Up until creator George Miller revived the franchise with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the third and then-final part in the original Mad Max franchise, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, was the biggest and most seen entry into the series. While The Road Warrior quickly became a critical darling and has found undying love from fans of the franchise and the action genre, this third part benefited from a larger budget than ever ($10 million with American financing, a first for the franchise), a higher profile for star Mel Gibson, and a more mainstream approach to filmmaking that resulted in consistent airtime on cable television in the years to follow. For many, Beyond Thunderdome was their sole experience with the franchise for decades.
Unfortunately, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is also the weakest entry in the series, a film plagued by a troubled production, a fractured narrative, and a watered down PG-13 rating that belied the hard-hitting nature of the previous two films. While there are still many fascinating aspects to be found within the world seen in Beyond Thunderdome, its ramshackle nature makes the film more of an intriguing failure than a quality film. Compared to three other entries that range from strong to incredible, it feels like a massive dip in quality.
The story of Beyond Thunderdome picks up years after the end of The Road Warrior, with Max still wandering the desert alone. But when a pilot (Bruce Spence, who played The Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior and plays a very similar character here who bears no relation) steals his caravan, Max makes his way to the nearby Bartertown to try and get it back. But he quickly becomes entangled in the battle between Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) and Master Blaster (Angelo Rossitto and Paul Larsson), who both seek to run the town. Max then runs into a tribe full of kids who have built a cargo cult around a crashed plane. Hijinks ensue. It’s almost two separate films smashed into one, quickly becoming disjointed and tonally odd in the process.
But it’s not surprising when you understand more about what happened during Thunderdome’s production.
Following his first two Mad Max films and co-directing a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Miller had originally planned to create a standalone post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies-style film that saw an adult discover a tribe of children. However, when Miller decided that the adult should be Max Rockatansky, the film shifted into what it eventually became, which may explain why the storylines of Bartertown and the children are so disconnected. However, Miller’s friend and production partner Byron Kennedy was tragically killed in a helicopter crash while scouting locations for Thunderdome as its producer. Miller’s grief caused him to lose interest in the film, but with production already moving along, he brought in George Ogilvie to co-direct, helping to lighten the burden of filmmaking.
With Miller understandably devastated and the script noticeably disjointed, Beyond Thunderdome lacks the vision, clarity, and energy that propelled the previous two films. In addition, the ideas of Max being used by Aunty Entity and devoting himself to a greater good for the children he encounters simply feel like shallow retreads of similar ideas in The Road Warrior. Add to it that the signature car-centered action of the previous entries has been largely ripped away (no more gas, no more cars), and there’s little heart to be found here. Almost every character and plot thread is given short shrift due to the constantly shifting narrative. The child tribe arrives halfway through the movie, Bartertown disappears for the entire second act, and the stakes of the climax feel cheap and unclear.
Beyond its production troubles and broken narrative, Beyond Thunderdome is simply too mainstream for its own good. After the low-fi ruthlessness of the original Mad Max and the brutal weirdness of its sequel, Thunderdome’s PG-13 softness and almost kid-friendly nature feel like a betrayal of the franchise. While Max’s initial involvement in the narrative sees him follow an antihero path that echoes The Road Warrior, he quickly becomes a much more traditional hero – generally good at everything, correct in most every choice, and successful in almost every scenario. Maybe it makes sense in the larger arc of the three films, where Max goes from tragic hero in Mad Max to self-sacrificing antihero in The Road Warrior to morally upstanding hero in Beyond Thunderdome, but it definitely lacks intrigue.
As Max, Gibson still gives off the charisma that made the character so interesting in the previous two films. However, his increased amount of dialogue, terrible mullet hairstyle, and uninteresting story arc make Max far less compelling here. Gibson has great screen presence, but the Max in Thunderdome feels more like an unlucky patsy and less like an fearsome gunslinger. It’s clear to see why the Mad Max played by Tom Hardy in Fury Road has much more in common with the Max of The Road Warrior than Beyond Thunderdome.
With a plot that aimlessly wanders from act to act, the film only truly comes to life during the massive fight within the titular Thunderdome. Pledging to fight in Aunty Entity’s place, Max battles against Blaster, a giant of a man who carries the diminutive Master on his shoulders. Placed inside a humongous dome of metal bars and flung dozens of feet into the air on bungee cords, the Thunderdome fight really pops in a way the rest of the film doesn’t. There’s excitement, great choreography, and lots of danger, which are all supplemented by the one-of-a-kind nature of the fight. It’s clear that the Thunderdome itself has made its way into pop culture in a way the rest of the film has not due to the many references seen in the decades since. Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s limited amount of action lacks any teeth, including the very lame train chase that serves as the climax. Filled with goofy gags and a very clear focus on showing that no one dies (how is this possible in a Mad Max film?), this climactic chase feels like a strange bore dictated by a need to copy the climax of The Road Warrior but with a family friendly angle.
Maybe the bigger budget called for a film that would naturally appeal to a wider audience. Although that didn’t necessarily result in much greater success compared to the previous two entries, it does mean that Beyond Thunderdome is the best looking of the original trilogy. Bartertown, the child tribe’s oasis, and The Thunderdome itself are all vibrantly conceived, with unique designs and an excellent focus on worldbuilding. They may borrow heavily from the post-apocalyptic punk aesthetic of The Road Warrior, but they still look great. The same can be said for the cinematography as a whole, with giant vistas, gorgeous sunset views, and eye-catching lighting all benefiting from the higher budget.
If there’s an aspect to Thunderdome that is actually more interesting than other entries into the franchise, it’s that the film has no clear villain. While Aunty Entity may be ruthless, she has the greater good of Bartertown in mind. Turner is vibrant and powerful as Aunty, giving off a natural charisma that shows why Miller wanted her for the role. Turner showed herself to be a strong woman in real life and in her music; so having a powerful female role here fits like a glove. Having her on hand to contribute two pop songs to the film’s soundtrack was an added bonus, giving the film further mainstream appeal, even if it doesn’t fit in with the Mad Max franchise in the slightest. Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” is pulsating and mythic in a way that very little of the film itself actually is. It feels grandiose and wild, helping to close out the film in a way that makes Beyond Thunderdome feel bigger and more interesting than it actually is. The song and the Thunderdome fight are the two main elements of the film that still hold up well decades later.
By and large, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome feels like a second-tier ‘80s action movie, lacking the vision and thrills to reach the upper echelon and also not having enough cheesy elements to appeal to some as a “guilty pleasure.” While the film’s ending packs enough mythic grandiosity to feel like a fitting (temporary) end to Max’s story, the rest of the film sadly does not.