The Franchise Chronicles: Mad Max: BEYOND THUNDERDOME

It’s dying time this week on the Franchise Chronicles as we step into Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), George Miller’s third venture into the crazy world of Max. Once again Miller ups the ante visually but the story gets a little muddled. This movie may not be as impressive as The Road Warrior (few films can be), but I feel like it has been unfairly made the whipping boy of this franchise and overall it is still a great accomplishment that people should see.

The stakes gets raised again in this film and the world-building continues. If Road Warrior had a big Australian budget, Thunderdome got the big Hollywood budget and an American star to boot in Tina Turner as Aunty Entity. All of the green pastures have now become desert wastelands. Yet each new locale has its own specific look and feel. Bartertown is a horrible, mud-filled mill. The Waiting Ones’ forest camp has a Neverland vibe. The harsh yellows of the road feel more unforgiving than ever. My personal favorite is the night desert Max wanders in and how the cool blue moonlight beams off the white sand creating images that look almost painterly.
It's never too hot for chain mail.
The only aesthetic element that does not seem to jive with this series is the heavy use of the Saxophone in the first act. If you remember, Max’s wife played the Sax in the first film but its use here does not feel like a conscious reference to that moment and this world has become so “metal” that R&B feels out of place. Of course, I realize that Turner is an R& B singer and headlines the soundtrack. This may be one of the first clear compromises that Miller had to make. Maybe he was just a fan? Who knows?
The Jugger-not.

Max is not the only character to carry over from the last film. Bruce Spence returns as the Gyro Captain, who not only gets promoted to an airplane pilot, but also gets a first name: Jedediah. Jedediah has a young assistant he calls Junior that looks suspiciously like the Feral Kid but is played by a different actor (Adam Cockburn). However the narration at the end of Road Warrior makes clear that the Feral Kid never met Max again. Do they not recognize Max? Are they completely different characters? In the end it does not really matter. Miller continues in the spirit of the franchise by only revealing what’s necessary and does not get bogged down in exposition. He trusts the viewer to figure it out for themselves.

I stated before that I felt the story got muddled and I mean that literally. It seems as if Miller took two separate Mad Max stories and mashed them together. The first is Bartertown. Max winds up in a backwards town run by a power-hungry debutante, takes down a big dumb guy and rescues a small smart guy. The second is the Waiting Ones. Max encounters a group of children who believe him to be their savior, gets tempted with authority, leaves some behind and leads the others to a so-called promised land. Either one of those stories would be compelling on their own. Put together, they feel disjointed.

Best Substitute teacher, ever.
The first act is both a condensed and amped up version of the last film. All of the set pieces are there. The vehicles are crazier and the action is just as powerful. The second act has a very different vibe. I wonder if fans in 1985 treated the Waiting Ones the way Star Wars fans treated the Ewoks. From a certain point-of-view it feels like the filmmakers went “Well they loved one feral kid. Let’s throw in a whole pack of them!” For some reason these scenes reminded me of the weird TV movies the Disney Channel pumped out in the 1990s. That is not a knock. Everyone thinks of Disney as squeaky clean but many of their properties have a dark underbelly to them. These aspects make the film feel more family friendly (or as family friendly as a post-apocalyptic action movie can be). Watching this it started to make sense to me that George Miller would move on from here to the Babe and Happy Feet movies.

I also noticed that the third act tones down the carnage a bit and some of the deaths are not as grizzly as they might have been in the first two installments. This may have been because kids were involved or it might have been Warner Bros. trying to soften the film a bit for American audiences. This is the only film in the series rated PG-13 instead of R and that definitely takes away some of the classic Mad Max edge.

While this film is not perfect it is definitely still Mad Max. It takes the franchise in a different direction and many of the choices are questionable but I guarantee this film will leave you thinking about it for a long time afterwards. Next week we jump ahead 30 years to a new pinnacle for this franchise on the “Fury Road.”

Edward O’Hare, nickname TBD, has been poking around the deep caverns of pop culture for some years now. His hobbies include making Starfleet org charts and badgering people who haven’t seen the Adventures of Captain Marvel movie serial from 1941. He one day dreams of teaching Bill Simmons that superheroes and pro athletes are not all that different.

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