My mom loved — dearly loved — a handful of movies, and one of them was the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a movie I think is pretty damned great, myself.
I am not sure why Mother loved this particular Mad Max movie. She didn’t seem to have enjoyed its predecessor, The Road Warrior. But she did have an affinity for post-apocalyptic movies, and Thunderdome is, if nothing else, probably the most fun you can have after the end of the world. Watching it again recently, I find it holds up extremely well.
The Mad Max movies are, by and large, fun to watch, though I have to say the first self-titled film in the series, the one that introduced the world to Mel Gibson as a leading man, is more scary and unpleasant than fun. And I would argue that I don’t really get all the fuss over Mad Max Fury Road (2015), which has so many CGI effects that I half-expect Jar Jar Binks to show up. Thunderdome, however, hits the sweet spot.
If the first Mad Max depicted society on the ragged edge of a breakdown, with bands of savages roaming the Australian Outback, then its 1982 sequel showed the world in utter collapse. Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is a sad, depressed ex-cop, wandering the wasteland in search of highly-priced gas and dodging bad guys dressed in all manner of Eighties music video garb. One mark of the impact of Mad Max on cinema is that we still associate leather chaps, mohawks, and hot rods built out of the spare parts of other hot rods, with these films. No one in a Mad Max movie drives a simple car; their vehicles look like tractor-trailer rigs crossed with mopeds cross-bred with dune buggies and NASCAR racers. In Thunderdome, that aesthetic gets kicked up into the upper reaches of the stratosphere.
We first meet Max in the desert, driving a team of camels (of all things), hauling his souped-up super-car. It’s a scene (and a vehicle) crossed out of a Western, or perhaps a dream. Modern society is so far-gone as to be unrecognizable. A nuclear war (or a famine, or a pandemic) has erased all vestiges of what we think of as civilization, leaving a rag-tag mass of toothless, illiterate, immoral, all but cannibalistic tribes fighting over non-existent resources. Max, the ruthless ex-cop, is smart enough to survive on his own terms. He’s a sort of post-apocalyptic superhero.
Max wanders into a hellhole called Bartertown, an unforgettable piece of art direction and production design, peopled with monstrous characters all jostling for a drink of contaminated water or whatever food there is in this place. Bartertown is the creation of Auntie Entity, perhaps the most marvelous character in any Mad Max film (including Fury Road). She’s played by Tina Turner, who was incandescent in the mid-1980s, enjoying a career resurgence that included her appearance in this film. Tina owns this movie from the minute she walks into it. Her performance is so quirky, powerful and singular that I think she probably should have been Oscar-nominated. She’s that good. And, to my knowledge, she never appeared in another film.
Auntie Entity presides over Bartertown with an iron fist, but she’s challenged for supremacy by Master Blaster, a villain who comes in two pieces: the “little person” brains, or Master, and the human tank who drives him around, Blaster. Together they control “the Underworld,” where methane-producing pigs (yes!) provide the fuel that makes Bartertown the commercial center of the wasteland. (The set decoration on display in the Underworld section of the film has to be seen to be believed. Thunderdome, if nothing else, creates the most original universe of the Max series.)
Auntie and Max strike a deal: he will start a fight with Master Blaster, get sentenced to fight the bad guy(s) in Thunderdome, and legally kill him (them), thus paving the way for her uncontested power over Bartertown. What is Thunderdome? It’s a Coliseum-type arena in which two fighters engage in gladiatorial combat, fighting with chainsaws, sledgehammers, and bare hands, lunging at each other while strapped into giant slingshots. The battle between Max and Master Blaster is the highlight of the film, and one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. That’s really Mel Gibson doing all those incredible stunts. Director George Miller keeps the camera right on his star; there is no faking it, and, of course, no CGI. The sheer creativity on display in this sequence actually puts every frame of Fury Road to shame (odd, since Miller directed all four films).
Max, of course, survives the duel, but is exiled to Gulag — tied to a donkey and dispatched into the burning desert. Improbably, he survives this, too, when he is rescued by some feral kids known as Them Who Lived. In a series known for bizarre characters, weird stunts and berserk action sequences (see: the 20-minute chase at the end of The Road Warrior), this forlorn tribe is something else. They tell Max their story through a ritualistic performance that’s almost like cinema. Apparently they are the children of plane-crash survivors and await the return of their Messiah-like savior, Captain Walker. They think Max is their Captain Walker, but he isn’t, of course — he’s just Max, as he somewhat cruelly informs them.
One thing leads to another, and a handful of kids break off from the main tribe, to go searching for … Captain Walker, I think. Max has to save them, and ends up leading them back to Bartertown. They free some prisoners from the Underworld and challenge Auntie Entity to a final battle. Act Three of Thunderdome is The Chase, a mainstay of these films, and this one might be the best ever. Miller finds a way to incorporate a truck on rails extending to the horizon. It is besieged by armed road warriors, with Max and a host of other characters leaping from one vehicle to another, battling it out. The stunts are awesome. The music and cinematography are magnificent. And — that’s Tina Turner doing her own stunts!
Thunderdome might strike some Max fans as too Out There, but that is exactly where these films need to be. It corrects what I always felt was a bit of a minor flaw in The Road Warrior, by giving Max some actual dialogue and a reason to exist. By this point in the trilogy, he needs someone to bounce off of, and care about, and these abandoned children in the middle of nowhere give Max a chance to show some empathy. Gibson delivers another charismatic performance as the heroic loner who rises to the occasion, but it’s Tina Turner’s show, hands down. There’s a lot that’s special about this movie, but she is by far the best reason to see it. Turner wrote two songs for Thunderdome that were both big (HUGE!) radio hits in 1985, and they are both prominently featured. I have no idea why Miller thought it would be cool to literally cast Tina in his movie — who knew she had any acting talent? — but she’s perfect, in a most unexpected way.
If the first Mad Max is a downer, and The Road Warrior an exhilarating if slightly unsatisfying experience, Thunderdome finds the right balance, blending action with satire, and solid storytelling with fun and a feeling of spontaneity. Mom wasn’t wrong — this is a great movie.