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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

December 20th, 2007 · 6 Comments

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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.

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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.

Production history 
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Cult favorite · Famous line · Sequel · Train

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck // Dec 20, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Possibly the most enjoyable thing I’ve read on this site. Really good work here. You’ve inspired me to go back and re-watch the film which is of course the highest compliment a writer of film can be paid. I’ve never considered Mad Max 3 one way or another, though the Thunderdome sequence is memorable and amazing.

    One can’t help but notice that Miller pulled a similar sequel stunt when he took over as actual director on Babe: Pig in the City.

  • 2 Piper // Dec 20, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    I am not of the camp that enjoys this movie. I felt it’s a perfect example of when Hollywood gets ahold of a good idea. It wasn’t complete trash, but not near as interesting as the first two. It tried to be bigger than it was and Mad Max has been nothing more than a story about a reluctant hero that gets himself into great action sequences. To make him some kind of saviour was taking it too far. I guess I agree with George Miller when he felt there was no more story to tell. Too bad he didn’t stick with that statement.

    I will say though that Master Blaster has given me many hours of enjoyment. To say Master Blaster in a social scene and have someone get it is really quite something. So I often drop that as a cultural reference and it often gets me a laugh.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Dec 20, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    Chuck: That might be the most enjoyable endorsement I’ve read on this site. Thanks! George Miller is feloniously underrated due to the fact that he’s only directed maybe six or seven movies, and almost all of them were kind of ahead of their time. Look at his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie with John Lithgow. Miller ran rings around Steven Spielberg and John Landis in terms of visual ingenuity.

    As for the pig, I’ll have something to say about him later in the week.

    Pat: “Not near as interesting as the first two?” Have you watched the movie? There’s more going on at the edges of the screen than in the entirety of Mad Max! You may not have seen the film because you were memorizing Master Blaster’s lines.

    “Yumping Yesus! Him sad. Brain broken. Me explain. This: my vehicle. You: pedestrian!”

  • 4 Piper // Dec 29, 2007 at 8:00 am

    No, I saw it the movie. And I watched a lot of it again just recently because it’s been making the rounds on TV. To me this movie suffers from over-telling of a story. Like the most recent Halloween, it isn’t enough for people to leave a story with loose ends. To make him some messiah is to try to bring depth to a story that doesn’t need it. It’s like they tried to somehow make it legit. And if you say this movie is better than The Road Warrior, I’m hopping on the next plane West to smack you around because you’ve lost your senses.

    Shit, it’s so damn cold here I might just do it regardless.

  • 5 Hoju // Nov 10, 2008 at 11:42 am

    “it’s like they somehow tried to make it legit -”

    To quote Orson Welles, that is a lot of shit, and you know that. You sound ridiculous.

  • 6 Chris // Sep 8, 2011 at 8:36 am

    One of the lamest movies of the decade. Nothing visionary or exciting about any aspect of it. If I were writing a one word review I’d have to say: “silly”. If I were to expand that review a bit I’d add: one-dimensional, predictable, boring and misguided. Tina Turner is wasted, Bartertown looks like it came from a high schooler’s imagination and the whole kiddie tribe thing gives the whole thing a queasy Disney-like air.

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