Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome Review

The Movie

After letting the world know that the Australians can do action with Mad Max and creating a high-octane masterpiece of a sequel, director George Miller revisited his iconic character for a third time in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But this time it was without his long-time producing partner Byron Kennedy, who’d died in a helicopter crash two years prior whilst scouting for locations. It is said that Miller’s heart just wasn’t in it after the death of his friend, and so George Ogilvie (who’d just worked with Miller on the Bodyline mini-series) was drafted in as co-director. The story, co-written by Terry Hayes, picks up Max’s trail in the middle of the badlands, him having been last seen battered and bloody – but very much alive – at the end of Mad Max 2.

A chance encounter with a high-flying thief (who looks strangely familiar) leads Max to Bartertown, a seething den of filth where a man’s life is valued only by the worth of his possessions – and Max has nothing to his name, apart from his fearsome skills as a warrior. After a short but brutal ‘interview’ with Aunty Entity, who's the boss of this blighted burg, she offers Max a deal: wipe out her main enemy and she’ll give him all the provisions he’ll need to restart his trek through the wilderness. Max agrees and heads into the bowels of the town to do a recce on his opponent, finding a cavernous pig farm where their, ah, emissions are harnessed to provide power for the community above. This 'Underworld' is run by Master Blaster, a curious combination of a dwarf hitching a ride on a huge lump of a man; one is the brains, the other, the brawn. The little Master is getting ideas above his station, cutting off Bartertown's power to humiliate Aunty, and he is Max’s target.

A death match is engineered between Max and the giant Blaster in the town’s infamous Thunderdome – “Two men enter! One man leaves!” – but Max fails to administer the death blow and, having reneged on his contract with Aunty, he's banished into the desolate wasteland. Near death, Max is tended to by an unlikely rescuer, a girl from a tribe of children who are descended from the survivors of a nearby plane crash. Emboldened by the discovery of this man, whom they think is the long-lost leader of their troop, some of the tribe set off in search of civilisation only to succumb to the dangers of the desert. Max finds them on the outskirts of Bartertown, and to save their lives he must face off against the ruthless Aunty Entity and once more dredge up that which he thought lost: his very humanity.

Mel Gibson simply is Max, putting in an understated performance that’s typically short on words but full of the physicality that the series is known for (picking up a stunt performer credit in the process). Tina Turner nabs second billing as Aunty and she doesn’t disgrace herself, conveying the character with a flamboyant air that’s in keeping with the series’ tradition of outlandish villains. Bruce Spence pops up again after his role as the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2, playing Jedediah the Pilot and causing endless debate amongst Mad Maxers as to whether he’s actually the same character. He’s certainly got better teeth than the Captain! The kids do well, giving sweet performances as these lost boys and girls, and their near-naked innocence is an obvious visual contrast to the bulky, built-up costumes of the marauders who populate these films.

Thunderdome has long been considered the red-headed stepchild of the trilogy, but I’ve always liked it. The bigger budget allows for a grander sense of scale, expanding beyond the simple translation of the barren Outback as a post-nuclear environment, and Miller finally gives us some haunting images of the old world. Maurice Jarre’s music also contributes to that feeling of a bigger canvas, evoking the sweep of his legendary work on Lawrence of Arabia, as well as introducing a clanking industrial motif for Bartertown. He even works in a bit of native Aussie flavour by way of a didgeridoo. It’s a far cry from the propulsive energy of Brian May’s coarse, rasping scores on the first two films, but then Thunderdome does take Max in a different direction, painting him as a more dejected character; he’s a pawn in Aunty's game rather than a hard-driving nutter in control of his own destiny.

