"I was a cop, a driver."
-Mad Max as one of the good guys-
In honor of George Miller's heralded return to cinema with his glorious Mad Max franchise we look back at perhaps the most derided (if that's possible) of his Mad Max films, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Even after the release of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome will likely hold that inestimable honor of being the most disregarded of his venerable post-apocalyptic landscape films charged by one unlikely anti-hero, the one and only Mad Max.
It would have been easy to pick Mad Max (1979) to offer a rousing retrospective albeit no less complex or thought-provoking. Its pensive, spare look at society breaking down through the eyes of one of the two last bastions of good - the nuclear family, would have been fun. How fitting in Mad Max to witness civilization's last institution of representative civility - law enforcement - fall prey to the savagery of a new world. Law enforcement is under assault in America in a manner unprecedented in civilization today. How perfect was Mad Max?
Of course, then there was the vicious new order of chaos in The Road Warrior (1981), another variation of Miller's themes that manages to outclass even Mad Max for sheer classic status by expanding on the Max mythology.
Thus, I've opted to address the much maligned third installment of the George Miller trilogy, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. It remains a greater challenge to articulate and defend.
Where did it go wrong for some following two of science fiction's greatest films? Perhaps it was the chemistry between director George Miller and late producer Byron Kennedy that completely focused and tapped into the world weary vision of Mad Max for those first two visions of the world. There was indeed a synergy to that relationship that presented an epic, gritty visualization for those first two beloved gems that arguably sets them apart from the Hollywood sheen of the third in the trilogy. There was something very real and edgy about those films.
Tragically, Kennedy was killed in a helicopter crash in New South Wales in 1983. Only the spirit of Kennedy would oversee the proceedings of the final film. Clearly the loss of Kennedy had an impact.
Following Kennedy’s death, and four years after The Road Warrior, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome arrived to thunderous excitement.
Despite its success, in retrospect, unquestionably, the film has been treated with the least respect of the trilogy. Was it too talky? Was it the lengthy segment with the “Tomorrow-morrow land” children that smacked of cutesy Ewoks and the three-quel syndrome that plagued Return Of The Jedi (1983)? Was it the loss of George Miller's creative partner Kennedy resulting in a new partnership with George Ogilvie that altered the focus from the previous two? One could legitimately imagine a third Kennedy-Miller Production would have been different.
Nevertheless. despite the faction of naysayers and all of the complaints associated with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, for me, the film remains a minor classic, an important chapter in the story and, quite frankly, a tent bearer to one of film history’s best third-in-a-series of installments. A recent viewing cemented that opinion for me. It had all the trappings, details and feelings of a big finish to a series that started small and more intimate. Still, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome retains its share of important moments of intimacy on the grander canvas of an already grand and sweeping epic tale particularly with our wayward hero.
Upon its arrival in theatres Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome felt like one of those major Star Wars events, a Richard Donner-sized Superman, the latest Rocky moment and maybe that was part of its problem. Unlike the two previous unheralded films, this one felt a little more polished, a little more Hollywood and propped up in expectations. The whole thing felt a little less the-land-down-under in terms of the spirit of its filmmaking and perhaps for the big sell. Yet its post-apocalyptic vibe, was still fully ensconced with the original's appeal. It was indeed still filmed in Australia like the others, but the budget was nearly three times greater than the previous entry in an effort toward building the perfect beast of a film. The sweep and magnitude of which was highlighted and underscored by the inclusion of actress Tina Turner and her two bold, magnificent music selections We Don’t Need Another Hero and One Of The Living sandwiching the compositions of Maurice Jarre.
But what may have been perceived as the film's problems. for me, the final film in the trilogy felt very much like the product of a natural evolution that built upon the previous two pictures toward a satisfying conclusion. Certainly there are moments and scenes that reminisce of The Road Warrior, but on a grander scale, particularly in its third act a la the train sequence. (How 70 year old George Miller corralled the energy for another go of it for Mad Max: Fury Road seems nothing short of a miracle.) In Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the weathered and weary Max Rockatansky looks a little older, a little wiser from his efforts to survive the uncivilized landscape of the first films since losing his family - an obvious source of joy years earlier. This is indeed a man in survival mode searching but not knowingly so. Where was Max going?
