Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

After surviving a hit-and-run incident involving a plane, the thick-headed Max makes his way to Bartertown, an oasis in the endless Australian desert. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a further reorganising of the series' mythos, this time paying strict attention to the shape and heft of mid-80s blockbusters. In deference to the market the ever present sexual danger of the previous films is scaled back and action scenes are now peppered with Chuck Jones sight gags. This time Max must brave a fracturing proto-capitalist milieu, learning how to be a hero again in the process.

Max begins the film as a long-haired hermit loaded down with camels and more pistols than Carlos Ezquerra's El Mestizo. His dealings in Bartertown bring him to the attention of Aunty, a businesswoman looking to consolidate her hold on the settlement. In this section Max is willing to play assassin as long as it benefits him. Previously Max has needed an emotional investment to commit to a particular cause, even if it's something as slippery as pride. Thunderdome's Max begins as the inverse, he needs a reason not to kill.

Despite the PG-13 taming of the wasteland wanderer idea, Thuderdome proceeds from the most nihilistic point yet. Max never stopped moving. In two decades he never found anyone to share the day after with. Max has become a fallen hero, willing to murder someone he doesn't know to put money in his pocket. The third Mad Max is then about a man rediscovering himself bit by bit, testing his limits to redefine who he will be. Along the way several spectral signifiers present themselves to prod Max along.

Certain characters represent key decisions for Max, Thunderdome is rife with doppelgängers lifted from the highwayman's previous lives. The first significant signpost is Blaster, the armoured muscle that helps run Bartertown's subterranean pig farm. Blaster's true face, revealed after Max strikes off his metal helmet with a gigantic mallet, gives our hero pause. Glances are exchanged. Blaster smiles. Max relaxes. Perhaps Max remembers Benno, the strapping farmhand who lived with his friend May in Mad Max? Master talks about his beefy companion in exactly the same way May did - both are said to have the mind of a child. Either way, Max immediately snaps out of mercenary mode, ditching his weapon and revealing Aunty's seditious plot to the assembled crowd. Noble qualities are beginning to re-emerge.

Jedediah the aircraft pilot who mugged Max at the beginning of the film is played by Bruce Spence, who previously starred as the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2. Aside from both character's aeronautical bent, there's little evidence to suggest they're both the same man. We were told by the Feral Boy's closing narration that Gyro lived out his days as head of the great Northern tribe, not as a bleach blonde sky pirate. Apart from an opportunity to bring back the wonderfully slimy Spence, Jed plays like visual shorthand to stir something in Max - lanky beanpoles as an avatar for aerial escape.

Most importantly of all there's Savannah, the surrogate mother to a gang of lost children. Savannah is the sea change in Max, the person whose actions force him to stop and consider what he has lost and who he has become. Savannah is youth, decency and a sense of adventure, everything Max no longer has. She's Max's dead wife Jessie reimagined as a spear-wielding teenager, a female equal to The Road Warrior. Primarily, Savannah is used to demonstrate how far Max has fallen.

After Max refuses to be recognised as a messiah, the braver factions within the child tribe set off to find their promised land. Max uses a rifle and his physical power to restrain them, striking Savannah unconscious in the process. The children collectively wince. The film cuts to a scene later that day, the kids huddled together under a primitive log ceiling. They look glum. Savannah is bound and gagged while Max, dressed in furs, gorges himself on fruit. It's a small, fleeting scene but it's probably the most important sequence for Max the character. This is his lowest point, Max falling into the same vile behavioural patterns as his psychotic enemies.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is an uneven film. Its hero barely drives it, preferring to take a backseat and react his way through situations. It's telling that in the film's concluding chase we spend far more time following the misadventures of Ironbar, Aunty's muscle, than Max. Thunderdome is discursive and meandering where the first two films were dynamic and relentlessly kinetic. We spend a massive amount of time in the company of white children dressed as Aboriginal Australians telling pidgin tales about a boring, specifically nuclear apocalypse. Action scenes are also few and far between, seemingly built to stress the more exciting moments from the previous year's mega-hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

What Thunderdome has going for it is a certain kind of bravery. It doesn't just put its hero at a disadvantage, it organically takes him to place that borders on the repulsive. The desert photography is relentlessly beautiful and directors George Miller and George Ogilvie aren't afraid to stop the film dead to detail their world. In these moments the film crackles. There's very little in the post-apocalyptic canon as poignant as a little girl and boy huddling around a dusty old record player to learn French.

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