It isn’t difficult to find issue with Beyond Thunderdome, nor is it difficult to pinpoint the root cause of the problems: Hollywood money, and the desire to go big or go home. Both things that Miller used like a sledgehammer in Fury Road 30 years later to wonderful effectiveness, but which here see him step up and trip over the need to focus on a plot that doesn’t much go anywhere. The pure cinema appeal of the series is certainly lost (with Fury Road, Miller managed to go big without inducing a case of the talkies), but it doesn’t do well to overly criticize something for simply having a more elaborate story. Still, admittedly, the focus on “plot” for Beyond Thunderdome sacrifices the queasy, nihilistic immediacy of the original Max and the off-kilter humor and the implacable malaise hanging over The Road Warrior, a malaise brought on precisely by the fact that the film never much “went” anywhere plot wise and established, instead, a feeling of stagnancy.
Still, the focus on “plot” only means that Beyond Thunderdome is less special than its predecessors; it does not make it a bad film. What does make it an almost, not-quite bad film, though, is that the story is a mess when it isn’t out-and-out saccharine nonsense. The set-up is solid, with Max running headfirst into an established marketplace town of Bartertown, run by Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) and forcing an uneasy alliance with her in a bid to take down the pugnacious Master Blaster (a pair, one small, mechanical, and intellectual, and one hulking and brutish, played respectively by Angelo Rossitto and Paul Larsson). There is a decent short film in this extended prologue or set-up, and the earlier portions of Max’s banishment into the desert are, if not as rotting and tactile in their sand-encrusted misery as The Road Warrior or a blunt and challenging as Mad Max, solid mid-’80s escapist fare (something the film never rises above, unfortunately).
Still, even from the beginning, these is a sense of bombastic crispness to the proceedings, a sense of unearned sheen that just doesn’t help fill in this world with worry and woe. It is a highly presentational film, bearing the look of a Hollywood pageant more than a genuine alien world, but it isn’t presentational enough that it might double back and become a sort of meta-commentary on the Hollywood nature of “Mad Max the New Hollywood boy”. Fury Road, for instance, went so far in the direction of Hollywood circus that, if not a commentary per-se, it utilized the fictional qualities of the film operatically and so proudly that they became statements to set design and costuming and fiction themselves. Beyond Thunderdome is stuck between a dusty rock and a gilded hard place, never able to move far enough to one side to really sell any version of this world, be it forlorn dirt or chic mosh-pit costume ball.
But Beyond Thunderdome has bigger problems than its decent, unspectacular opening material. It’s when Max encounters the perpetual bane of 1985, the one thing seemingly contracted to be in every single Hollywood film released that year and an unshakable plague of grotesque, festering, flesh-crawling proportions, that things go awry. What does he encounter, you ask? He meets a band of desert children. Furthermore, he grows fond of them, and then he follows them back to Bartertown when they make a break for the society, eventually finding himself forced to protect them and lead them back from whence they came with the new hope of a tanker truck. All of this never amounts to much, “evolving” the story under a somewhat childish conception where-in “evolving” is synonymous with throwing in arbitrary details and unnecessary complication. The first two films were pure in their ruthless simplicity and stripped-barren approach to storytelling, but here Miller develops a case of the mumbles and presses too vigilantly on the wounds of these children to tell their tale in a distinctly saccharine mode of more talk-y less show-y, which is absolutely antithetical to his strengths as a filmmaker.
Speaking of showing, the set design and cinematography (by Martin O’ Neill and Dean Semler respectively) indulge in a certain sweetness here and get so lost they never find their way back to the oasis of mayhem and dirge that establishes the hopeless weight of the series. They just can’t help making that rusted Outback look too pretty for its own good. Beyond Thunderdome is just too over-produced a film to attain the demented carnival ride texture of The Road Warrior, and it at times ends up closer to an after-school special about the dangers of abandoning your home. Miller is just too proud and content to be making a Big Ol’ Hollywood film that he loses the effortless grace and luminously hard-hitting gutter-punk howl of his previous features, creating something that is lumpy and ungainly, and even trite instead.
The decision to literalize the “Mad Max as myth” issue also comes off as extremely condescending; this mythic subtext is so obviously ingrained in visual cues dotting the series (as well as some of the best material in this film) that the decision to have characters explicitly state that Max is their mythic hero comes off as a lack of trust on Miller’s part that his audience will be able to read his visuals. The storytelling is also deeply confused in this middle portions of the film, moving from scene to scene in quintessentially Max-ian impressionistic strokes that definitionally focus on mood over narrative while trying to marry these strokes to a more “full” sense of narrative.
It has the air of a “Mad Max” to bring home to your parents, and what fun is a wasteland of human woe and deranged energy when you have to look over your shoulder every few minutes to check that your parents approve? At the very least, it has the good grace to come back around and end on a real banger of a car chase, the best sustained sequence of tension in the entire film, but it almost feels like a consolation prize.
A sequence that, in all honesty, betters anything in the previous two films for craft and size, if not the rushing physicality and barbarian energy of those films at their best. Still, although the pg-13 rating thins it out a bit more than it ought to, Miller is able to keep things from sanitization, as he is for the earlier portions of the film. Earlier portions, which, if let down by some of the too-clean production, almost qualify as a masterclass in secrecy, in hiding information, in retaining an elusive mystique, and, especially, in showing rather than telling. Bartertown, at least, is a fairly sublime movie location by the standards of ’80s pop, all twitchy and demented and hurting for energy, and the pageantry is far up from in The Road Warrior (again, the design can seem a touch ostentatious and less lived-in and damaged when all is said and done, kind of a grand end-of-the-world dress-up party and not an actual apocalypse).
Through it all, Gibson also retains his quietly knowing stare, and Tina Turner is a dynamic, spirited, sultry, and even sinister villain when she is around at the beginning and end of the film. Plus, as we all know by now, the actual Thunderdome sequence is a treasure of the cinema, perfectly edited and high-flying and shot with an almost chiaroscuro lighting that sees Max and Blaster dancing in a light of their own myth.
All of these are very real strengths to the film and enough to ensure its very real place in the chrome-gilded pantheon of destructive action pics. But this doesn’t change the fact that, for a great long time, Beyond Thunderdome is in the business of being stable, static, and respectable, or, in other words, all of the things that no one in their right mind would want a Mad Max sequel to be and all of the things that Miller corrected with Fury Road. For this reason, Beyond Thunderdome is, if not a bad film per-se, a deeply uneasy and difficult melding of Miller’s aesthetic vision and Hollywood royalty, and by far the worst film in the franchise.