George Miller & George Ogilvie | 107 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG-13
The third (and, for 30 years, final) Mad Max movie sees the titular post-apocalyptic drifter (Mel Gibson) rock up at last-outpost-of-humanity Bartertown in search of his pilfered car and camels. Max finds himself dragged before the town’s ruler, Aunty (Tina Turner), who has a job for him: kill the mutinous overseer of the city’s power supply, Master Blaster. As payment, she’ll arrange for the return of his belongings. The only conditions are he can’t reveal Aunty has employed him, and he has to do it in a fair fight in the town’s arena of combative justice — the Thunderdome. And then the story goes beyond that, funnily enough.
Writer/director/creator George Miller hadn’t intended to make a third Mad Max film, but when he conceived a story about a man stumbling across a gang of kids in a post-apocalyptic world, someone suggested that man should be Max, and Beyond Thunderdome was born. That might explain why the end result feels a bit like two different movies stuck together: the very Mad Max-y first part in Bartertown awkwardly transitions into the society-of-kids segment, before the two clash for a Mad Max 2-emulating chase-through-the-desert climax. It might not make for the smoothest throughline — the movie almost stops and starts again — but at least it exposes us to a different facet of the series’ post-apocalyptic Australia.
Not everyone agrees; indeed, I hadn’t realised quite how poorly regarded Beyond Thunderdome was by many fans (though not critics, who generally liked it). Reading up, there are some genuine criticisms — like that stop-start plot, or the kids’ cod-babyspeak dialogue — but an awful lot of it boils down to childish “it’s a PG-13 and I wanted R-rated violence” reactions. Which is kinda ironic. I have to say, I didn’t even notice the change in level until I read those comments afterwards. The film still reaches a 15 certificate in the UK, so clearly it isn’t toned down that much. And the lack of visible blood doesn’t mean it lacks creativity: Roger Ebert described the Thunderdome duel as “the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies”, and he may well be right.
The changes do stretch beyond the level of violence, with a slightly slicker feel to the filmmaking. This is also viewed negatively, many attributing it to a reported influx of US funding that also led to the PG-13 and the casting of Tina Turner. Personally, I saw it more as part of Miller’s development as a filmmaker: Mad Max 2 is appreciably ‘slicker’ than Mad Max, after all. Some call Beyond Thunderdome “Indiana-Jones-ified”, though. I can see the similarities, but I didn’t find it so different from the previous Max film that it really bothered me.
And from a very personal, very 2015 point of view, Mad Max 2 has already earmarked itself a place on my year-end top ten, and if Fury Road lives up to the hype then it will surely prebook a slot too, so it’s probably for the best that Beyond Thunderdome isn’t quite up to that standard or my top ten would look a little bit weighted.
Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed Beyond Thunderdome. The Bartertown stuff works incredibly well, and a community of children who survived the apocalypse without an adult influence is also an interesting concept. It feels a bit like two Mad Max short stories that have been forced to coexist because neither was enough to sustain an entire feature, but at least neither part feels unduly padded, meaning the narrative keeps on rolling. It doesn’t hit the same heights as the exceptional Mad Max 2 — especially with a climax that invites a direct comparison, and is good but not as good — but, as a post-apocalyptic action-adventure movie in its own right, it’s a good film.
The fourth Mad Max movie, Fury Road, is released in the UK on digital platforms today, and on DVD and Blu-ray on October 5th.