The budget for Mad Max was less than $700,000. The Road Warrior was given ample financial banking with a $2 million budget, and George Miller’s vision flourished and expanded. But Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was a true blue Hollywood production, the first in the series to have American financial backing, and its budget was a whopping $12 million. Beyond Thunderdome looks and feels entirely different from its predecessors, sometimes in good ways, other times in ways that steal the charm and grit away from the franchise. I imagine Mad Max: Fury Road will be similar in tone to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but hopefully it will incorporate the violent texture of the best film in the series, The Road Warrior.
Our hero, Max, has moved on from the events in The Road Warrior, and the world that had fallen completely apart is showing signs of re-establishing, albeit in strange and eccentric ways. Max, now a vagabond with a caravan and a fleet of camels, has his caravan stolen immediately. The pursuit of the thief – that pesky gyro captain from The Road Warrior and his rambunctious son – leads him to Bartertown, a ramshackle new society powered by methane gas from pig excrement (like I said, re-establishing in strange ways). This new economy is led by Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner in the most Americanized aspect of this third film.
Aunty and the leaders of Bartertown tell Max he can get his property back if he agrees to fight in the Thunderdome, what looks like an upside down wicker bowl where two people fight suspended on bungee systems. The Thunderdome itself is one of Miller’s wonderful creative flourishes in this film, where his world has been fully realized. Max agrees to the showdown, and after the fight with Master Blaster – the names in the Mad Max universe are the absolute best – Max finds himself adrift in the desert before he is picked up by a ragtag group of young nomads, a post-apocalyptic version of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys.
Without bogging in plot details and developments, I will simply say Max’s time with this commune in the desert, where they deify him and speak of “flying caravans” and promise elsewhere, leads to a chase sequence through the Outback that is even more elaborate and robust than the one in The Road Warrior. In the end, perhaps Max has regained his humanity. Always the reluctant defender of those in need, Mel Gibson and the screenplays keep Max at a distance, being acted upon rather than initially acting. The Mad Max films are less about the character and more about those around the character who force him into action.
But something about this chase at the end doesn’t feel as authentic. The stunts and the action appear to be taken in the same realistic vein as everything in this franchise, but here the danger feels slight compared to the ferocity of The Road Warrior. It is due in most part to the fact that the threat, Aunty Entity and her steampunk band of weirdos, sometimes weird for the sake of being so, are not nearly as threatening as Wez and The Humungus. There is never that sense of danger that is absolutely imperative to making these films work. Thankfully for everyone, at least Turner’s performance is more pomp and circumstance than an integral part to the story, because acting is not her strong suit.
The lack of a dangerous villain is probably the main reason Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was rated PG-13 instead of R. The direction of Miller, along with George Ogilvie who handled the large cast and dramatic moments in between the action scenes, remains energetic. Because in Miller’s mind lies this elaborate and textured world of madness and chaos, and his love for this creation shines in every moment. Here, he is given more money and more creative power to completely detail his world, and in that he succeeds. But there is the unfortunate problem of studio interference that waters down the dark side of the story in order to sell more tickets.
Thankfully, in the promos for Mad Max: Fury Road, this studio interference feels nonexistent. Hopefully that is the case, and Miller has been able to combine the best parts of these last two films into one Lovely Day.