This week’s pick is the final chapter of the Mad Max Trilogy, or at least it is until George Miller gets Fury Road out of the film can and into theaters after almost thirty years since the franchise dried up. Mel Gibson stars for the last time as the post apocalyptic do-gooder in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Thunderdome is my least favorite of the films for several reasons, mostly because of how soft Max has gotten in his old age. The film opens where it’s obvious that it has been several years (namely by Mel’s long 80s metal do) since Max helped the outpost settlers of the wasteland battle the Humungus and his barbarians.
As Max is trucking across the desert, he is knocked clear off his camel driven monster truck by a plane piloted by Jedediah (played by Bruce Spence from The Road Warrior). Jedediah steals Max’s rig and leaves him marooned in the desert with nothing. Following the tracks, Max arrives at what is known as Bartertown, a desert outpost where survivors of the nuclear holocaust come to trade precious materials.
Max confronts The Collector (Frank Thring) about getting into Bartertown and finding the man who stole his vehicle. The Collector sees Max as a man whose talents can serve a purpose in Bartertown. The Collector takes Max to meet Aunty, the one who runs Bartertown.
The build-up is a little tedious and the payoff is rather slow. Rocker turned actor Tina Turner turns out a decent performance as Aunty who recruits Max to take care of the rulers of Bartertown’s underworld, two men known as Masterblaster (Angelo Rossitto & Paul Larsson).
Aunty wants to regain control of Bartertown because it is the last known piece of civilization left where its inhabitants can still live with mod cons, mainly electricity which is powered by methane gas collected in a most interesting way. Aunty wants Max to dispose of Blaster the brawn, and to spare Master, the brains and true ruler of Bartertown.
One of the most impressive parts of the first half of the film is the showdown between Max and Blaster in what is known as Thunderdome, the post apocalyptic version of Imperial Rome’s Coliseum, where post apocalyptic gladiators battle to the death for the amusement of the radioactive chuckleheads who attend. Things go south quickly and Max breaks his deal with Aunty who banishes Max from Bartertown to die in the desert.
The film takes a turn for the gentler side of Max who falls in with a group of youngsters who are the survivors of a crashed commercial jet during the opening stages of the apocalypse. It’s more or less an Aussie version of Lord of the Flies. The survivors mistake Max as Captain Walker, the pilot of the airliner who was prophesized to return and take them all home again.
Max is told the story of how they all came to live in this little utopian society that they’ve carved out for themselves. Max convinces most of them that there is nothing out there and that they are going to stay put and live out the rest of their lives thankful for their existence.
Max is quick to learn that this tiny band of survivors has other plans and he must once again come to the rescue when Aunty and her barbarian thugs confront them. This formula is how Miller has to justify how Max must regain his humanity and become caretaker for all these kids after years of being a “shell of a man” who is consumed with anger and vengeance which is fine, because that’s what made the first two films so great.
George Miller co-directed the film with a film school and television chum of his named George Ogilve who had collaborated with Miller on several projects when they were first starting out in the film business.
The film begins to pick up towards the end when Miller offers another chase sequence that almost rivals the chase scene in Road Warrior. The cinematography by Dean Semler who collaborated with Miller on Road Warrior is fantastic. Miller turned to famed composer Maurice Jarre who is most famous for his sweeping score in the classic epic Lawrence of Arabia. Certain pieces written for the film remind you of an apocalyptic Lawrence of Arabia, especially the wide-angle shots of the desert. A very appropriate homage, and proper use of music for many of these scenes.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome earned over thirty-six million dollars in the U.S. alone and closed the book on the franchise. The film definitely has its moments, but it fails to live up to the first two films, which were gritty, violent, disturbing, and done so well on a shoestring budget. According to production notes on the DVD extras, the film was supposed to focus primarily on the group of children and how they survived all those years in the wild. Miller and Ogilve re-wrote the script and added Max back into the picture because that’s what the fans would pay to see, Max being mad.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.