the ten great action films of the last thirty years," and highly commended "the aura of danger, anxiety and uncertainty" in the landmark, "startling" effort. 

I still feel the same way. The Road Warrior was one of those rare theatrical experiences (not unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House on the Left) in which  actively-engaged audience members felt there was a real danger they might be see something truly unpleasant, or decorum-shattering, on screen. The movie felt downright dangerous.

Interestingly, critics and audiences tend to be sharply divided on the (for now...) final entry in the pantheon, Beyond Thunderdome. Critics, including the late Roger Ebert, praise the third film extravagantly, whereas audiences seem markedly less enthusiastic about this 1985 effort.  

I understand the reasons for both reactions, and in some ways, Beyond Thunderdome is a sharply schizophrenic film.

On the one hand, Beyond Thunderdome is a movie that vividly creates a unique and highly-cinematic world -- Bartertown -- and then memorably populates that environment with an entourage of fascinating, flamboyant characters . 

These include the sexy villain, Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), and her strange, colorful entourage. These retainers possess memorable names such as Scrooloose, Dr. Dealgood, The Collector, and Ironbar, and this element adds to the film's sense of  fun, and wickedness.

Commendably, Thunderdome also treats this one-of-a-kind world with a witty -- but not cheesy--  sense of humor, at least starting out. Even the film's dialogue in the first act is unexpectedly, unremittingly sharp.  

"You can shovel shit, can't you?"

That's all really good stuff for the film reviewers to chew on and ponder, no doubt.  And as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome kicks in with a jolt, the pop tune by Tina Turner promises a good, dark, pacey excursion into a world we've been to before, only on a grander, more epic, more edgy scale.

But audiences -- especially those who are fans of the earlier films -- may still end up upset or disappointed with this third film because it very obviously assimilates Mad Max into the Hollywood mainstream action mold. 

Suddenly, the lone warrior of the wasteland is encountering cute, resourceful kids, fighting cartoony villains (like the aforementioned, apparently unkillable Ironbar) and even playing the white knight. That last bit (the white knight act) is a critical part of the overall story arc: Max's step-by-step return to the world of "humanity," and, yes, it must exist. By the end of the Mad Max cycle, we understand, Mad Max must no longer be "mad."

Yet it's still hard to escape the impression that -- in the Darwinian world depicted in The Road Warrior -- the Mad Max (and attached kids) we encounter in Thunderdome would simply not survive. 

And Aunty Entity would not retain control of Bartertown for long were she to -- in full view of her battle-hardened troops -- let Max survive after their final clash.  It's not just that Aunty's decision to let Max live feels like an anti-climax when we desperately desire a stirring action scene; it's that it doesn't ring entirely true with what's been established before.

And so this movie just feels...softer than the previous pictures.

So, you can sense the problem with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  The first act is stellar, imaginative, even caustic post-apocalyptic nirvana.  The last act is pro forma Hollywood nonsense.

Janet Maslin of The New York Times termed Beyond Thunderdome "the most visually spectacular installment by far, with a few innovations - notably the one of the title - that are far more elaborate than anything George Miller, the director, has attempted before...So if it eventually steers Max into the midst of a tribe of primitive children who regard him as their savior, it can easily be forgiven. This film has showier stunts than its predecessors, and a better sense of humor. It also has Tina Turner, in chain-mail stockings."

That paragraph really gets at the central conflict of Beyond Thunderdome

Redemption comes in the end for Max, "the raggedy man" who chooses sacrifice over belonging (as possible payment for his spell as an amoral wanderer in the wasteland). But what about redemption for the movie?  It clearly forsakes its predecessors sense of driving pace, and unromantic view of the human species for a happy ending. 

Is this simply the result of narrative closure, and function of the story arc?  Or is it a flaw that keeps the movie from fully satisfying those who began the journey with Mad Max?

Welcome, to another edition of Thunderdome!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome finds former policeman and family man Max (Gibson) wandering in a seemingly endless desert, driving a team of camels on his converted no more than an old-fashioned wagon

A plane dives from the sky and unseats Max from his vehicle.  The plane's pilot, Jedidiah (Bruce Spence), jumps into the driver's seat and rides away, leaving Max behind.

Max survives and heads to Bartertown, a nearby outcropping of "civilization" in the desert.  He hopes to find Jedidiah and re-claim his property, but instead becomes the pawn of Auntie Entity (Tina Turner), Bartertown's benefactor. 