The third act does return us to more familiar territory, with the tribe of sprogs being an expansion of the ‘Feral Kid’ device from the previous film, and Max is again tasked with the responsibility of leading a group of stranded souls to their salvation, whilst being chased by a bunch of sports-gear-clad S&M loons. But, ironically enough, it’s when the movie shifts up a gear that it runs out of steam because we’ve seen it done better in the previous film, and the PG-13 rating means that the action sorely lacks the bloody impact and somewhat spiteful edge seen in the prior instalments. Whether this was intended all along by Miller or a studio decision I cannot say with any certainty, although I would lean towards to the latter given the ostentatious inclusion of the Tina Turner songs that open and close the film.

Miller’s comic sensibilities still shine through in the climactic chase scene – giving weight to the notion that he directed the action beats while Ogilvie did the rest – yet it’s not enough to distract from what is a virtual replay of the big rig escape at the end of Mad Max 2. The ending itself is also a re-run of what went before but with more expansive visuals, Miller displaying a George-Lucas-like tendency to remake certain aspects of his movies when he gets a bit more money to play with on the sequels.

Still, Thunderdome has just enough momentum to limp over the finish line, much like Max himself who resumes his journey (to nowhere in particular) as the film ends. He’ll no doubt find trouble again at some stage, either that or it'll find him...

The Disc

This premiere Blu-ray release is presented on an all-region US platter and is stuffed to the gunwales with extra language tracks, as per Warners’ usual M.O. You can buy it on its own or as part of a trilogy set (the US Blu-rays of Mad Max and Mad Max 2 are reviewed here and here respectively). Oh, and kudos to Warners for retaining Richard Amsel's lovely poster art as the cover image.

The movie is framed at 2.40 widescreen, in keeping with the 35mm anamorphic origination, though it has just the tiniest sliver of matting down the sides of the image. The first thing that you’ll notice is how unstable the main titles are, quivering from side to side (it’s probably telecine judder rather than gate weave as shot) and this effect continues throughout much of the film, along with a noticeable amount of flickering. It undermines the stability of what is an otherwise competent transfer.

As with its predecessor, Thunderdome eschews bold primaries for a drier, dustier look, and the desert exteriors are practically bleached of colour, though the greenery of the tribe’s cave dwelling comes across well enough. Contrast runs fairly hot at the brighter end of the range, though it means we also get some very solid blacks during daylight hours. Darker shots are more problematic, especially the night exteriors which look somewhat jaded and dull, but such is the fate of many a low-light shot throughout the history of film. They are what they are.

Grain is prominent throughout, not least during the aforementioned night-time scenes, and it takes on a coarser form during the opticals, as well it should. Detail also hardens up during those shots, natch, but away from all the fades and dissolves it’s very respectable, allowing us to see every link in Aunty’s chainmail outfit. The opticals also offer up some occasional scratches and marks, though the rest of the film is fine. I spotted no unsightly edge sharpening, and this AVC encode has no trouble with the myriad of swirling dust storms throughout the film, nor do the numerous fades provoke any banding.

The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 sound is, again, much like that of its forerunner, betraying its mid-1980’s heritage with a mix that lacks the all-round ambience of a modern 5.1 track. Speech is rendered cleanly enough, as is Jarre’s music and the Tina Turner songs that bookend the film, and there’s a good sense of balance to the mix in general, as no one element outweighs the other. Steerage across the soundstage is more focused on the front array, with sporadic effects from the rears like the flyovers of Jedediah’s plane or the chatter of the audience during Max’s battle with Blaster. Bass comes through with a little more oomph, underpinning gunshots, explosions and whatnot - not to mention the thwacks of the giant mallet that Max wields in the Thunderdome - but it lacks precision, sounding somewhat flabby.

Unfortunately there are no extras aside from a crummy old US trailer presented in crummy old 480i. It’s a damned shame that Warners have never deigned to give us anything more substantial, yet all of the Mad Max films are strangely underrepresented in terms of extras.

Overall

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome starts off as an interesting change of scenery for Max but it soon descends into an outright remake, although it’s still an enjoyable ride. This Blu-ray has decent picture and sound, with one or two technical issues that preclude it from getting higher marks. The lack of extras is criminal, meaning that this disc is for Mad Max completists only.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
0 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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