Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: July 10, 1985
Directed by: George Miller and George Ogilvie
Genre: Action / Adventure / Thriller
When George Miller created his first dystopian action film starring a then-unknown Australian actor, he had no way of knowing that he was kicking off a franchise that would come to define post-apocalyptic cinema. While 1979’s “Mad Max” opened the door, the sequel, “The Road Warrior,” became the standard vision of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. The third installment in the series, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” expands on both the world and the main character presented in these films.
“Beyond Thunderdome” opens with the reluctant hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), reduced to traveling across the desert in a camel-powered caravan. When an airborne raider steals his vehicle, he makes his way to the decadent enclave called Bartertown. He soon finds himself caught up in the power struggle between the town’s figurehead, Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) and its underworld rulers, Master Blaster (Angelo Rossitto and Paul Larsson).
Aunty wants to consolidate her control over Bartertown, but she can’t as long as Master Blaster controls the methane that powers the city. The deal is simple: if Max can separate the diminutive Master from the hulking Blaster by killing the latter in the Thunderdome arena, he will get back everything he lost. The deal soon turns sour, however, and Max finds himself abandoned in the desert wastes. There, a group of lost children rescue him. Unfortunately, they also mistake him for their long-gone savior and lead him into one last conflict with Aunty and Bartertown.
Mel Gibson’s Max is more fully realized this time around, partially due to this being the third installment in the series and partially due to the actor’s increasing star power. Here, Max is one of the few remaining remnants of a civilized past, doing what he must to survive but never willing to take too dark a path for his own ends. When he finds himself pushed into the role of protector for the lost children, the audience can see glimpses of the father figure he might have been in a different world.
Tina Turner’s Aunty is another relic, but one much less principled. She sees Bartertown as one of the last remnants of civilization, one that she wants to rebuild into a working society. To get there, she’s willing to do whatever it takes, including using murder and trickery to get her own way. She recognizes Max’s strength and nobility, and attempts to use him as a playing piece in her long game.
“Beyond Thunderdome” is also full of unique supporting characters, many of whom manage to steal their scenes away from the big-name stars. Bruce Spence returns in a new role as Jedediah the Pilot, who plays a pivotal role in the film’s conclusion. Angry Anderson is Ironbar, Aunty’s head goon and Max’s unwitting nemesis throughout the film. Robert Grubb dominates his scenes as the likable Pig Killer, a convict sentenced to live in the methane factory for killing one of Bartertown’s precious animals.
The film is full of the post-apocalyptic action fans have come to expect from the Mad Max series, including one extended vehicle battle that makes up almost the entire third act. The violence is toned down somewhat, due to the film’s PG-13 rating. The unique style of the Mad Max wasteland prevails throughout, however, with Aunty’s henchmen flaunting a now-familiar mohawk and leather armor style while the lost children seem like an Amazonian tribe strewn with strange modern artifacts.
Unfortunately, the PG-13 rating leads to one of the film’s greatest faults. This attempt to make a more family-friendly Mad Max film results in an uneven story, one that can’t seem to quite commit to either being a warning of a bleak, horrific future or one that offers inexplicable hope that humanity will make it through. The pacing also meanders a bit, with a long beat between Max’s expulsion from Bartertown and his action-packed return. The shift in tone between the dark decadence of Bartertown and the lost paradise of the children’s tribe can be jarring for fans of the earlier, grimmer entries in the series.
However, for those willing to accept the more optimistic tone “Beyond Thunderdome” ultimately takes, there’s plenty here to enjoy. Gibson is at the top of his game as the reluctant savior Max, and Maurice Jarre’s eclectic score helps punctuate his epic moments. Turner plays Aunty with all the over-the-top glee of a Bond villain, serving as a fine foil to the heroic ex-cop. With a long-awaited sequel on the horizon, revisiting the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max is a welcome trip down irradiated memory lane.