In particular, Entity wants the "King Arab" of the town's energy-producing facility, "Underworld" dead for his repeated attempts to assert authority over her and "embargo" the town's energy. But killing Master (Angelo Rossitto) is harder than it sounds because he is protected by a body guard, the hulking "Blaster."

Auntie strikes a deal with Max to kill Blaster inside the town's arena, a "hall of justice" called "Thunderdome." Max wins the battle, but finds that Blaster suffers from Down Syndrome and possesses "the mind of a child."  Holding on to his code of ethics, Max refuses to kill Blaster, and is -- for "busting a deal"  -- sent into the wilderness on a horse, gulag-style.

In the desert, a tribe of orphan children find Max and worship him as their lost leader, Captain Walker. These "Waiting Ones" believe that Max can lead them home to civilization, to the city, but are in for a disappointment when Max tells them the truth;  that nothing of mankind's previous civilization remains intact. 

When a group of children led by Savannah Nix (Helen Buday) make the trek into the wilderness anyway, Max must rescue them, and, once again, survive the dangers of Bartertown. 

In the months and years following Max's rescue of the children, Savannah and the survivors of "The Waiting Ones" remember men like Max...hoping that they too will return to civilization at last.

"I know you won't break the rules, because there aren't any."

One arena where you can't fault George Miller and George Ogilvie's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is in the creation of an intriguing, visually-distinguished, post-apocalyptic world. 

From the film's first aerial shot (looked to be lensed from low planetary orbit, so you can actually see the curve of the Earth...) to the first reveal of Bartertown (a swooping Louma crane shot...) and beyond, this sequel is vetted in extraordinary and dazzling visual fashion.  

The imagination and ingenuity of the production designer, Graham Walker, is on full-display throughout.  And cinematographer Dean Semler captures all the details -- both droll and dirty -- with aplomb.

What remains special about this Mad Max world is how it effortlessly seems both funny and realistic.  The entrance way to Bartertown, for instance is a crowded tunnel where "The Collector" greets newcomers and assesses their skills, followed by a weapons drop-off point. 

After that pit stop, it's daylight...into pandemonium.  There's the humorously named "Atomic Cafe," a peddler hawking fresh water ("what's a little fall-out?"), the "House of Good Deals," and towering over everything, the imposing, palatial residence of Aunty Entity.

Oh, and there's a little place called Thunderdome, a stadium that has entered the American pop culture vernacular in a permanent way (referenced on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and in other productions.) 

You already know the rules....there aren't any.  Two men man leaves.  

But Thunderdome is fascinating for two reasons. First, the "why" behind its very existence in Bartertown is compelling: the survivors of this world's nuclear apocalypse realized that killing leads to warring and that warring was "damn near the end of us all."  

So here -- perhaps wisely -- violence is limited to this one, awful place. Beyond it, blood lust has no place in Bartertown.  Allegedly, anyway.

The second scintillating aspect of Thunderdome is the orchestration of Max's fight inside it.  The combatants are strung-up on elastic bands and fight in mid-air, reaching for weapons (such as chainsaws and mallets) at the upper apex of the dome. So Max and his opponent, Blaster, whirl, fly, bounce, dip and spin in battle, and it's pretty exciting stuff.  Not to mention staggeringly original.

This is how Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel described the locale: "Thunderdome is both hall of justice and cultural center for Bartertown, presided over by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), purring like a tiger and claiming she has created civilization's highest flowering since nuclear devastation. Indeed she has, if an imitation of late 20th century city life--all junk, improvisations and random brutality--is your idea of civilization. Thunderdome brilliantly clarifies that irony. Its high-bounding excesses of action simultaneously satisfy and satirize the passion for heedless viciousness that so profoundly moves the action film's prime audience, urban adolescent males."

In other words, the Thunderdome setting provides both the setting for a fantastic, inventive action sequence and a context for some social commentary on our world in the 1980s; the world in which American Gladiators was later born; a world in which action stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenneger were tops at the box office. 

Late in the Thunderdome sequence, Max is introduced to another compelling element of Bartertown's law: The Wheel. As in, "Bust a Deal, Face the Wheel."    

