The name George Miller has become synonymous with Mad Max, much the same way the name George A. Romero has become synonymous with zombie films. The guy’s a freaking legend, and when world came out that he was a directing a new Mad Max film in 30 years, people got excited. What better time to go back and review the original trilogy.
There always has to be the one they hate. Whether it be Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Return of the Jedi, or The Hobbit trilogy, fans seem to go bananas when an entry into their favorite series doesn’t live up to their expectations. So it is with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
The most telling damnation from fans is the Rotten Tomatoes score. While it holds an 82% score from critics, it audience score is a measly 50%. How does that happen? There will be some that claim critics are out of touch when it comes to understanding what audiences like, but I think this is a lazy way of sidestepping the issue. After all, a critic is an active audience member as well, with the same biases and preferences as any other viewer. But what the critic is usually not (though some still are) is a devoted follower. They tend to remove themselves from passionate devotion, deliberately pulling away to keep a level head and a more objective viewing. Thus, they come to look at a film with quite a different opinion, without the foggy lens that a fan views a film. This isn’t to say a fan is in the wrong, but more they let expectations define how they view a film. And quite simply, Beyond Thunderdome defies their expectations.
First the rating. The first two Mad Max films were bloody and violent, earning them a hard R rating. Because of this, fans expected the third film to follow suit. But instead, Thunderdome was a softer PG-13, settling for less violence and more humor and kid friendly scenes. This fact alone has earned the scorn of fans, which is a shame. We should embrace films that dare to be something different different. Something that defies expectations. But boy do people like repetition. They want the same beats, the same archs. The same level of violence. And they demand that the filmmakers deliver they want, because they’re owed this. And so, when an absolute gem of a film is presented to them, but doesn’t meet their demands, they turn on the filmmakers, calling the film a disappointment.
A famous case of these expectations was Return Of the Jedi, the closing chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy (I won’t get into the prequels, which are legitimately bad). By the time the film had been released, audiences had to come expect certain things of the franchise. To get a general sense of these expectations, there’s a great article at The Playlist that describes the letdown that was the third film. To sum it up, after Empire Strikes Back, audiences had been treated with a dark tale that was brooding and dour. With this lens, the same audiences were given a completely different dish with the third film. Instead of the brooding atmosphere of the preceding film, they were treated to a kid friendly film, crystallized by the cute Ewoks. It was a complete change tonally, one that provides numerous delights and made for a fun and lightheaded film, but failed to live up to expectations. It’s why the aforementioned article has the byline stating “Return of the Jedi ruined ‘Star Wars forever.” Again, it’s this damn sense of entitlement that taints the joy and pride of being called a fan, and which forces filmmakers not to take chances, all because they might lose those ticket purchases from their most ardent supporters.
It’s funny how similar Beyond Thunderdome is to Return of the Jedi. Instead of the cute Ewoks, cowriter and codirector George Miller, the mastermind behind the series, introduced children into the fold, creating a tale the evoked the lost boys from the beloved Peter Pan. It was a bold move that was a radical departure from the adult themes of its predecessors. Never mind how it provided a deeper and far more satisfying arc for Max. And so it was that fans called the film tame and a let down in regard to what came before, hazily failing to to accept the film on its own terms. Which is too bad, because Beyond Thunderdome is a damn fine film, one that I would argue is the best of original trilogy (my review for Fury Road will come next week).
Let me make my case before you call me crazy. First and foremost, the first two films were great in their own right. They were lean and muscular, unafraid to be violent and ugly, and above all have amazing stunt work. But what they were devoid of was actual character development and a deep rooting of why we should care for the titular hero Max. Yes, the first film had genuine pathos, creating a tragic arc as Max lost his wife and son. But this was delegated to the mere third act, and took backseat to the action. Which is totally fine if action is what you’re looking for. It’s the reason why many people consider the second film the best of the trilogy. The Road Warrior completely side steps any real character development. Max is presented as a selfish and self serving character, and never strays from this personality. He only agrees to help the good guys because the gangsters destroyed his car. But what what appealed to the audience was how bold The Road Warrior was in defying traditional narrative. I called it a western in how it dealt with the theme of wrangling for justice on a new frontier. And man, does that film deliver. But despite how great these films are, it’s Beyond Thunderdome that provides the most satisfying arc for Max. He starts out the film as self serving as he was in The Road Warrior, trying to get his stolen goods back. But throughout the film he slowly starts to regain his humanity. First is when he refuses to kill the child-man Blaster, despite the fact that he’ll get what he wants by doing so. Later in the film, when Max runs into the children, he again sacrifices his own need to help the band of children. What does he get in return for this? Absolutely nothing. But what he gains is his soul. It’s a rich and rewarding conclusion to his character.
But why does a satisfying character arc make a film better than a great action click? The only real answer to that question is that it comes to taste and expectations. Do you prefer the visceral or the emotional? The thing is, Beyond Thunderdome satisfies both. The film features not one, but two spectacular action sequences. The first takes place in the actual Thunderdome, a steel barred cage where hungry onlookers watch as two people fight to the death. It’s an ingenious set design that provides a creative take on your standard fight scenes. Both Max and the giant Blaster are strapped into a sling-like harness, that allows them to leap and fly through the air. Like a great wrestling match, there’s weapons at the top of the cage, including an axe and a chain saw. I’ve never seen such a sequence quite like this one. Miller brings along his death defying stunts that will make your jaw drop.
The second action sequence is the car chase that involves a train at the end. Max and his band of children hop from across the train as the gang of rebels chase them. Much like The Road Warrior, there’s the standard crazy stunt work, one involving a guy who hangs off the train by a pole. It’s all great stuff.
But alas, what can my arguing do but to hope to sway your opinion on this underrated film? If nothing else, I challenge you to defy your fandom and to open your mind to a film that defies your expectations. You don’t have to like it, but at least be honest about what it does and how it goes about it. Instead of comparing how the films stack up against each other, judge it on its own terms and against nothing but itself. You just might be surprised how much you’ll end up enjoying that which you hated. That I promise you.