An undetermined amount of time has elapsed since Max’s (Mel Gibson) previous high stakes adventure. Now with a few more grey hairs, he traverses the treacherous Outback with camels and a stagecoach, looking for who knows what. His long walk is interrupted by a renegade pilot (Bruce Spence), who flies low, thus blowing up sand and obscuring Max’s field of vision. During the interruption, the pilot and his son steal the wagon and make way for the only nearest outpost: Batertown. Batertown is governed by the megalomaniacal Auntie Entity (Tina Turner), although her authority is frequently challenged by a duo of characters that run the town’s fuel compound where methanol is extracted from pig feces. They are Master Blaster, or rather, Master (Angelo Rossito), a little man that sits atop the titan Blaster (Paul Larsson). When a deal made between Max and Auntie to dispose of Master Blaster via a Thunderdome challenge goes wrong, the lone wolf hero is sent back into the desert to die. There, whilst breathing his dying breath, he is discovered by a curious group of children who take him back to their secretive lair…
Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome is a slight change of pace for the series. For one, its inception was marred by the untimely demise of Byron Kennedy, producer of the first two films, who perished in a helicopter crash while the film was in pre-production. As such, director George Miller was initially reluctant to go ahead with the production of this third entry. Following a period of mourning and serious contemplation, he and fellow director and friend George Ogilvie combined forces and went forward with the plan for Beyond Thunderdome. The result is a movie that in many ways feels much more convoluted than the first two entries, not to mention the fact that this third chapter in the Mad Max story essentially features two plots in one. First is Max’s foray into Bartertown, his uneasy alliance with Auntie Entity and his entanglements with Master Blaster in the titular Thunderdome. Second comes his fortuitous encounter with a group of children who survived a plane crash some years ago and have set up a community within a nestled, well-hidden canyon featuring clean water and greenery.
The screenwriters and, in this case, directors do their best to have both subplots eventually coalesce in as seamless a manner as possible. The results are moderately satisfying, not the least of which because both feel as if they belong in quite different films. As stand alone stories they are actually rather interesting however. The Bartertown sequence is an exemplary display of exquisite production design and preserves much of the tone of the first two films, the second in particular. Bartertown is a rough place replete with the strangest characters that could only have emerged from the mind of franchise creator George Miller. By this third go around, the studio obviously saw fit to equip the filmmakers with whatever budget was required to bring the world of Max Max to life as gloriously as possible. The sets are extraordinary for their size, their tangible quality and their believability. Special mention once goes to production designer Graham Walker, evidently an important collaborator of Miller’s in bringing the director’s vision to the screen, although it would be an oversight to not praise cinematographer Dean Semler as well.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome Goes Beyond the Franchise’s Comfort Zone
Thunderdome itself is a preposterous concoction in which two fighters (‘’Two men enter, one man leaves’’) are attached to elastic strings inside a caged dome onto which weapons are hooked. The quicker, more adept contestants will successfully jump up, retrieve whatever weapon they can and dispose of their opponent. It is an imaginative spin on the classic gladiatorial battles of ancient Rome and is expertly captured on camera. It is one of the rare instances in the series when an action set piece that does not feature any vehicles proves to be, arguably at least, the best one in the movie.
What this initial section of the picture sets up, thus possibly connecting in some fashion to the middle portion, is Max’s conscious, long thought dead and buried. When the protagonist knocks down Blaster, throwing off his helmet in the process, he is faced with the final task of striking the deadly bow that will win him the tilt. Upon seeing that Blaster is no more than a man-child, he rescinds his more bestial instincts, ruining his deal with Auntie in the process. Ever since the demise of his young son in the original film, Max has rarely, if ever, shown any sort of genuine decency, or committed an act strictly out of good will. On the occasions when he has performed what most would consider a good deed, selfish ends were usually a factor.
This seeps into the following chapter when Max recovers from his wounds amidst the lost children. Many would argue that this is the franchise’s nadir. That does not imply that this section of the movie is poor in of itself, only that it is the lowest point in a very strong series. The reasons for this criticism are obvious, namely that ‘mad’ Max should not be wasting his time hanging around with kids. Judging from nearly everything we have seen from the character since the climax of the original film, this feels like an apt complaint. On the flip side, it does shake things up precisely because it pits the roughneck hero in a situation completely opposite to the one most would immediately imagine him to be involved in. In fairness, the filmmakers do try to preserve Max’s hard edge as he does not easily take to the youngsters, refuting their bizarre implications that he is the captain of the plane they rode on and resorting to violent threats to prevent them from trekking the perilous desert. As such, the film plays the tone as justly as it would seem possible under the circumstances. Ultimately, Thunderdome is the most expensive entry to date, feature Tina Turner as a co-lead (to say nothing of her hit single ‘’We Don’t Need Another Hero’’ which was a major marketing push strategy), so Max is obviously not going to leave the children to fend for themselves, thus propelling the film into the final act that connects it back to Batertown. While necessary for plot resolution, it does come across with a faint air of necessity than rather being organic.
Thunderdome culminates in an effortlessly executed chase involving a train and a horde of smaller vehicles reminiscent of those that earned the spotlight at the tail end of The Road Warrior. One can argue this is another one of the third film’s shortcomings, albeit a slight one. The sequence looks impressive, and quite evidently required herculean planning to pull off properly, although the fact that Max is driving a train does not end up being of much consequence, essentially making the sequence, however neat, too similar to The Road Warrior’s conclusion.
Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome ends with a look towards the future, offering viewers and the characters dwelling in the picture’s universe a glimmer of hope. Miller and company refrain from embracing too much positivity, but after so much pain, suffering and armies of characters completely off their rocker, a little bit of brightness never hurt anyone. Beyond Thunderdome, while not quite up to par with the previous efforts, is nevertheless a satisfying experience. What the future has in store for the protagonist is left open to the viewer’s imagination, probably the best way to leave a character as distraught and complex as Max Rockatanksy. As the people of Bartertown proclaim, two people enter Thunderdome but only one leaves. Thus Max continues on his lonely path…