Here, Max faces random justice in front of a giant spinning wheel that satirizes in shape and form the titular Wheel of Fortune (1983 - present) from the popular TV game show with Pat Sajak and Vanna White. Only here the selections on the wheel are matters of life and death: Gulag, hard labor, acquittal, death, Aunty's Choice, forfeit goods, etc. 

"Justice is only a roll of the dice...a turn of the wheel," stresses Dr. Dealgood, importantly. Once more, I should stress that this legal system makes perfect if perverse sense, given the circumstances.  

The "survivors" in this world didn't make it because they were smart...they survived the apocalypse because of luck. Even Aunty Entity acknowledges this fact...she was nobody until the apocalypse made her somebody. The people of Bartertown believe that fickle fate accounts for their survival and continuance, and the Wheel is a kind of legal expression of that fickle sense of fate or destiny.

In toto, the early scenes in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome -- at Bartertown -- reveal much of value about human nature. Aunty Entity wants complete and total control of the town, and is unwilling to share it with Master in the Underworld. One can certainly understand why: he's capricious and enjoys her public humiliation

Still, it's difficult to claim the mantel of civilization in one breath while ordering a hit on "family" the next, as Max points out to Aunty.   

But thematically, there's something important going on here.  As one character states in the film, "no matter where you go; there you are."  Mankind -- no matter his aspirations; no matter his new forms of government -- remains the same breed; the same ambitious animal. Even after a world-war and wholesale destruction of the planet surface, Bartertown is still a savage place.

Everything about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome's first act is filled with invention: the location, the camera-work, the nature of Aunty's entourage, the social commentary, and even the significance of Max's role as the outsider (the film literally compares him to Eastwood's "man with no name" at the inception of the Thunderdome fight).  

These are the reasons why critics adore the film. And in addition to all these accomplishments, the movie also achieves a difficult balance in terms of the sequel formatThunderdome spins new and interesting territory out of the franchise world rather than simply recycling and revisiting familiar elements from it.

It's the Story of Us All...

But something goes dramatically wrong in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome's final act.  The movie's intellectual, harsh-minded tone gives way to a sort of Hollywood-ish blockbuster mind-set which stresses easy humor and pat solutions over invention and social commentary. 

Cute kids dressed as native warriors take center stage, and the movie attempts to derive humor from their misunderstanding of pre-apocalypse technology (like phonograph records).   his is the "Ewok Paradigm" that also, to some extent, scuttled Return of the Jedi (1983), though admittedly on a lesser scale.

What's the problem? Well, again, it's all about tone. Suddenly Mad Max is a figure of fun and humor, running into a hallway of armed goons, and then running back in the opposite direction towards camera  (like Han Solo on the Death Star in Star Wars). Or worse, punching a bad guy through a vent grate in a moment timed for broad comedy instead of thrills and intensity.

Suddenly, bad guys are getting decked with pots and pans by crockery-wielding tykes. And a dark, monstrous bully-figure like Ironbar morphs before our eyes into a live-action Wily Coyote, surviving deadly incident after deadly incident unscathed until all sense of reality around the character bleeds away, sacrificed for callow, crowd-pleasing visual jokes (like an upturned middle finger as his last gesture of defiance). 

There are some folks who dislike the latter half of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome simply because of the presence of cute children in the action, and I understand that objection.  Again, looking back to The Road Warrior, there was an absolutely unsentimental and brilliant child character: the Feral Kid.  The movie did not play favorites with him, sentimentalize or romanticize him in any way.  He was simply a wild child who grew up in a terrible world and who befriended Max.

Beyond Thunderdome works hard to earn the presence of these children in this particular chapter.  One child even dies in the film, devoured by a sandstorm in the desert. And I understand why the moviemakers wanted children here in the first place: to represent our future; our tomorrows.

But the children have a whimsical way of speaking that feels tonally out-of-place ("Tomorrow-orrow Land,"), and the movie resorts to squeezing gags out of these children (like learning French, or learning how to drive a car) and it's all just too damn cute.

"Cute" is the last thing that fans of The Road Warrior were seeking in a sequel.

Again, I get it.  It's about redemption. It's about Max -- who lost a child himself -- coming to the defense of other children. In that act (and in his final sacrificial move in battle...), Max finally returns to the human race. I appreciate that arc very much; but wish that the obvious humor and terminal cutesies had been more studiously avoided. The same story could have been vetted in less schmaltzy terms. It's the tone of the thing; not necessarily the story itself that I object to.

