After an opening that is every bit as kinetic and engaging as The Road Warrior, and promises more of the same, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome turns into a busier and more densely populated film than either of George Miller’s first two pared-down, souped-up, post-apocalyptic road epics. Where Mad Max and The Road Warrior were near-minimalist, Mad Max III is baroque, larded, even cluttered, with incidental detail, and verging on the surreal. The grotesquerie is so common and abundant that it no longer carries the jolt that it did in The Road Warrior, and the bizarre comedy that was the occasional time-out in The Road Warrior threatens to become the dominant tone by the time Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gets to its climax. Emblematic of this is that, while energy is still the heart of the matter, as it was in the first two Mad Max films, in this one it’s not the preciousness and scarcity of gasoline that drives the plot, but rather a man who makes methane out of pigshit.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has a very long (half the film) first act and very short second and third acts. That long first act, set in a bustling outback trade center called Bartertown, is the culmination of the junkyard futurism of such films as Soylent Green, A Boy and his Dog, The Ultimate Warrior and Escape from New York—a genre that was itself spawned by the famous final moment of Planet of the Apes.
But at mid-movie, when Max goes beyond Thunderdome, the film turns into something quite different. Something like an amalgam of Lawrence of Arabia (with Maurice Jarre desert music to boot), Lord of the Flies, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Indeed, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s second half is rather more than a respectful nod to Hoban’s novel.
Riddley Walker, published in 1980, was a deserving sensation at the time, a post-nuclear tribal UK Huckleberry Finn about storytelling, song, myth, ritual, exegesis and the endless adventure (and burdensome responsibility) of language and the understanding it makes possible. Though it has not achieved the enduring place in literature that it richly merits, it nevertheless enjoys a cult following even today. But in the summer of ’85 it still loomed large in the cultural consciousness, and how Terry Hayes and George Miller (and, apparently, George Ogilvie, who shares director credit with Miller) could borrow so heavily from it without so much as an acknowledgment is beyond me. These are not winking references or admiring homages; whole ideas, themes and characterizations are adopted from Hoban’s novel.
In a cavern beyond the desert, Max runs across a “tribe” of children, ranging in age from about six to late teens. These are the ones who stayed behind. They are the survivors of the ditching, years earlier, of an airliner (that much is from Lord of the Flies) that still lies preserved in the desert, and they take Max to be the pilot, finally come back for them. Get this: the pilot’s name is Captain Walker. And the children have a way of knowing through the telling of stories. They have a ritual called “the Tell,” wherein a narrator speaks through a crudely formed Panavision-ratio window. And there’s this other character called “Auntie,” another name straight out of Hoban. Seeing all this, you get the idea: the Mad Max myth has gone from imaginative tale-spinning into pastiche that runs just short of plagiarism.
The short, fast third act deals with how the tribe of children becomes intertwined with the destiny of Max and his effort to salvage what’s good and clean up the corrupt Bartertown. Earlier in the film, before his monumental combat in the Thunderdome, he was introduced to the crowd as “the man with no name.” Yes, sir—this one has it all.
The worst part is that this most complex and intellectually ambitious entry in the Max saga ends up being the least substantial, tossing off ideas in a way designed to explain things without making you think about them—exactly the opposite approach from that of the first two films, which left most of the back-story unexplained and, despite the emphasis on raw, physical action, made you think a great deal. This Max, by contrast, is all in fun.
But, to be fair, the film has an enthralling look and feel to it, and imparts a great spirit of adventure. Tina Turner, who plays “Auntie,” contributed two songs, both linked directly to Max and the events of the film, and both are pretty darn good: “One of the Living” is heard over the opening credits and sets the stage for the film’s environment and its somewhat surprising introduction of Max. At the other end of the film, we hear “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” which questions whether Max is a hero, and whether a “hero” of this type is in fact what “we” (the tribal children and the movie audience) actually need—much in the way that, more recently, The Dark Knight concluded with an ironic deconstruction of the superhero so painstakingly built up by Batman Begins. And, with the same sort of irony (intended or not), the closing of the film seems to suggest that, whether or not we need another hero, we probably don’t need another Mad Max movie.
And there wasn’t one.
Robert C. Cumbow, author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, also contributed to our “Summer of ’84” series. His home base is the Seattle film blog The Parallax View, where much of his 40 years of film writing is archived.