Action Junkie: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

This dichotomy that exists inside Beyond Thunderdome comes together when Max is brought to an audience with the children he has been taken in by.  They seat him before a Stone Age stage.  What unfolds is their retelling of their new origin story, from the apocalypse to now.  This is significant in several ways.  First, the method of the story’s delivery is a construction of sticks to resemble the outer frame of a movie theater screen, or even a television, though it is more of a rectangle than a box, which is what TVs were shaped like at the time.  As the children tell their story, collaboratively to an extent, they use the frame to place over images painted on the rock wall, depicting their progression to the present.  These are the first children of the new world, and while the luxuries they once knew are gone, that is all they have to draw upon in order to record and retell their new history.  This indicates an inherent connection to humanities’s origins, as they have the predilection to do so; their paintings recalling those of Lascaux.

The second point of significance comes from the scenario’s literary reference to the novel, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.  The story the children tell is about a pilot named, Walker, who, in an attempt to escape the apocalypse, takes off in a plane with other survivors only to crash due to, as the children call it, “a gang of turbulence”.  The survivors of the crash find the Crack in the Earth where they setup camp, until the adults realize they cannot survive there long, and reluctantly agree to abandon the children to the Crack while they go search for a means to survive.  The Captain, Walker, tells the children they will one day return for them.  The parlance of speech the children use, a mishmash of the relevant language they used to know, and slang representative of their new reality, recalls the same literary device that Hoban uses in Riddley Walker.  Then there is the character name of Walker, blatantly connecting the two, but perhaps the most important reference comes in the, history, storytelling scene itself.  In the novel, the new body of government, a collaboration of Church and State, retells misinterpreted stories of history using a puppet show; somewhat similar display to what the children in the Crack of the Earth perform.

The movie solidifies these concepts metaphorically in Max, who is rejected from the place of a formal attempt at civilization, for being civilized – not killing Blaster needlessly when we discover that he is mentally inhibited.  After this rejection Max is accepted by Bartertown’s philosophic opposite, the children of the Crack in the Earth.  At this point Max wants to fulfill his eternal struggle of the search for a family and peaceful existence that the Toecutter and his gang took away from him.  However, destiny requires of Max the eternal burden of his true place in the destroyed, rebuilding world, the warrior for hope.  Some of the children want to follow in the footsteps of the adults who abandoned them.  Against Max’s wishes, and knowledge, they leave the Crack in search of Bartertown.  The two competing philosophies of post-society existence head for a clash, and since this is first and foremost an Action film, that concept is represented with the film’s climatic chase sequence.

As we’ve seen the alignment of Max as a hero for and because of his environment, the elements of Beyond Thunderdome lead to the culmination of Max rising up to the role of savior as a result of society needing him to.  He starts the film at the bottom, where he was left for his heroic choice in Road Warrior, and although he ascends to the height of hero once more, he ultimate ends the same as he began.  The world, in reflection, fluctuates accordingly, civilization needs a hero.  Tina Turner’s theme song for the film is titled, “We Don’t Need another Hero”, a very strong case for the attitude of her character, Aunty Entity and the philosophy she employs in Bartertown, and a sharp contrast to that of the children.  Of course Max is the hero and delivers the children to their opportunity to start society over, better, or in direct contrast to the adults of Bartertown.  This symbolically objectifies the constant contradiction and duality throughout the movie, and also completes the mythic tale required by a story about rebirth.

The visual motif of Beyond Thunderdome abandons the stripped down, almost nuanced approach of the prior movies, and fully embraces a world of fantasy.  Before, the settings, the costumes, and the vehicles, were meant to unsettle and terrify, just as much as provoke thought; in this movie these things are used to create a world of fantasy.  The imagery and association with punk-rock is no longer drawn upon for its societal stigmatisms, instead, now it embraces it as a lifestyle, packaged and sold to all the world’s inhabitants.  Visually Bartertown resembles a circus run by fashion rejects, turned fetishists, obsessed with American football and a fledgling music scene, just look at the strange, symbiotic relationship of Master Blaster.  Also, unlike the previous films, the villains this time around are more subdued.  Perhaps due to Bartertown’s attempt at civilization or the fact the movie was aimed for a broader, more general audience than with Mad Max and Road Warrior?

As for the film’s required climatic chases scene, the stunts are ones we’ve seen in both of the previous movies and instead of pushing the bounds of the medium with clever choreography and camera placement, like in the other films, it relies on what is tried and true, hoping that the audience won’t recognize, didn’t see the first two films, or doesn’t care.  However, to put the examination of Beyond Thunderdome into perspective, regardless of the film’s faults, which we can count as many, it still maintains merit, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated.  Because, when it is all said and done, Beyond Thunderdome bookends a clever, imaginative, and visually stimulating, trilogy of films, and offers a fun, and somewhat thought provoking experience on its own.

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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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