Surprisingly effective is the film’s ability to convey a world reorganizing, making efforts to reestablish civilization out of chaos.
The film too has some truly barbaric and stunning moments like the Thunder Dome itself. It symbolically paints a portrait of an upside down, apocalyptic Rome complete with a hunger for the gladiatorial games of the day proving history repeats itself. The battle itself between Max and Master Blaster overflows with the kind of original suspense and excitement not yet encountered in the series in this way.
I recall being completely sympathetic and almost troubled at the unveiling of Blaster’s helmet. The disturbing revelation was of a man-child living with Down Syndrome clearly beloved by his dwarf Master. It was a truly moving moment in the film for me and filled me with genuine emotion and sympathy for this enemy of Bartertown. Can you imagine pulling off a sequence like that today? I’m not sure it would happen. Would it be considered politically incorrect? What isn't? In the hands of George Miller he pulls off such a sensitive moment with genuine virtue that a lesser film maker might completely mishandle.
Like the previous films, the third entry is populated by intriguing characters and Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner, is no exception. The casting of Turner had to be a risk, but she pulls off the heavy with credibility and relish as her firm hand seemingly holds together the fragile construction of Bartertown. So many musicians fail to make such an impression when expected to deliver such a meaty role. Master Blaster, too, is the kind of physical embodiment of the film’s two visual dichotomies that would culminate in a third act. The character is part diminutive dwarf and circus strong man – Blaster being Master’s protector from Entity. And of course, there’s the cache (once upon a time) of Mel Gibson, a giant among men when it comes to the art and craft of performance. He is the rock. He is the talented core that threads the trilogy’s success. Sadly, a kind word is rarely spoken of the man's talent today.
The third film, too, says something of Miller’s imagination that he mines a kind of fertile science fiction reality with such epic flair. Miller’s visuals are both glorious in their beauty and stunning in their decay and they are often in juxtaposition. This third film benefits from three distinct, stimulating acts and the end result genuinely feels a little different when contrasted to the visually linear look of those first films.
Still, there are many striking images at play in the third and final outing too. Max’s horse ride out of Bartertown, following a round of “bust a deal, face the wheel” (the film loves catchphrases and is filled with some real classics), resulting from a Gulag sentencing comes to mind.
So many trilogies stumble. The original Star Wars trilogy is arguably one of the best ever made. The first three Alien films are also very close. Others have stumbled in their third attempt. Some feel this to be a true of many of the aforementioned franchises on their third attempt. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome too.
If Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome stumbles at all it is generally with the perceived allegorical use of the children within the tonal shift of the movie, not only within this film, but within the franchise. The second act of the film becomes a sort of less weird cinematic version of Miri (Star Trek: The Original Series) as the kids represent innocence and hope entirely absent from the second film. In The Road Warrior, the Feral Kid was an uncompromising symbol of survival. He was a representation of innocence lost as much as the world had become paradise lost, as much as Max had become lost following the death of his family.
The inclusion of these rather sweet children presents a shift in mood and in spirit within the franchise. This is the film’s greatest issue for some.
John Kenneth Muir ponders this shift eloquently in his own look at the film noting that tone shift symbolized by or embodied in the “crockery-wielding tykes.” Rather than cuddly-looking, stick-waving bears we get a clan of desert-based Lord Of The Flies survivors but with a “terminal” case of the “cutesies.” This is indeed one of the perceived problems of the third movie. The segment does establish a more reflective tone and becomes decidedly less menacing. Despite lacking the uncompromising grip of its predecessors, it’s relatively easy to embrace this segment. This is indeed a different film and Max is a different man. Max is changing. The potential for new life exists. Not only does the film present an entirely new chapter in this incredible story, but at this point it’s one we’re willing and ready to invest in ourselves - at least for many of us. It presents hope and the nobility of man and our reluctant hero leading us and the children into that future. Seeing the film as a family man sheds a different light on the film’s virtues.
In retrospect, it's oversimplifying to simply dumb down the third film as a riff on Return Of The Jedi. There's much more going on here psychologically than the fantastic escapades of bear-clothed little people and biker scouts. It's just right of center enough to be morally complex and differentiate itself from the land of the teddy bear.
