Action Junkie: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

In Road Warrior, the organization of the fuel compound was the base of society, people with common interests collaborating to gather and refine a resource they can use to live off of for energy.  That was the extent of the parameters of their community.  As we see in Beyond Thunderdome the questions of law and order in a new rising post-apocalypse civilization are addressed.  In order for Max to gain entrance to Bartertown he must first have purpose, and one that the town needs.  Either he is there to trade or provide services, no one goes into Bartertown without giving something to its continuing function.  In short, there are no freeloaders, as the old euphemism goes.  Here, as he is emitted into town, we see a physical presentation of Max’s violent nature as he must leave his weapons with a holder while he is in the city.  In a comedic, cartoonish moment, Max piles weapon upon weapon, which he pulls from his persons onto a heap on the counter.  Then, after Max offers his services as hired muscle he is explained the order of the law, how he must work inside of it, and why he has to be the one to do the job that is needed.  The repercussions of this job lead to the ultimate display of the law, Thunderdome.  As the barker tells us, this is the hopeful answer to war.  When a dispute arises it is settled in Thunderdome; a gladiatorial arena where its credence is its only rule, “Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves.”  And that is where the dispute ends.  When Max does not comply with this only rule, he is forced to face the final aspect of the governing law of Bartertown, “Bust a Deal, Spin the Wheel.”  The wheel being a game show style device, much like Wheel of Fortune, offers instead of prizes, punishments for disregarding the respect of contracts.

Thunderdome is the film’s crowning achievement, not only is it philosophically the center point, it also serves as the movie’s best action sequence and the crux for which the plot convenes on.  As Max and his hyperbolic opposition, Blaster, bounce on bungees attached to the top of the dome, the camera weaves and bobs back and forth with them all the while maintaining a simplistic and level framing of the action.  This is a fine example of how photography can be immersive yet respective of how the imagery of the spectacle is captured.  Many films since the invention of non-linear editing products such as, Avid, and the hand-held capabilities of HD cameras succumb to an attempt at being visually engaging, only to sacrifice the audience’s spatial recognition and the artistry and excitement of the stunts themselves.

The consequences of the Thunderdome sequence lead Max to his expulsion, which in turn leads to the children of the “Crack in the Earth”.  At this point the movie not only takes a tonal shift in direction it also uses this shift to make commentary on itself.  Here law and order is juxtaposed with that of Bartertown, simply with a lack thereof.  The children have adapted a hunter/gatherer tribal aspect to their existence, one that rings familiarity to, The Lord of the Flies.  However, here the children seem to get along, like the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, which could also lead to another of the film’s dueling qualities.  At this point I think it is important to go back to the beginning of the film and focus on the contradictions, as they lead to a merging here at, the Crack in the Earth.

One of the first and most significant instances in Beyond Thunderdome where it contradicts the previous films as well as itself comes from this movie’s varied approach to the trilogy’s world origin.  As Max walks towards the entrance to Bartertown he is approached by a man selling water.  The man shouts to prospective buyers that it is clean.  To explain what he means by “clean”, Max pulls from his clothes a Geiger counter which, as he passes over the man’s water, chirps with high static, indicating “dirty”, or irradiated water.  In the beginning of Road Warrior the narrator tells us that the apocalyptic war that ended the world was not a one day nuclear annihilation but a long, steady burn of conflict that left the planet ravaged.  Though, to the story’s credit, we were never told exactly how the wars were fought.  Nuclear deployment could very well have taken place in certain areas.  Unfortunately the contradiction is confirmed and expanded upon later, when Max gains an audience with Bartertown’s ruler, Aunty Entity.  Entity asks Max what he did, “before all of this?”  In the only reference in this film to his past, Max tells her he was a cop, a driver.  She replies with a biting tongue, “But how the world turns. One day cock of the walk, the next a feather duster.”  All of this indicating rather how recent the apocalypse was.  Then to cement the concept and the contradiction she says, “You know who I was?   Nobody.  Except on the day after, I was still alive.”  In this statement, Entity reveals that the apocalypse was a one day, cataclysmic event, not the epic sprawl we were previously told of.

Another of the film’s bizarre contradictions worth noting for this examination comes from Max’s exile from Bartertown.  When he spins the wheel, it lands on the punishment marked, Gulag.  A gulag is first and foremost a forced labor camp from Russian history.  It is also defined as a place of hardship.  For Max’s punishment however, he is tied to the back of a horse, and sent helplessly into the wastelands.  If this punishment is meant to be a gulag then it is one that takes the definition of a hard place as not a literal one, but a philosophical state of being.  In this sense, this is perhaps the most overt and symbolic contradiction, the things that seem to defy themselves on an immediate logical level, work to the movie’s advantage on a metaphoric one.


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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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