I‘ll start by dispelling a common misconception: this movie is not terrible. It’s not great, don’t get me wrong, but it certainly isn’t worth the disdain some have for it. It’s not Attack of the Clones bad; it’s more Return of the Jedi bad. It actually has many of the same problems. Family friendly antics, worn plot devices, and some senseless world-building bog both down quite a bit. But I can talk about Star Wars later, back to post-apocalypse. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome continues the tradition of being a huge departure from the film before it and takes a misstep in the process. I admire the goal, but the follow through just made a movie that’s incoherent with the rest of the series. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just a bad Mad Max movie.
Why go see a Mad Max movie? For crazy car action scenes, inspired production design, and creative ways for people to die. Well, this movie has exactly one car action set piece. One stunt that repeats between Road Warrior and Thunderdome speaks volumes about the shortcomings of Thunderdome. In Road Warrior, Wez, an enemy henchmen, is holding on for dear life onto the grill of the oil tanker Max is driving. Lord Humungus drives head long into Max, killing both him and Wez and rolling the tanker onto the side of the road in spectacular fashion. In Thunderdome, one of the primary henchmen, Ironbar, drives directly into Max’s large truck, and the car is destroyed in a fiery explosion. Yet, Ironbar lives! He is humorously stuck to the front of Max’s truck, black with soot and screaming like a little kid. They played it for laughs. Which takes some impact away from the whole fight scene. The stakes that made a lot of Road Warrior feel exciting was lost for humor in Thunderdome.
When I was watching Thunderdome, I was alright for the first half hour. Some scenes were incredibly cheesy, like Tina Turner’s introduction is underscored by an all too sultry saxophone, or when Max has to give up his weapons he pulls out like a dozen different weapons. I think just the fact it was made in the 80s gives it a cheesy feel, so I don’t knock it too hard for that. What intrigued me in the beginning was Bartertown, which had great potential. Containing the plot of two factions within a settlement that Max could have influence over was a great story. Also, just as a setting, Bartertown has such a scrappy and dangerous feel to it and looks great. I was actually pretty excited. The Thunderdome fight, even though the bungee cords just seemed unnecessary, drove plot and action and was a fun sequence. Nothing seemed too out of place. I was kind of digging the movie.
Then he meets the kids. And then everything got really bland. The world softens and not a whole lot of drama can take place. Here’s what happened to Thunderdome. The first couple of films are gritty action films. This is an action/adventure family movie. The death and darkness is softened to be more appealing to a family audience. This change of tone messes up other fundamental aspects of the series. The production design isn’t there to tell a story anymore, it’s there to look cool, even if it may not be practical in the world. The action is now slapstick and goofball so kids can enjoy. The morally ambiguous Max is redeemed as a father figure and blatant hero, which kind of ruins the fun of following Max in the wasteland. It just does not work as a Mad Max film.
But as an action/adventure family film it’s not bad. Once I reconciled that I wouldn’t be getting another Road Warrior, I was a lot less heated about the film. It still has problems though. For one, there are more than a few deus ex machina points that are just there to get Max from point A to point B. I will say, the cinematography was fantastic. Bartertown had great lighting. Using hard lights behind the metal slots and pieces, a lot of the town was patterned with light. The desert was also fantastically captured. Wide open, desolate spaces dotted by wandering survivors or rushing vehicles gave a stark contrast between the desert and Bartertown.
Also the acting isn’t half bad. The kids I was particularly impressed by. Their dialogue is this half-English that has evolved over the course of a couple decades of isolation, and it looks stupid on paper, but they give it real emotion in delivery. Turner as Aunty is alright. Nothing interesting or quirky. She’s strong and menacing when the movie needs her to be. And Gibson: with the freaking hard corner that his character takes in this film, he pulled it off. He went from chaotic anti-hero out for his own luck to empathetic father figure, and it did not feel too out of place.
Even with solid acting and cinematography, this movie couldn’t be saved from watered down drama and death. The lack of any real stakes handicaps the story majorly. Getting over the idea of intense drama, Beyond Thunderdome is an average action/adventure. If you watch it, your time won’t be wasted. If you don’t, you’re not missing much.