Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

Max Rockatansky might find redemption in the third Mad Max movie, but Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) itself could have used some redeeming.

Thunderdome has a contested reputation among fans and critics. Some say it's the best in the series while others say it's the worst. I do think it's the worst, but I don't think that means it's a bad movie, just a step down in quality from the previous entries. While George Miller (now co-directing with George Ogilvie) expands the story and introduces more complexity and new fascinating elements, the movie comes off as disjointed. Worst of all, clear cut ruthlessness has been replaced with mainstream tameness.

After his vehicle is hijacked and his camels stolen, loner Max (Mel Gibson) ends up in Bartertown, a sprawling new society lorded over by Auntie Entity (Tina Turner). Energy for Bartertown is provided by methane produced from pigs, and the system is controlled by Master-Blaster, a dwarf and massive muscleman pair who are starting to throw their weight around. Auntie offers Max a deal: she'll resupply Max if he fights and kills Blaster in the Thunderdome, a gladiatorial arena used by Bartertown to settle disputes.

The movie is at its best when exploring this new society of Bartertown and illustrating how it runs. People are only allowed entrance to the city if they have something worth trading for, and then they must turn in their weapons. Water is checked with a Geiger counter. Prisoners are condemned to working underground, chained by the neck and shoveling pig shit, and the titular Thunderdome offers a unique philosophical position that underlies Bartertown. As explained by Dr. Dealgood, the arena's MC, "killing leads to warring," and that's what ruined the world in the first place. Thunderdome allows disputes to be settled without escalating, and it's also a bread and circuses for Auntie to keep her masses entertained.

Auntie is one of the most complex characters in the series. She's ruthless, calculating, and not above murder to get her way, but there's no denying the effectiveness of her means. She has rebuilt society and keeps it going without getting too violent. Trade is in place, and law has been restored. Granted, it's Auntie's law, but it keeps people in line. The apocalypse gave her an opportunity; before, she says, she was nothing, but now, she's large and in charge.

The gladiator fight between Max and Blaster is thrilling and inventive. They're strapped in to harnesses, and they rappel all over the cage, scrambling for weapons as the crowd roars. Max, having learned Blaster is vulnerable to high pitch noises, blows a shrill whistle and clobbers the giant with a mallet, bringing him down and knocking off his iron helmet.

Max then discovers the truth about Blaster. Physically strong, he has the mind of a child, only doing what Master ordered him to do with no understanding of any of it. Master pleads for mercy, Max refuses to kill him, and Auntie, furious the deal is broken, has Blaster killed and Max exiled into the desert. Max only survives when he's found by a lost tribe of children who mistake him for Captain Walker, a pilot who promised to return and take them to "Tomorrow-Morrow Land."

This is where the movie loses its way. The kids, who range in age from infants to teenagers if that tells you how long they've been on their own, are just too cutesy for the world Miller has created over three movies. They seem less like Lord of the Flies and more like the Lost Boys in Spielberg's Hook. Admittedly, some elements about the kids are cool, especially the way they use storytelling to remember the promise of Captain Walker and how they get the wrong ideas about relics of the Old World, but when they get involved in the action, the movie borders on slapstick. When Max and some of the kids are on a train being pursued Auntie's force, not only is it a watered-down rehash of the climax of The Road Warrior, but it plays out more like Home Alone on the Railroad. Instead of frightening psychos and violent crazies, Auntie's henchmen come off as goofy because they can't handle these kids.

This is the emotional climax of the trilogy. Max, the bitter loner scarred by the death of his wife and son, unselfishly becomes a protector of these lost children, and it is nice to see him get pulled out of his shell and rediscover his humanity. But the execution feels too tame, too neat and tidy. Max and the kids never feel like they're in real peril. It's not a struggle to restore faith in humanity but a crowd-pleasing set piece in a world that's not too scary or rough anymore.

The movie maintains a strong visual sense. The Thunderdome is an eye-catching creation as are the various machines and tools the characters have made to adapt. And after all he's been through, Max finally receives some much needed peace.

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