Monday, November 23, 2009

Max Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

My final contribution to Row Three's 'Doomsday Movie Marathon.' I return to silence no later than next Sunday.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome opens with Max (Mel Gibson) tearing across the desert in a motorless truck, pulled by a team of camels. The poor man’s sure been downgraded. I mean, The Road Warrior (1981) had more engine-gunning than dialogue. In fact, by the time Max reaches Bartertown, a busy settlement of thugs and traders, it seems as though his world’s gone medieval. Animals are the chief means of transportation and power; gasoline is rarely mentioned; pistols and rifles are uncommon, and the open market that forms the centre of Bartertown is a chaos of vendors in rags.

Bartertown is ruled by Aunty (Tina Turner); a powerful personality prone to speeches. Aunty rules Bartertown for the most part, but she’s beholden to the brilliant dwarf, Master (Angelo Rossitto) and his muscle, Blaster, who control the huge pig pen beneath the town. Pigs poo, and when they do, the methane can be harvested for power. Aunty is sick of Master’s demands, and so she engages Max to challenge the childish but hulking Blaster to mortal kombat in Thunderdome.

Thunderdome is a semi-circular cage. Audience members climb its exterior to watch the action. They also hang various weapons (including a chainsaw) from its top bars. The kombatants can reach these weapons with a strong jump, because they are harnessed into elastic slings that allow them to bound and barrel-roll within the cage. Say what you want about the rest of the film—this scene is creative. And it ends with Max once again reaching the line between self-preservation and total moral collapse, and refusing to cross it.

This consistency of character (in the ethical, rather than literary sense) is about all the third film retains from the first two. The Road Warrior had already taken a big leap up (or slide down) the apocalyptic continuum, transforming Max Rockatansky from noble Aussie cop in a declining community to gasoline-scrounging, but still decent, survivalist in the Australian desert, post-decline. The third Max is likewise good man, but the world around him is so self-contained that he needn’t be Max Rockatansky at all. Beyond Thunderdome sweeps away all the earlier films’ reflections on social decay by blaming the current situation on a single moment: a nuclear holocaust. Why does a simple post-Bomb story need Max, instead of anyone else? What of his past is brought to bear on these events? Remember the title: this is not ‘Mad Max 3,’ it’s just Mad Max in a different location.

Max’s disrespect for Thunderdome gets him banished, but he’s saved from death in the desert by a Stone Age tribe of teens and children, who live in an Edenic grotto. The grotto is far enough away from Bartertown that neither population has heard of the other, though the distance between them seems relatively short. The tribespeople await the arrival of a messianic airline pilot, whose image seems to resemble Max’s own. Max shoots that dream down pretty quick (he would). Soon, a series of events sends Max and the kids back to Bartertown for a big showdown and of course, an auto chase.

Too bad. The grotto provides the only intriguing scene in the whole film: leader Savannah Nix’s (Helen Buday’s) sermon about the history of the tribe. She delivers this speech every day to a rapt audience of little ones, speaking in dramatic tones and with a jumbled dialect modelled (I think) on Creole. She stalks a stage covered with wall paintings, recalling those who got ‘catched by Mr. Dead,’ and sweeping a long stick in front of her. The stick has four more sticks lashed to its end, forming the shape of a movie screen. Savannah holds the frame in front of each painting as she describes it to the children. They don’t even know why that seems familiar to them. This image is a potent one and I wish there were more like it in Beyond Thunderdome.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome does show you some terrific spectacle. Having re-watched this trilogy after a break of more than 15 years, I found that most of the scenes I remembered best were from the third movie: the bungee cagefight, the jumbo jet buried in the sand, the pig-shit pit, and Aunty’s electro-magnet-coil earrings. But the film is the work of a geeky genius more than a screenwriter; someone who gets off on generating ideas more than stringing them together. It’s not so different from Saw (2004), or anything starring Will Ferrell. And like those films, several good scenes do not a great film make.