Coming off the majestic accomplishment of Fury Road, it would be easy to think Mad Max auteur George Miller could do no wrong. Behold Beyond Thunderdome, the third entry in the Mad Max franchise. Tonally confused and a near-betrayal of what became before and after, Beyond Thunderdome is the first hint that Miller would spend a big chunk of the 30 year vacation he took between Mad Max installments making movies for children. I love the Miller-written Babe, but I shouldn't be reminded of it when spending time in the post-collapse Australian wasteland. Miller's prodigious and singular imagination is still hard at work here so Thunderdome isn't a total disaster; only a slow-moving one.
In the years since the events of the Road Warrior, not even Max (Mel Gibson presaging his Braveheart haircut) can find gasoline anymore. Reduced to riding a vulnerable camel-drawn cart, he's skyjacked by a gyrocopter captain, and Max is left to wander to Bartertown, one of the last bastions of civilization. Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) recognizes the deadly competence of Max and coerces him into a mission. Bartertown is powered by pig shit, and the machinery is run by Master (Angelo Rossitto), who is using his valuable expertise to usurp Auntie. A defenseless, elderly dwarf on his own, he's protected by the hulking, fully armored Blaster. If Auntie is going to assert her dominance, Blaster has to go, and Max is the man for the job. It's not difficult for Max to goad Blaster into a fight to the death, as the justice system in Bartertown revolves around fights to the death, taking place in the Thunderdome, where two men enter, and one man leaves.
The first 45 minutes of Beyond Thunderdome are a blast, not as intense as scenes from Mad Max or the Road Warrior, but packed with detail and discovery around every turn. Costumes remain a big part of the franchise, and the piked mannequin head on one of Auntie's henchmen, or Auntie's chainmail, or Blaster's armor, are all worthy entries. The codes and mores of Bartertown are well-established, centering around the Thunderdome. However, once Max gets himself exiled and sent off into the wilderness, things take a sharp turn into film-breakage. Rescued from the wasteland by a tribe of children, Beyond Thunderdome turns into Hook meets Lord of the Flies. Additionally, the climactic chase, present in every Mad Max film, is completely neutered, trading brutality for slapstick better suited for Wile E. Coyote. It does the Mad Max thing, where Max is dragged into helping people he has no reason to care about, but that trope has never been as paper-thin as it is here. The latter half of Beyond Thunderdome feels like a prescient Miller salting the earth of the franchise, making a film that is such an outlier, it will scare away any potential re-booters until he's ready to personally resurrect it 30 years later. If so, I'm glad it resulted in the Fury Road apotheosis, but that doesn't retroactively make Beyond Thunderdome a better film.
Even with the epic third act collapse, Beyond Thunderdome is still vital for fans of Miller's work in the Australian wasteland. The aforementioned scenes introducing Bartertown are fantastic, and Rossitto's curt commands in broken English are likely the funniest thing in the franchise. It is thematically consistent with the rest of the franchise, as one act of selflessness radiates out and heals a little bit of the world. This is perfectly captured in Turner's showstopper song We Don't Need Another Hero, which plays over the end credits. It's one of the very few times an end credits song has made me re-evaluate the film that preceded it, and its inclusion validates Turner's participation in the film. However, the magnitude of the eventual collapse cannot be overstated. It's worse than Sunshine, worse than I Am Legend, the kind of WTF transition that accompanies 2001's light show. To add a cartoonish element to the grand action setpiece is a bridge much too far. The Mad Max franchise lived with Road Warrior, died with Beyond Thunderdome, and thankfully, lives again with Fury Road. C