A New Yorker whose family moved to Australia when he was a teenager (allegedly to avoid the Vietnam War draft), Gibson began working on the first Mad Max as soon as he graduated from acting school. By the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome premiered in 1985, he was on the verge of international superstardom.
George Miller’s initial Mad Max trilogy took Australia by storm. The first movie became one of the most profitable of all time, and the second meeting the acclaim of the first. Miller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Australia where gas and water were worth killing over — combined with his incredible eye for scenery, chase sequences, and supporting characters — felt like a sci-fi western where anything could happen.
Beyond Thunderdome implies that there’s something more than Thunderdome, which is a shame. After battling for a small tribe camped near an oil refinery in Mad Max 2, in Beyond Thunderdome, Max encounters something that he hasn’t seen in a long time: civilization. Or, what counts as a civilization in the Mad Max universe.
Bartertown is rough, and it is ruled over by Tina Turner, playing Aunty Entity. Aunty is a fascinating character, one who claims to have built something sorely needed — a way to get supplies without murdering or being murdered – yet has felt the grip of tyranny a little too long. She manipulates Max into fighting her enemy in Bartertown, the double-bodied Master-Blaster.
A little person riding on top of a very big person, Master-Blaster is a classic Mad Max foe. With the little Master barking out orders from Bartertown’s Underworld while he provides electricity for the town using methane and Blaster absolutely wrecking anyone who questions him, the two make for a memorable duo. Master-Blaster also represents a chance to discuss what both mental and physical disabilities could look like in this crueler world.
Bartertown is packed to the gills with memorable characters. There’s the master of ceremonies Dr. Dealgood, giving grandiose speeches explaining the rules of the Thunderdome (“Two men enter, one man leaves”), Aunty’s saxophone player, and an underworld slave named Pig Killer (because he killed one of the pigs whose feces make the methane that powers the town). With Max stuck in the middle between Master and Aunty, the setting is rich and vibrant. The fight in the Thunderdome has a brutal simplicity to it, with Miller giving just enough surprises to make it worthy of the film’s title.
Unfortunately, Beyond beckons. After defeating Blaster but refusing to kill him, Max is sent out of town in a giant paper-mache head, and the film then moves on to Max’s next assignment — convincing a tribe of children that he is not the Messiah.
The idea that children would form a cargo cult around a downed 747 and revere its long-dead pilot as God is an interesting one, and hearing their entire mythology certainly is something new for the seasoned Mad Max viewer. But there’s no way around it: Max suddenly playing parent is less interesting than everything happening in Bartertown. Eventually, the kids decide to head for their mythical Tomorrow-Morrow-Land, and Max is forced to follow along.
The movie finds its footing again as the two storylines start to collide, but it’s easy to see why the franchise needed a rest after Thunderdome. Not only was Gibson moving on to conquer Hollywood with Lethal Weapon, but Thunderdome’s second half proves that the brutal world of the Outback risked becoming predictable. Letting the franchise rest for decades until Fury Road shocked audiences turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the franchise, but there’s a lot of good to be found here as well.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is streaming on Hulu in the U.S. until December 31.