Summer School: 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' (1985)
With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.
Given its reputation as the worst in the series (and my less-than-enthusiastic response to the first two movies), I went into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome with pretty low expectations. I was actually pleasantly surprised at first: You can tell that series creator George Miller (co-directing this time with George Ogilvie) has taken advantage of the popularity of The Road Warrior to produce a movie on a much larger scale, with much greater resources. If Mad Max looked like a threadbare exploitation movie and The Road Warrior looked like a resourceful, action-driven B-movie, Beyond Thunderdome looks like a mainstream Hollywood production, complete with name stars (Mel Gibson, quite famous by this point, plus singer Tina Turner), elaborate sets, multiple locations and a large cast.
Miller and Ogilvie use those resources well in the beginning, following Max as he stumbles upon Bartertown, a pocket of semi-civilization in the vast wasteland of the Outback (the apocalypse seems to get retroactively worse in each installment of the series). There he meets up with Turner's Aunty Entity and agrees to fight a hulking brute in the arena known as Thunderdome, for the chance to recover the vehicle and belongings that were stolen from him at the beginning of the film. The Thunderdome battle is a creative and exciting action sequence, but it ends with a moment of goopy sentiment, which then sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Exiled from Bartertown, Max is picked up by a group of children living in an oasis in the middle of the desert, and Beyond Thunderdome turns into an entirely different movie. The annoying kids (seemingly modeled after Peter Pan's Lost Boys) speak in a cutesy patois and decide that Max is their savior, and while his character arc is the same as in The Road Warrior (being captured, then reluctantly agreeing to help a group of survivors), it's played with much more sentimentality. Eventually they all head back to Bartertown, and the movie culminates in another well-crafted car chase, but even that sequence is tainted by dumb kiddie stuff, with the action taking on a more slapstick tone (including some of the kids smacking bad guys with frying pans). There's less emotional resonance in Max's relationship with this whole group of kids than there was in his relationship with the one feral boy in The Road Warrior. The movie ends essentially the same way as the previous one, with Max continuing to drift while the people he helped find peace, but there's no impact to it this time. No wonder Miller had to wait 30 years to get another chance to bring Max to the big screen.