Following the release of Mad Max 2 in 1981, George Miller had established himself as an imaginative, gas guzzling force of nature in science fiction. The first two films in his iconic series were unlike anything seen before, rooted in some familiar motifs (especially ones drawn from classic Westerns) but with a whole new setting and direction. Mad Max had defined itself as a series through its use of outlandish set pieces, and a sombre tone littered with offbeat humour. With that in mind, the tonal shift to 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was a surprise. Not an unwelcome one per se, but certainly one which still divides opinion. What most people will agree to, however, is how the third and final film in the ‘original’ Mad Max trilogy cemented Miller’s place as a hero of both cult cinema and pop culture. It was also Miller’s final all-out action film for almost 30 years, a wacky note on which to make his temporary exit from the genre.
Beyond Thunderdome remains an iconic, if tonally divergent, piece of action entertainment. While Miller and his co-director George Ogilvie enjoyed a much larger budget than they had with the first two films, the leather-clad wasteland populated with skeleton vehicles, and a devotion to practical effects all remain. This time, however, Max finds himself in Bartertown, the first and only urban centre seen in the trilogy, which brought in a much larger cast. Bartertown is run by a ruthless leader named Auntie Entity, played by the one and only Tina Turner. Her onscreen time is fairly minimal, especially in the second half, but Turner turns a small role into something truly iconic, a testimony to her sheer charisma and status. Few things are more fun to witness than her looking down on Mel Gibson and dismissing him as nothing more than a “raggedy man.” Her magnetic presence gives a true sense of fun to Beyond Thunderdome, Turner sustaining a glint in her eye throughout a performance that has aged to perfection.
Fans of the first two films complain that Beyond Thunderdome is too ‘Hollywood’, and it is easy to understand what they mean. While the first two films show are uncompromising and merciless in their tone, this entry is far lighter, right from the catchy ’80s theme music in the opening credits. Whereas thought-provoking violence was the order of the day before, with Beyond Thunderdome everything became much more obviously framed for entertainment. The fight in the thunderdome itself is the best example; bungee ropes, Max’s chainsaw comically failing on him at the critical moment, and substantially less blood than in the other films (this was the first film in the franchise to be rated a PG-13). While helping some Peter Pan-style lost children, Max finds himself a much less ambiguous hero than in Mad Max 2. The ending is also full of a steady optimism, with flickering lights in skeletal buildings meant to represent some hope that humanity will eventually spark back to life. This upbeat tone makes for good entertainment, even if it doesn’t offer the introspective thrill ride that you might have expected.
The fight scene is obviously still the stuff of legend, with ‘thunderdome’ now a popular term for contest where the loser endures great hardship. Thunderdome (and the derivative Thundercage) are now popular match types in wrestling. The thunderdome fights in the film inspired wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes to introduce a new match format known as the War Games, which after some time on ice became a WWE-managed event from November 2017. The thunderdome has also made an appearance in video games, such as in Fallout 3’s DLC ‘The Pitt,’ where opponents fight to the death, with the added danger of radiation thrown into the mix.
There are other reasons to look back fondly on Beyond Thunderdome. The final shots, of a charred, orange Sydney Opera House and a half-destroyed Sydney Harbour Bridge, form a beautiful and dramatic end to the film. One of the scavenger children also wears make-up strikingly similar to the look of the war boys from Mad Max: Fury Road, a plausible nod to where the design for these characters could have originated from. And even if the final chase can’t match the intensity of that in Mad Max 2, Miller’s dedication to practical effects and action close-ups remains as impressive as ever. The original trilogy still somewhat lives in the shadow of the monumental Fury Road, which now feels like the film Miller always wanted to make, but Beyond Thunderdome has a quirky charm that keeps it feeling like a unique and worthwhile piece of the franchise’s history.