Action Junkie: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

George Miller’s third, and to date final, installment of the Mad Max series is a dueling oddity of a film, both as the closing chapter of a trilogy and as a movie standing on its own.  From the film’s inception to its final frame, the movie carries with it a sense of friction set upon impeding the fierce originality of the preceding Mad Max and Road Warrior, it’s campier, lighter, and to an extent overproduced.  Yet, the final product is one that introduces interesting concepts of society and mythology as well as an action set piece wholly original and thoroughly entertaining.  As a thematic piece of a bigger picture Beyond Thunderdome also achieves to fulfill the final phases of the hero in relationship to his environment, a theme I’ve applied to both preceding films.  (here’s where you can find, Mad Max and Mad Max 2: Road Warrior)

The original idea for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or so the story goes, came from a separate concept that was being developed about a group of children abandoned to fend for themselves in the wild, when one day they receive a mysterious visitor who helps protect them.  When the question of who this mysterious stranger should be was approached, the idea of Max Rockatansky was thrown out, and stayed, turning into the film in review.  This board-meeting-beginning is the first in a long string of circumstances that serve to set Beyond Thunderdome further apart from Mad Max and Road Warrior, than they are from each other.  The first two films were imagined under much purer, more vital circumstances, such as Mad Max was originally thought of by Miller while he was working in an emergency room, and would witness day after day the continuous brutal disasters of highway accidents.  To further compound on Beyond Thunderdome’s problematic origins, during preproduction, while scouting for locations, George Miller’s longtime partner and friend, Producer Byron Kennedy was killed in a helicopter accident.  At this point George Ogilvie was brought on to co-direct, handling most of the acting scenes, while Miller focused mainly on the stunts and action.

Setting aside preproduction circumstances, I would now like to focus attention to the end result.  In a sharp contrast to the openings of both Mad Max and The Road Warrior, we begin the movie with no explanatory title card or voice over narration, instead as the titles appear against a plain black background, the music of the film’s co-star Tina Turner is heard, poppy, laced with dated instrumentation.  Her lyrics foretell of a hero in the state of the world in the story to come,

In the desert sun every step that you take could be the final one
In the burning heat hanging on the edge of destruction
You can’t stop the pain of your children crying out in your head
They always said that the living would envy the dead

So now you’re gonna shoot bullets of fire
Don’t wanna fight but sometimes you’ve got to
You’re some soul survivor
There’s just one thing you’ve got to know
You’ve got ten more thousand miles to go

The music stops with the credits as we now cut to a shot in the sky, high above the ground.  The camera sways back and forth.  Below is the barren desert of the wastelands.  The camera’s descent to the earth is one emblematic of the viewer’s descent into the nightmare world of the post-apocalypse, or as we see as the movie progresses a more fantasy encapsulated world this time around than horrific.  What we are left with after this minor intro is not an informed precursor to the events about to unfold, the world the story inhabits, or even an exhilarating, punch you in the gut, stunt spectacular.  It’s a quiet beginning, one that shows cleverly, with only a few moments where Max is at as a character since the last time we saw him.  The vehicle being towed by camels is a nice touch reminding us of the world situation, a lack of gas requires other modes of transportation.  Camels are for the necessity of traversing a barren desert landscape.  Max, the warrior we’ve seen overcome the obstacles of two movies, is now in worse condition than previously.  His car gone, he no longer even has fuel for the new vehicle that is in his possession, he is clearly no longer the commanding road warrior we once knew.  His attire has changed, his already altered leather jacket has been further reworked to accommodate a trench coat style addition; draping over Max’s clothes to protect him from the elements.  He’s more a man of the sand filled wastelands now than a highway car jockey.  This is the gratitude left for a man that went from the instant catharsis of revenge for the deaths of his wife and child, to the embodiment of a mythic hero who helps deliver a group of survivors from certain destruction.  Fate is not necessarily kind.

Regardless of Max’s station in this restructuring life he is still wielding the same bad attitude and predilection for violence.   The trail left from his vehicle leads to an oasis called, Bartertown.  As people in all directions converge to its entrance, above reads a sign that says, “Helping Build a Better Tomorrow”.  This is a very straight forward reference to the underlying theme of this final thematic chapter of the movie series.  As we’ve seen with the first film, in the context of the trilogy, it acts as an origin story both for Max and the apocalyptic world he lives in.  At the same time these origins are shown to be intertwined, the two need each other to exist; chaos and order.  In the second film, Max has adopted himself to be a warrior as part of his environment instead of warrior defending it.  The environment, like Max has completely transitioned into the post-apocalypse.  When he crosses paths with the people of the refinery it places him in a position to rise up out of his banal, rogue existence and once again become the warrior for hope he once was.  Of course Max pays for this choice with a slight betrayal, as his part in the great escape is one of an unknowing decoy.  Left behind he must again re-adapt to the level of humanity required to exist alone in the wastelands.  Now, in Beyond Thunderdome, Max comes across another attempt at civilization, one that we see as the film progresses addresses further concepts of society from the refinery compound in The Road Warrior.


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Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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