CAPSULE: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)

DIRECTED BY:  George Miller, George Ogilvie

FEATURING: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner

PLOT:  Loner and reluctant hero Mad Max wanders out of the desert and into a crossroads

Still from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

of post-apocalyptic vice known as Bartertown, and later discovers a colony of innocent children in a peaceful oasis who believe him to be a messiah.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  If costuming alone could earn a film a place on the list of the 366 weirdest films of all time, then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s raggedy punk centurions and Tina Turner’s post-aerobic post-apocalyptic fashions would easily qualify it.  Thunderdome is also the weirdest of the Mad Max series because of its emphasis on new post-civilization rituals: for example, the bizarre legal system of Bartertown, administered by a philosophical hunchback Magistrate of Ceremonies, where tort disputes are resolved by gladiatorial battles and a breach of contract results in a random punishment spun from a wheel of fortune.  But, even though Thunderdome is the oddest of the trilogy, it’s still basically just a creative Western dressed up with sci-fi trappings; it’s weird by summer blockbuster standards, but fails to sneak across the mass appeal genre-piece border.

COMMENTS:  The “Mad Max” series was the most inventive sci-fi/action hybrid of the 1980s, one which sparked a brief but fun post-apocalyptic cycle (which produced a few genuinely weird low-budget Mad Max knockoffs).  Each Mad Max film inhabited the same fascinating universe, a world of scarce resources, shaky alliances, and dying machines held together with spit and twine, but each was very different in tone.  All are recommended.  The original Mad Max was a dark, character-driven revenge drama that gained a cult following.  Mad Max 2, more commonly known as The Road Warrior, was a rollicking action piece that caught lightning in a bottle and inspired Hollywood to pump money into a sequel.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was… well, it was what happens when the series gets a big head and tries to be a summer blockbuster.  The Tina Turner pop song that plays over the opening credits is shamelessly anachronistic and completely inappropriate for a Max movie, but it sets the tone of confused priorities that defines Thunderdome.  The movie flits uncomfortably between the exaggerated, radioactive Casablanca of Bartertown and the brave new Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan world of the children’s tribe.  It’s also a movie that recycles and steals from other movies.  Popular elements from the Road Warrior are reused here.  The feral child has been transformed into an horde of tribal ragamuffins, Bruce Spence from Warrior reappears as a pilot (the character may be the same one from the previous movie; it’s never explained), and the finale is a shameless remake of Warrior‘s climax with a train substituting for the tanker.  There are also blatant references to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and the children’s mangled language (“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”) is reminiscent of the made-up nasdat cant of A Clockwork Orange.  Maybe this reusing of old bits and pieces is appropriate in a movie about an emerging society being built on the ruins of another.  The overall effect is a movie that’s jumbled and uncentered, more than a bit loopy, but still lots of fun.  That overall goofiness, combined with the unique ramshackle look of the punk-barbarian world nearly, but not quite, tilts Thunderdome into the weird zone.

Rumors of a fourth Max movie have been circulating for over twenty years now, and continue as strong as ever.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie that strains at the leash of the possible, a movie of great visionary wonders.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)”

  1. Maybe the most disappointing movie of the 80s as Miller went for the cash. The art direction is silly, single layered and amateurish in the extreme. The narrative is bland and predictable and the whole kiddie tribe thing is just too much to take. Its as if Disney did the post apocalypse.

  2. As UK film critic Barry Norman said when this film first came out, perhaps a better title would have been “Slightly Cheesed Off Max 3″. This film does not take place in the same universe as the previous two – if it did, that tribe of children would have been raped, murdered and eaten, not necessarily in that order. Look how few people die in the film! It’s a long time since I saw it, but I can only remember one death. Serious violence has become cartoon slapstick – massive explosions result in characters becoming comically blackened but suffering no major injuries. As for the supposed bad guys in Bartertown, you get the feeling that the worst they’ll really do to you is force you to sit through a ritual showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, and throw toilet rolls at you if you don’t sing along with “Let’s Do The Time Warp Again”. Tries to be weird by dressing oddly, talking oddly, and having a dwarf in it (admittedly one with a spectacularly weird CV). Fails miserably.

    If you want true weirdness, watch the first “Mad Max” back to back with “Psychomania”, and see how many parallels you can spot – I guarantee that there are more than you think! Incidentally, why isn’t “Psychomania” on the list? Bikers who worship Satan in the form of a giant levitating toad, and consequently commit suicide in comical ways and rise from the grave as unstoppable zombies until the curse kicks in? And their high priestess is, of all people, Beryl Reid? Why is this not considered weird?

    1. “…perhaps a better title would have been ‘Slightly Cheesed Off Max 3’″

      Reminds me of a Joe Bob Briggs line: he called Dead End Drive-In “Mildly Perturbed Max.”

      “…why isn’t ‘Psychomania’ on the list?… Why is this not considered weird?”

      Well, there are still 271 slots available on the List. I have never officially ruled out considering movies about undead bikers who worship bullfrogs as weird…

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