“He can beat most men with his breath”
It’s said that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is based (without credit) on Russell Hoban‘s science fiction novel Riddley Walker. This could be true, but to my eye the finished product bears a striking resemblance to the 80s fantasy aesthetic thus far utilized during the decade. More of a parallel than to its own predecessors: low budget 70s cops and robbers actioner Mad Max and gritty dystopian epic The Road Warrior. Its first half in Bartertown is the Wild West of Star Wars‘ Mos Eisley with an underbelly of slave labor a la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom while the second proves a cross between the lifestyle of Return of the Jedi‘s Ewoks and Peter Pan‘s Lost Boys. It looks great, is an adequately relevant evolutionary step forward in the series, but thematically a whole different beast.
While remembering very little, I did watch this installment a lot as a child. However, understanding its not so subtle messaging about alternative fuel sources—the methane in pig manure running an entire city in the middle of a wasteland twenty years removed from the happenings in Mad Max—was an impossibility in the late 80s. To me Thunderdome was a cool looking futuristic world with goofy wardrobe and Tina Turner belting out lines like she was on stage in front of a sold out crowd. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as blatant a metaphor as Happy Feet—there’s no UN council debate interludes preaching—but it’s nonetheless a very visible point of interest beyond its purpose towards plot. If necessary to the story, Max’s (Mel Gibson) climactic return to save The Master (Angelo Rossitto) would mean something.
As it is now, when Max and a handful of nomads leave their desert camp of devotees—believers in a “Captain Walker” returning to his crashed plane to save them by flying to the “high-scrapers” of “Tomorrow-Morrow Land”—to save Savannah Nix (Helen Buday) and her band of overzealous followers, they could run anywhere for safety. Max only needs to return to Bartertown—a hotbed of criminals with a Thunderdome battleground where “two men enter, one man leaves”—on a one-man covert job to steal a vehicle. Retrieving The Master is hardly an act Max’s conscience covets or something necessary for survival. That’s not entirely true since the diminutive man’s a genius who manufactures energy, but he’s already been shown as a horrible monster. The assumption should be that he’ll eventually turn power-hungry again, not become a savior.
But that’s exactly what’s wrong with co-director George Miller (friend and colleague George Ogilvie assisted via a working relationship the two developed on a miniseries together) and co-writer Terry Hayes‘ script. There’s very little happening that has any bearing on the rest. It’s two separate stories cobbled together by an unnecessary journey for added action. The adventure at Bartertown where Max enters into the employ of aboveground leader Aunty Entity (Turner) to murder belowground counterpart Master and Blaster (Paul Larsson supplies his “brain” a brawny body with which to move as a God) ends in a dire situation of his own. His inevitable defeat of fate is enough of a key closure point to the thread that it makes more sense to never go back. We’re ultimately thirty minutes removed from Aunty’s chaos before her city’s mentioned again.
This is because Savannah and Slake’s (Tom Jennings) secret dwelling of feral children and Scrooloose (Rod Zuanic)—a Day of the Dead lover—is introduced as a coherent premise in and of itself. They know nothing of Bartertown or the world long since destroyed by the oil wars. They only know the prophecy of an airplane pilot who promised a return. He’s their God, his words scripture. They hope Max is his second-coming, but he’s way too cynical to ever pretend being more than a scavenger watching his own hide until the lawman conscience within refuses to transform him fully into a terminally insane wild man. The only reason I see for going back into the belly of the beast, besides needing water, is so Miller can shoot the requisite road war we’ve thus far been without.
Because that’s the franchise’s calling card, right? I’m certain many people felt jipped when the plot turned sentimental rather than “mad”. Maybe Miller hoped to take his vision a different direction with more stories planned about a rebirth of society, removing any connection to Road Warrior in the process. He did give Bruce Spence another role so similar to the one he played in the last film—Jedediah the Pilot instead of Gyro Captain turned leader of the jai alai-wearing wanderers—that refusing to give either he or Max a moment of recognition is shocking. I don’t know how you could provide a more confusing start than having an old friend swoop down and steal Max’s stuff, make sure he clearly sees him inside Bartertown, and never say, “Max! Is that you?” I thought I was missing something.
Nope. As with Road Warrior, the series’ only constant is that Max was a cop who watched his wife and son get murdered by a ruthless gang of thugs. Everything else is free from mythology so Miller and company can do whatever they wish with the plot. They decided this installment would make Max into a bona fide hero who leads an entire group from the clutches of death. So they created larger-than-life villains in Master/Blaster, Aunty, and random crazies like Angry Anderson‘s Ironbar as well as wholesome innocents in Savannah and her wards. It’s a ton of fun out of the gate before slowing to a crawl with the cult of “Lost Boys”, finally revving back up for a centerpiece car chase of implausible explosions and a weirdly benign conclusion proving Thunderdome nothing more than a nostalgic curio.