Making his way across a post-apocalyptic desert, the nomad Max (Mel Gibson) is attacked by a small airplane and has his camel caravan stolen. Max follows the tracks to Bartertown, a sleazy trading post attempting to preserve some form of civilization amid the wasteland. After surviving a melee with several guards, Max is taken to the town’s matriarch, Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). Aunty offers to reequip Max if he performs a service for her.
Bartertown’s energy is provided by methane gas, generated by pig shit processed in a factory under the town. The ruler of Underworld is Master Blaster, a diminutive, arrogant engineer and his invulnerable, helmeted bodyguard. The pair operates as one unit. Aunty wants to dump the body, keep the brain. With the help of a Pig Killer (Robert Grubb) sentenced to life of hard labor, Max gets close enough to Blaster to detect a weakness. He agrees to kill him.
The law of Bartertown states that men settle their disputes in one place: Thunderdome. Governed by the principle “Two men enter/One man leave”, Thunderdome is a caged arena where combatants are attached by elastic cords to the ceiling, where they can grab a variety of weapons. But Max gets a change of heart and refuses to dispatch Blaster. Aunty has the hulk killed, and banishes Max to the desert.
Out of the wasteland, a teenaged girl named Savannah rescues Max. She belongs to a tribe of children who live in an aboriginal paradise. They’ve created their own culture, mythology and slang, and believe Max to be a savior named Captain Walker, sent to lead them back to “Tomorrow Morrow Land”. When Max reveals that all of that is gone now and this is their home, Savannah and several others strike out across the desert. Max returns to Bartertown to rescue them.
In 1979, Mad Max became the most profitable Australian film ever made – grossing $100 million worldwide on a meager $350,000 budget – while Mad Max 2 (released in the States as The Road Warrior) was even more successful. Director George Miller thought the story had nowhere left to go. Over dinner, friend and screenwriter Terry Hayes mentioned a script of his, one about a tribe of lost kids. Miller felt that was the premise for Mad Max 3.
Hayes & Miller wrote a script and in June of 1983, the director and his producing partner Byron Kennedy announced Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Their $8 million budget would be twice that of the previous installment, and twenty times that of the original Mad Max. This included salary for Mel Gibson, whose agent Ed Limato negotiated a $1 million payday for his client, a first for an Australian actor.
As co-director, Miller hired George Ogilvie, who had directed an hour of Kennedy/Miller’s mini-series The Dismissal in 1983. Miller focused primarily on choreographing the stunts, while Ogilvie worked with the actors. That summer, Byron Kennedy died when a helicopter he was piloting crashed near Sydney. Miller considered canceling the production, but ultimately felt that his producing partner would have wanted them to press on.
Gibson had starred in The Bounty, The River and Mrs. Soffel within twelve months when he reported to the boiling set of Thunderdome in September 1984. Increasing his disgust, People Magazine voted him “sexiest man alive” during this period. The star was depressed and drinking heavily throughout filming, and complained to a reporter that the movie was a piece of shit. A couple of years later, Gibson retracted his comments and apologized.
Released in the U.S. in July 1985 on a wave of publicity – including heavy rotation of pop star Tina Turner’s music video for “We Don’t Need Another Hero” on MTV – Thunderdome was praised by critics. Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin all wrote that it was the best of the trilogy. Many fans of Mad Max and The Road Warrior wasted no time hurtling popcorn at the screen. Over the years, they’ve called the sequel too Hollywood, too slow, too dumb, or all of the above.
In a perfect world, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome would be industrially mandated Rx for any sequel, prequel or remake. Instead of mimicking previous movies, this film dares to be visionary. It’s far more imaginative, more technically proficient, better cast, better scored and ultimately more rewarding than either Mad Max, or the much loved Road Warrior.
Terry Hayes & George Miller wove their script with a heightened sense of imagination that stands alongside the finest work of Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Bartertown and the Crack In the Earth are as close to fully realized, alternate civilizations as you can find in a movie. This feat is accomplished not only through elaborate production design and costuming, but language as well (“He was half jumped by Mister Dead when you finded him” is one sampling).
Thunderdome is one of the greatest movie fight scenes of all time – a masterpiece of camera movement, editing and stuntwork – but if a mistake was made, it might have been that the film was sold as an action juggernaut. It’s not. The arc of Max’s character, the world he inhabits, and the various characters – with names like Scrooloose or Dr. Dealgood – are far more salient than the car crashes. Maurice Jarre composed an epic musical score, while Tina Turner contributed two excellent songs for the opening and end credits.
Matthew Foster at Foster on Film writes, “The big change that makes this film interesting is the intricate world. Miller and co-writer Terry Hayes fill it with bizarre characters, hairstyles, costumes, buildings, vehicles, and vocations. There so much going on in Barter Town that you can be entertained just by looking at the edges of the screen.”
“By adding hordes of cute children, toning down the ultraviolence that marked the previous movies and adding some Tina Turner songs (back then she was quite popular) the film tries aiming at an audience different to the ones that the first two such box office hits. The franchise stopped believing in itself – just like Conan the Destroyer and RoboCop 3 it was aimed at a much younger audience,” says James O’Ehley at Sci-Fi Movie Page.
Chris Coleman at Appreciating Great Trash writes, “People get so hung up on the children and Tina Turner that they miss out on one of the best fantasy-adventures ever made … in reality, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is no more different from Mad Max 2 than that film was from Mad Max, and to demand a sequel be nothing but a rehash is so defeatist that it warrants little consideration.”
“He was the one they called mad, but to the ones whose lives hung in the balance, he was the one they called hero.” View the 1985 theatrical trailer for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.