The original Mad Max was, as I had put it, a “repository of ideas and inspirations”. It created a whole new visual aesthetic and was the calm before the storm. Its sequel, The Road Warrior (1981), was the storm. It was the hurricane. Mad Max, however, was shot on a meagre budget of $400,000. Six years later, director George Miller would receive a hefty 12 million for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and he would run away with his nurtured dystopian film series by making possibly the greatest of the lot.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Aren’t sequels meant to fail? Aren’t they meant to simply be languid retreads of the originals? Sure, exceptions can be made, as with The Godfather Part II (1974), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Return Of The King (2003), but it has been a carefully observed tradition among Hollywood sequels that the grandest, most thrilling ideas come from the first in the series.
Beyond Thunderdome isn’t just the grandest, or the most thrilling, it is the most human, with a story that encircles its hero, Max Rockatansky, and allows him to regain his compassion. I enjoyed the first two films but always remained hesitant at Max, who seemed more like a leather-clad zombie than a hero with penetrable emotions. Here, he becomes a character, filled with indecision and a solid heart.
Ever since his wife and son were tragically taken in the first film, Max (Mel Gibson) has wandered the deserts of Australia like a hobo for hire. He’s never seen with the same vehicle; at the start of Beyond Thunderdome, he is commanding a modified carriage, pulled by a string of camels.
After his carriage is hijacked by a pilot (Bruce Spence) and his son (Adam Cockburn), Max wanders to the isolated hamlet called Bartertown, a ramshackle oasis that could easily be part of the quarry in The Flintstones. It is here that he meets Aunty Entity, the town’s founder and current dictator, played coolly by Tina Turner. Aunty Entity has a little problem: She smells rebellion in the form of a delicious character creation called Master-Blaster, who runs the energy centre of Bartertown by controlling and producing methane gas through pig feces, and threatens to take over control of the entire town.
Master-Blaster is actually two characters. Master (Angelo Rossitto) is a little person, the brains of the operation. Blaster is his six-and-a-half-foot muscular man servant, who carries Master in a kind of harness over his shoulders.
Aunty Entity strikes a deal with Max. Max will uncover Master-Blaster’s true intentions and report back to her, in exchange for the man who stole his carriage (Max’s long-term goals are never more complex than screwing in a light bulb). Things go awry, and before you know it Max finds himself in a fight to the death with Blaster inside Thunderdome, a steel dome-like cage where the combatants are connected to bungee ropes, allowing them to perform agile somersaults to avoid getting sliced in half by provided chainsaws.
The fight in the Dome is unlike any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen my fair share of caged-in fights. I particularly like how the spectators of the event are not given seats like in a regular arena, but have to mount the dome and peer in from the outside, like a meringue coating of flesh over a bloody Baked Alaska.
Halfway through the movie Max is exiled from Bartertown and is rescued by a tribe of children living in a secluded tropical-inspired haven. These are the descendants of the survivors of a nearby plane crash, and they believe Max to be the pilot who has come to take them to Tomorrow-morrow Land, which is, to say, Sydney.
Beyond Thunderdome finds quiet in these scenes. Max is at first amused by the apparent delusions of this tribe, but soon he gets to know them, and, in a scene that establishes him as their chosen saviour, he dives headfirst into a sandpit to rescue one of the kids. Now it’s a race back to Bartertown, as the lives of all these characters are woven together by special effects and chase sequences so efficiently choreographed by George Miller.
Miller, who has always had an affinity for on-set, practical effects, showcases them again here with a climactic chase that involves tonnes of jeeps and buggies, a plane, a cliff, and the most inspired creation, a truck carrying a house that runs on rails like a train. In between all this mayhem the kids find the time to listen to a record in the house and recite French lessons, while bodies are flying and cars are blowing up outside. It’s this kind of manic energy that makes Beyond Thunderdome such a marvellous and well-made adventure.
Best Moment | All of it.
Worst Moment | Nope.