The best way to describe Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is to call it a misguided attempt at a dark, post-apocalyptic adaptation of Peter Pan with a side of “Lord of the Flies”. If that sounds interesting that’s because Thunderdome is somewhat compelling, the plotting is just all wrong. Director George Miller, this time returning to his Mad Max franchise with co-director George Ogilvie, seems intent on telling two stories at once, neither feeling as if they are of the same story. That said, once each jarring and coincidental switch in the plot is made, the result provides avenues that would be otherwise interesting to explore on their own as Miller was clearly searching for a story arc unlike the first two films when he sat down to write the screenplay with The Road Warrior co-writer Terry Hayes.
Similar to the opening of its predecessor, the film begins with the titular Max (Mel Gibson) being chased, this time by a gyro-plane pilot (though, while confusingly played by Bruce Spence, is not the same pilot he played in The Road Warrior). Eventually the pilot succeeds in his mission, Max’s rig — a truck being pulled by a flock of camels — is stolen, though his pet monkey does toss him some boots and a jacket out of the back before it pulls away.
Max manages to track the thief to the unruly Bartertown, a city where its name tells the story, and he sets out to reclaim his goods, a decision that ultimately lands him in the company of the town’s queen Aunty Entity, played by multi-hyphenate Tina Turner whose lion’s mane hair, cat eyes and seductive, yet snarling speech actually works quite well. It’s here we learn of Bartertown’s dependency on the methane from pig feces to power the city, but like all societies throughout history, power becomes more important to those in charge than peace. Aunty Entity proposes a deal to Max that eventually finds him within the steel confines of the titular Thunderdome, battling the massive Blaster (Paul Larsson), the muscle protecting The Master (Angelo Rossitto), the brains and controller of the pig farm beneath the city.
To this point Thunderdome has delivered a fun bit of politics and now we’re faced with a classic gladiator dual as the citizens chant, “Two men enter. One man leaves.” We’ve seen the Mad Max series tear society asunder and now it’s building itself up from the ashes, is it any surprise Roman gladiatorial games would serve as an influence? Unfortunately, it’s all rather basic and there is little to the political machinations the film touches upon only briefly.
The battle between Max and Blaster, however, is breathless and fierce, but once it’s over and Aunty Entity is displeased with the result, Max is tied helplessly atop a horse and sent into the desert to die. This is where things take a turn.
His horse eventually dies and shortly thereafter Max collapses in the sand only to eventually be rescued by a young girl who takes him to her clan of fellow children, ages ranging from about six to 18 or thereabouts. When did this become the story of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys? Right now! And when will we get back to Bartertown? Soon enough, but not without a bunch of rambling about how the kids believe Max to be their savior and decide his arrival signifies it’s time to leave and find the lost cities they’ve only heard rumors of.
There is, admittedly, an impressive shot of a downed and corroding airplane amid the sand during this sequence, but it does little to make the children’s story feel as if it has anything to do with the first 45 minutes or so we’d just watched. And, eventually the action leads back to Bartertown, all of which ends in a frantic chase sequence that is just as epic and impressive as you’d expect. Is it all worth it? I guess?
I’d never seen Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome until now, 30 years after its initial release. My only knowledge of the film was that I loved Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” (still a great song by the way) and had heard the film itself was quite bad, this despite the fact it has an overwhelming number of positive reviews. Looking at the movie as a whole, it isn’t at all a bad movie, it’s just so poorly constructed.
Everything up to Max’s exile is excellent, but the introduction of the lost tribe of children is so jarring it’s almost as if we’ve started a whole new movie. Then, when the action returns to Bartertown the tone has changed. The addition of the children eventually leads to a few pratfalls and silliness before the final chase sequence. Had these children seemed an exiled part of Bartertown, or were at least known to the Bartertown citizens, they may have seemed less coincidental and more an organic plot development. Their hope and idealism is a worthy alternative to the cynical and corrupt nature of the Bartertown inhabitants, but nothing is done with this theme so what good is it?
There’s also a lack of a conclusion. The final sequence ends and Aunty Entity’s reaction to all that has come to pass is more of an “Okay, see you later” than anything else. Huh?
Thunderdome eventually becomes more a frustration of what could have been rather than appreciation for what it is. As much as the opening 45 minutes or so and the finale do deliver in thrills and intrigue, the middle portion and the lack of any narrative consistency or reason ends up outweighing the positives when looking at the project as a whole.