Black Sheep is dedicated to appreciating the under-appreciated, whether it’s the unloved entry in a popular franchise or the lesser work of a particular director. The first entry in this series finds us at the intersection of both, as we gear up for George Miller’s long-awaited Mad Max: Fury Road with a look back at the series previous entry: Beyond Thunderdome.
*Spoilers for the first three Mad Max films below*
When George Miller burst onto the scene in 1979 with Mad Max, few could have imagined the direction his series would eventually take. With only an opening title card informing us that the film takes place “A Few Years From Now,” the original Mad Max only suggests the notion of a global catastrophe in passing. Set in rural Australia, the film depicts civilization clinging on by its fingernails. This setting could very well be any small town, at any time. (It bears a striking resemblance to South Carolina, if you ask me.) The film ends with Max, having avenged the deaths of his wife and baby in titularly mad fashion, driving like a bat out of hell into the Restricted Zone.
Three years later, the opening narration of Mad Max 2 (AKA The Road Warrior) tells us that World War III has plunged the world into anarchy. It doesn’t linger on these details, though. All we really need to know is that the world has gone to shit and Max is caught up in a mad dash to lay claim to whatever’s left. The fight for gasoline leads to a series of increasingly brutal road chases further and further into the desert wasteland. This, along with its punk-rock junkyard aesthetic, cemented The Road Warrior as an iconic piece of action cinema. It’s a thrilling companion to Mad Max, while also a wholly unique experience unto itself.
And then they made Beyond Thunderdome.
Released in 1985, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was produced in the wake of the death of Byron Kennedy, George Miller’s producing partner on the previous Max films. His death can be felt throughout, as much of the story concerns questions of legacy and those left behind. The film opens with a father (Bruce Spence) and his son teaming up to steal a caravan from our hero Max (Mel Gibson), and ends with all of them leading a band of lost children out of the wasteland to a brighter tomorrow(land).
In certain ways, this was the logical extension of the Mad Max universe. Having defended a town of innocents from a gang of marauders, it only made sense for Max to wander into a new town of nothing but marauders and rescue the innocent from its clutches. The entire first half of the film finds Max following the thief into Bartertown, where he becomes entrenched in the local power struggle. The town’s ruler, Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), agrees to give Max what was stolen from him if he’ll kill Master Blaster, a dwarf-and-giant duo who currently have a stranglehold on the town’s energy resources.
The ensuing battle inside the Thunderdome is unquestionably the highlight of the film. It’s also likely one reason why Thunderdome is ill-regarded next to Mad Max and Road Warrior, because this battle takes place thirty minutes into the film, and it’s the last action sequence for about an hour. Nevertheless, it’s an amazingly dynamic setpiece. Tethered to bungee cords inside a gigantic steel cage littered with weapons, Max and Blaster leap back and forth, dodging spikes and hacking away at one another with wild abandon. The action moves fast, and while meticulously designed, it’s rough and tumble like any good brawl should be. Still, this series made its name through vehicular carnage, and we don’t see any of that until the very end of the film. It’s almost as though George Miller (and co-director George Ogilvie) realized crashing people into each other was far less of a financial liability than smashing up cars.
While seemingly a town run by sensible adults, Bartertown appears to be little more than a schoolyard run amok. Disputes are settled by combat inside a jungle gym, and punishments are decided by a spin of The Wheel. (“Bust a deal! Face the wheel!”). Civilization is slowly clawing its way back from the brink, but here it seems to have gotten stuck in a grade school mentality. According to Miller, when the pillars of society collapse, we become a pack of petty, vengeful children. As we learn in the latter half of the film, this is precisely why society needs people like Max.
No longer a police officer on the edge, Max is reimagined as a fabled hero coming not to bring peace and restore order, but rather to shepherd us to a place where we can achieve peace and order for ourselves. Only after being cast out of Bartertown does he rediscover his identity thanks to the bedtime stories of a band of J.M. Barrie-esque lost boys.* We learn through their nightly recitation of their origin story, known in their bizarre pidgin language as The Tell, that a plane crash-landed in the desert during the apocalypse. The surviving parents left the children behind in search of help (but more likely just left them to die), telling them that Captain Walker would return for them. Max, as fate would have it, looks just like their cave painting of the captain, and through sheer circumstance winds up leading the children out of the desert.
It’s telling that while adults have returned to a child-like mentality following the end of the world, the children have fashioned their own society into something more Edenic. Part of this was borne out of necessity; let’s see how well you do with only a crashed airplane and a watering hole. But another part of this comes from Miller’s attempt to turn the Mad Max saga into something mythical. It’s no accident that Max is introduced into the Thunderdome as “The Man With No Name.” In this film, he ceases to be a man running away from his own grief and becomes a nomadic hero straight from the pages of Joseph Campbell. (Hey, it worked for Star Wars.) Knowing Max’s past, we almost come to view him as a man out of time. It’s what makes his interaction with the children so unique. As much as these kids resemble the lost boys of Neverland, there are also shades of the Eloi out of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”
Maybe that’s why Beyond Thunderdome isn’t held up to the quite same standard as Mad Max or The Road Warrior. In trying so hard to turn this series into a work of myth, George Miller loses a bit of his hero’s humanity. True, Road Warrior already leaned in that direction, but Thunderdome is where Miller really cranks up the mythmaking. When we first met Max, he was a family man with a career, very much grounded in something resembling the real world. By the end of part three, he’s basically a warrior ghost wandering the desert. It’s an odd turn for a series made popular by its affinity for automotive destruction. You can see this starting to happen in the Fast & Furious movies as well. Dominic Toretto is inching ever so closely into becoming this generation’s Mad Max. Then again, not if Tom Hardy has anything to say about it…
*Steven Spielberg definitely stole these kids and their weird Nevertree and dropped the whole thing into the middle of Hook. But then Miller seems to have borrowed some of them from Temple of Doom, so it’s all one big happy family of creative theft.Liked This? Share It!