Monday, June 5, 2023

80's Watch: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Watched:  06/02/2023
Format:  Watch Party
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  George Miller

In memory of the great Tina Turner, this week we put on Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) for our group watch party.  This is also the last one for the summer (or longer).  Life is resuming, and while I enjoy the experience, my own life and those of the folks who participated, has changed once again.  

Anyway, this was a movie I saw at age 10 and in the theater.  Subsequently, it played interminably on HBO, I believe, during one of the periods where my parents would pay for premium cable, and I'd seen it a lot during a crucial window in my life.  I'm well aware that it's not a patch on The Road Warrior, and in its way, not as fresh as the first Mad Max.  And, it's just not as good as Fury Road, which feels like the real distillation of the concepts and final word on the idea of Mad Max - until George Miller does it again.

But it's still a watchable movie and has more ideas per minute than a season of most sci-fi TV.  And like all sci-fi that works, it feels plausible and comments back to us about who we are.  

This Mad Max film sees Max wander into a town where capitalism has met with the apocalypse and you can't enter unless you have something to trade.  Having recently been relieved of his camels(!) and car, Max is recruited to kill the muscle of a brains/ muscle combo by the person who founded Bartertown but has lost control of it to an engineer who is turning pig shit into methane.  

Like I say: lots of ideas.

One of the funny things about the Miller-envisioned dystopia of Mad Max is that it's not all kick-ass fighting o the edge of the world to see who comes out on top.  It's not - as many C-level post-apocalyptic movies would have it, just who is the biggest bad-ass in this environment.  With the Road Warrior, we start on the pattern of Max finding some glimmer of humanity that he winds up fighting for.  Road Warrior saw him form an alliance with the people of gas-town.  Fury Road was protecting captive women and eventually freeing a whole burgeoning civilization.  This film sees Max getting by and fighting just to stay two steps ahead of calamity until he fails in Thunderdome (his own humanity intact to some degree as he refuses to murder) and winds up sent into the desert and certain death. Until he's discovered by a herd of kids.

It's essentially a Lost Boys scenario, but with a dark(er) edge.  These kids were *abandoned* by the adults who wandered out into the desert never to return, leaving the kids to survive.  If any adults were with them, they died long ago.  Now, they're a weird cargo cult with their own religion based around the belief the pilot of the jet they arrived in will come back and fly them away.  

The only real read I have is Miller pondering how innocence would flourish in the world he's imagined, and how anyone could have a belief in a better tomorrow.  You would absolutely have to have no idea what the world was before, and once the movie extrapolates how that would even happen, stuff gets weird.  But I also think it's an inherently interesting idea.  That said, because I saw the movie at such a young age and internalized it, I'm not sure that I can measure the failure or success of the execution.

The first part of the film within Bartertown is interesting enough and maybe could have carried the film.  The notion of settling disputes in an arena where two men enter, one man leaves feels very on-brand for the world we've seen across the prior films.  It's the craving for law and order in simple rhymes that feels oddly buyable in the era of Trumpism and the now nano-second long attention-grabbers looking for a mnemonic device to create recall and impression.  Say what you will, but Bartertown is *fair*, and those who enter know what they signed up for.  Propped up by energy and the charisma of Aunty Entity (Turner) it points to a myth-less, soulless future of civilization of transaction and commerce as the only instinct in humans.  Thunderdome removes the middle-man of a justice system for one of might making right.

Certainly those who see the appearance of a child on screen and allowing kids to talk is a sign of not-bad-addness, and who believe not-bad-assness = not good, will find the movie wearying.  Others will find a cult of kids who are living through a self-created mythology to be irritating.  And it is.  It's cognitive dissonance with what we know both of the world and Max's world. 

But I also think it's pointing to what stories and myth provide to humanity, and that's ideas and hope.  The Bartertown residents will continue to one-up and murder each other, and the kids who wind up in the bones of the cities will build a civilization, retconning the actual events that transpired to match the myths they carried with them.

I don't think it's a mistake that when he returned to the idea in Fury Road that no one in the film was particularly innocent.  Miller had covered that story.  But he did return to the idea of humanity and finding a better way - plus flamethrowers.  It was a chance to investigate how people who maintain a vision despite the world around them can show others how to thrive. 

Anyway, like all Mad Max, which is made from an outline and dialog cobbled together from page notes and storyboards and improvisation, Beyond Thunderdome can feel a little rough.  But I'd argue that's part of the aesthetic and what makes it work.  I like the call-and-response religious overtones of the film, of Max sorting through his roles as he moves from sequence to sequence, and the ideas tossed around moment to moment.  But I also understand it's not going to satisfy every viewer.  And it may be the least of the Mad Max films, toned down a bit to draw in the 10 year olds like me who paid our allowance to see it.

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