And alas, it isn't just the presence of cute children that feels like a bow to Hollywood mainstream entertainment in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome's final act, it is also the very resolution of the drama.  A railway line conveniently runs out of Bartertown so Max and the children can escape by train, and then the film provides a thoroughly conventional car chase-styled action scene, with the train at the center of the action. This feels like a very, very pale retread of the blazing, sustained tanker truck pursuit at the end of The Road Warrior. 

Once more, a point of contrast: The Road Warrior's tanker battle absolutely refused to play favorites. The film's female lead character, played by Farscape's gorgeous Virginia Hey, died ingloriously in that hair-raising, exciting sequence.  There was just no sentimentality. 

But in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, kids survive a similar assault by heroically wielding iron cooking pans against ruthless, amoral soldiers. It just feels...wrong. Would this technique have worked against Humongous?

On one hand, you don't want a sequel (or a sequel to a sequel, in this case) to repeat everything from the previous film, but the final battle of Beyond Thunderdome feels like Road Warrior-lite.  Or more appropriately, The Road Warrior re-fashioned for mass, Hollywood-consumption.

In its last twist -- a return to the destroyed 20th century city -- Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome recovers some from the battle's misstep.  This moment has a valedictory, tragic feel.  

Re-building our civilization must begin, and here we detect the first steps; as well as the romantic, hopeful act of lighting candles to bring the desert warriors back. 

It's a nice, emotional closing touch that suggests an optimistic future,  but yet -- again -- it's hard to deny that the Feral Kid's closing narration (as an old man) in The Road Warrior achieves the same goal, only with words instead of images.

Also -- and I realize some people with quibble with me on this -- is it right that Max brings down Bartertown at all?  I think this is a debatable point.  

As bad as it surely is, Bartertown is still the best thing going in this post-apocalyptic world. Violence is limited to the Thunderdome, and there is law well as commerce.  Order has been carved out of chaos; even if it isn't perfect.

Would it not have been better for Max to somehow bring some checks and balances to the place, so it wasn't simply a tyranny?  (And really, isn't that what Master Blaster offered in Underworld in the first place?)  

Going back to our own antiquity, would we cheer a hero in early human culture who brought down the first civilization, even if it did boast a "draconian" code or sense of justice?  I don't think so.  Even imperfect steps towards civilization can be vital ones.

The destruction of Bartertown in the film has never rung true to me. Who is to say that Savannah Nix and her brood -- living in a burnt-out shell of a building -- aren't going to be forced to navigate issues of law and order, justice and punishment too? Will their answers be better than Auntie Entity's?  More humane? Less pragmatic? The movie never really answers that question in satisfactory fashion; it just uses the symbol of children to suggest innocence and a better tomorrow.

So how do you assess a film with an absolutely brilliant first act and a relatively derivative, by the numbers, Hollywood last act?  Well, "this is the truth of it:"  the movie works more often than not; and succeeds more so if you consider it as the final, closing act of a grand trilogy.  There has to be a wrap-up, and it has to be satisfactory (meaning - happy).  We get that in Beyond Thunderdome, even if we don't necessarily want the closure. 

So in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome audiences get one of the greatest, most imaginative fight scenes in recent decades, and a fitting conclusion to a terrific post-apocalyptic saga.  The downside is that audiences also get cute kids, and Hollywood-styled, crowd-pleasing humor.

Do you want the deal or not?


  1. I love this film. Tina Turner was an excellent choice to play Auntie Entity, and is amazing both physically and visually. I feel it's the perfect end of the series and have no interest in the new film.

  2. Brilliant analysis of a very troubled movie that I've been ambivalent about since it came out when I was 16 years old. I LOVE the Bartertown segment, and the chemistry between Max and Aunty Entity. ("Ain't we a pair... raggedy man?" is a personal catchphrase between my lady and me.) But the storyline with the children makes no sense to me, and the ending has always seemed, as you say, a pale imitation of the chase from The Road Warrior. This movie, along with Return of the Jedi, cemented my feeling that it's nearly impossible to pull off an entirely satisfying trilogy. Creative fatigue becomes all too evident by the third act, and you're left with a film that has its moments, but overall just doesn't work. Still... those moments are something.