Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome:

A Retro Review

After Mad Max 2’s ecstatic reception by both critics and paying audiences, a third entry in the series took on the air of inevitability. It was a question of when, not if. Mind you, that inevitability came more from the studio than the filmmakers. After living in Max’s world—not the most pleasant of places—for the past several years, George Miller was more than happy to wait and let inspiration strike him before moving back to the wasteland.

However, Warner Brothers had taken a pretty big gamble when they agreed to release the second Max even after the 1979 original fizzled out at the domestic till, and they were eager to get back on the road again to capitalize on their success. Thus, the Mad Max braintrust of Miller, producer Byron Kennedy, and screenwriter Terry Hayes, once again set about envisioning a story to wrap around their reluctant hero. And then tragedy struck.

An unfortunate helicopter accident in July 1983 claimed the producer’s life, and dealt a crippling blow. From before the beginning, Kennedy had been as much of a creative influence on the series as Miller, and though they were tempted to walk away entirely in the aftermath of his passing, out of a sense of obligation to the studio, the fans, and even Kennedy himself, Miller and company got back to work, emerging with 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

This time Warners lavished the production with three times the budget, and boy does it show. It’s an indeterminate number of years (though various online sources peg it at twenty) since we last saw Max (Gibson again, wearing the role like a comfortable glove). When his supplies and pack animals are stolen by a pilot named Jebediah (Bruce Spence again, though not playing the same pilot from last time), Max makes his way to Bartertown, a settlement presided over by the megalomaniacal Auntie Entity (Tina Turner. Yes, that Tina Turner).

Recognizing his skills in the art of ass-kicking, Auntie recruits Max to rid her of Master (Angelo Rossitto), the diminutive controller of Bartertown’s fuel source (pig poop), who challenges Auntie’s rule of the city thanks to his brawny assistant Blaster. Soon enough Max and Blaster are squaring off in the “Thunderdome” of the title, a huge cage where combatants are equipped with elastic straps that allow them to fly towards and around each other while wielding various bladed implements, like performers in a sick Cirque du Soleil.

Of course, the title of the film is “Beyond” Thunderdome, after all, so you know the story doesn’t simply end there. Things don’t go quite as planned with Blaster, and Max is banished to the desert, where, near death, he’s found by a band of primitive children and adolescents out of Peter Pan who are living in an oasis called the Crack in the Earth, and who believe he’s a prophesied savior who’ll take them to the promised “tomorrow-morrow” land. One guess if you think things are going to lead up to another confrontation with Auntie Entity & Co.

Beyond Thunderdome lacks in neither sweep nor scope. That it’s the most “mainstream” leg of the trilogy shouldn’t come as a huge surprise either. In order for Warners to see a return on their investment, it makes sense that some of the darker crevices of Max’s future would get cleaned out, with the hard-R rating giving way to a more palatable PG-13. In a sense, it’s sort of the Return of the Jedi of the Mad Max series: It’s solid, it’s engaging, but yeah, it’s also a kind of a step down from the previous two. (And yes, if we follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, that makes that tribe of lost kids the Ewoks.)

We know things are different before the movie proper has even started. Gone is composer Brian May’s minimalist music over stark title cards, as with the first two installments. Instead, we’re welcomed in with “One of the Living,” a brassy tune belted out by Turner, who also sings the impossibly catchy end credits song “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (and Turner’s not bad in the movie either!). May himself is replaced for this go-round by Maurice Jarre, whose epic scores accompanied such epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago.

Continuing the Return of the Jedi comparison, where Harrison Ford was famously bored at having to reprise his Han Solo character for a third time, I wonder if Gibson, whose star was continuing to rise, was feeling some malaise at once more having to don the tattered leathers. That said, by this point the actor is so familiar and so welcome in the role that his personal charisma is enough to carry us along, even into a railway-set third act set piece that can’t help but feel like a less gripping retread of the previous film’s hard-to-top tanker chase.

Miller (who co-directed this time, with George Ogilvie) does his best to elevate the action stuff, but after a strong start (the Thunderdome sequence is a highlight), the film loses considerable steam until the closing moments, which offer our first look at the wrecked remains of what was once Sydney. The final image—a silhouetted Max once more wandering the wasteland—serves as a perfect encapsulation of the character. He’s compelled to help those who need it, while at the same time destined to remain forever apart from them. It’s haunting, it’s beautiful, and it’s the last time we’d see him. For awhile.

Although considered a success upon its July ‘85 release, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s $36 million haul wasn’t as much of a success as the studio hoped for, and it’s clear from watching that both Miller and Gibson were ready to move onto greener, less irradiated pastures. Nonetheless, Mad Max’s place in the annals of movie heroes was well cemented, even as this film marked the end—for the time being—of his sojourn through the cinemas. Though there were persistent rumors of a new adventure every couple of years, it would be three full decades before Max Rockatansky returned to the roadways.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born and raised in Chicago -- with a decade-long detour in Saudi Arabia -- before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, Zaki Hasan is a professor of communication and media studies, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. In addition to his reviews and interviews appearing regularly in venues such as The Huffington Post, he is also co­author of Quirk Books' Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture, has appeared as a panelist on HuffPost Live and Al Jazeera America's The Stream, and co-­hosts the MovieFilm Podcast and Diffused Congruence: The American Muslim Experience. Since 2004, his award­-winning blog Zaki’s Corner has served as a one-­stop forum for musings on news, media, politics, and pop culture. He was included in 2010's Top 35 Political Blogs by BestBloggers.org, and has been nominated for "Best Blog" and "Best Writer" in 2010, 2011, and 2012 by the Brass Crescent Awards, receiving an Honorable Mention for "Best Blog" in 2011.

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