In one scene, Max punches one of the females to keep her from walking to Bartertown. This is the school of hard knocks for children coming-of-age. Sure, there's a captivating Peter Pan-like magic to the children's stunted learning in the post-apocalypse where record players are new again. Again, we're reminded of "bonk, bonk on the head" (Star Trek: The Original Series) without all of the creepy, but an overly fuzzy distraction of Ewoks this is not. These kids are hopeful and looking for guidance. Max inadvertently finds his hope in the process through them. This is following his earlier repulsion in Thunder Dome where one could possibly do battle with a man child normally relegated to the protected class of a civilized society.
Roger Ebert went so far as to call the third film, “more visionary and more entertaining then the first two.” Roger was good. That is entirely fair to say and, as discussed, the film has plenty on offer to make that argument.
The three acts may feel slightly jarring when juxtaposed against one another. The final act is the moment the film bridges segment or fuses the first two parts together. It clashes the violence of those from Bartertown with the future hopes of the kids of Captain Walker. It's the ugly, nasty reality of civilization building meets the hope of children born into a world with wide-eyed optimism and curiosity untainted by the vile politics of Bartertown. The fusion is striking, but also a bold work of cinematic vision. The kids are the future and Bartertown represents the cancerous ways of dictatorship. These Peter Pans of never, never land or “morrow, morrow land” bring forth the vitality of their thriving, green water hole, a symbol of rebirth and new life, to the rest of a seemingly decayed or dead planet.
What people have missed with the children in the third film is they ARE innocent. They haven't been exposed to phonograph players, clocks or airplanes. They are indeed new to the world. There is a major disconnect there for them. Fans of the first two movies were not necessarily open to the positive symbol these kids represented within the trilogy yearning perhaps for more of the first two movies. Today, the film resonates more powerfully than ever.
Additionally the end of Bartertown suggests Max is prepared to accept something better. Its dissolution is a symbol of Max letting go of the devolved, violent and cancerous civilization he rejected internally, but settled for as a matter of course. After all, he was a law enforcement officer. Instead Max comes full circle seeing ultimately seeing his own family in the eyes of those children. He is hardened that's true but not entirely closed.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is artistically far better than some of the critics gave it credit. Most films wish they could be this complete, this imaginative, and this fully-realized in presenting their world-building and themes. Maybe expectations, following two great films, were just a little too high. Maybe people imagined how they would write the story visually and it simply did not connect with that vision. I don’t know what people were expecting, because the third and final picture in the series is exceptional and unexpected. Quite frankly, it rounds out one of the finest character sagas and depictions of apocalypse ever committed to film.
Gone is the Sex Pistol-ish punk spirit of the leather clad Mad Max and the fiery cool of that Ford Falcon Interceptor. Hmmm, maybe it was the car. Yet, this film surely has its unrelenting moments. Like the character, the film is a pensive, contemplative, weary nomadic warrior attempting to make sense of a mad world while finding hope and beauty in the most barren of places. This film has its heart and humanity in the right place. Like the graying in Max’s hair, this is an aging, wiser, softer warrior slowing down (by contrast), “the raggedy man,” even in a savage land and that makes sense. This indeed remains a distinguished, underrated classic and an ultimately satisfying conclusion to Miller's story.
Yes, tone is a big issue in shifting the film. While Miller may pay homage to himself for the railway chase, landing in the familiar tanker chase territory of The Road Warrior, the train works as a symbol of innovation into the frontier. Those who have worked the railroads have often said that our land was built on steam. It speaks volumes about the future for Max and these children. Perhaps a kind of family has come full circle for Max, the post-modern, post-apocalyptic family.
In the end, Max earns Entity's respect when she spares the life of the "raggedy man" and the "soldier.” In that single moment, Entity comprehends and understand the future requires men like Max. We are rewarded in his survival and in knowing as Turner sang that he is one of the living, a survivor. If there’s any hope for the future Max and the children are part of civilized humanity's survival. Those final moments underscore that human compassion may have hardened, but it still exists.
In film, this is my kind of superhero.
Wait, thinking about it, maybe it was the dog. That darn dog was really cool.
This post has been modified and updated since its original appearance as part of The Film Connoisseur's 15 Of The Apocalypse post here. Unfortunately, the images provided for this post were snapped from the DVD prior to the release of the Blu-Ray. Sorry folks I just don't have the time to retake them. But boy do I love the framing and look of the dirty Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.