Whenever it feels like the end of the world, the word “Thunderdome” ultimately pops up somewhere. It’s like Godwin’s Law of terrible circumstances. For example, in the week before social distancing, the bottled water section of my local Costco was a full-on Thunderdome of people pushing, shoving, and trying to outwit the “one case per person” rule.
Sure, Hunger Games also applies to these situations, but long before Katniss ever volunteered as Tribute, a guy named Mad Max got thrown into a cage match to fight on behalf of Tina Turner. And that’s not even the weirdest part of this film.
Directed by George Miller, who has written, directed, and produced all the films in the Mad Max franchise, as well as…Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2 (talk about range)… Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome takes us back to the 1980s era of post-nuclear apocalypses. Our hero, Max (Mel Gibson, back when he was a heartthrob), wanders into a place called Bartertown, where the citizens and traders dress like someone who has never heard of BDSM decided to design haute couture for that community. Bartertown is run by a woman called Aunty (Tina Turner), whose power (both literal and figurative) is threatened by a guy called Master and his thug Blaster. Through some convoluted red herring plot points, Max winds up fighting Blaster in the eponymous Thunderdome on behalf of Aunty so that Master will STFU and let her run Bartertown. Aunty kicks off “another episode of Thunderdome!” by ziplining in on a throne-like a badass, and then Mel Gibson fights for his life in an extremely well-shot action sequence. Aunty turns against Max and he’s thrown out into the desert wasteland. Just as he’s about to die, he’s found by the leader of a tribe of feral children, which makes nothing but sense. Any parent stuck doing distance learning with their kids right now will recognize the filthy, half-dressed kids as our collective worst nightmare slowly coming true.
The half-pints think Max is there to save them, but he loudly and grumpily assures them he’s not. Somehow, a group of the children, led by Max, wind up at Bartertown, then have to escape Bartertown, and then the kids head back to what’s left of Sydney and Max is…wandering the desert again and the audience is left wondering what the hell just happened for the last 106 minutes.
So basically, this movie is named after one small part of the entire story, and “Thunderdome” as a cultural touchstone refers to that one short scene.
Aunty kicks ass with humor and delight. You can tell that Turner had a ball from the very moment she first sees the ultra-tough guy Max and takes him down a peg with the shade, “But he’s just a raggedy man!” Thankfully that’s not the only instantly quotable line we get from Turner; unfortunately, she’s in barely half the movie.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that she’s one of only four Cluvies in this entire film, and she’s definitely the only person of color. In a world that takes place in a burnt-out area of Australia, that’s not too far away from Sydney, and with a cast of hundreds of extras, Turner’s is the only face we see that’s naturally dark and not dark from the sun or mud or pig poop. If there was even a single Indigenous Australian/Aboriginal person in the entire movie, they were well-hidden in the background.
When Max first meets Aunty she tells him that before the apocalypse she was “a nobody.” We never get much more than this for Aunty’s backstory, though it sounds like it was probably substantial — she created Bartertown from nothing, but we get no inkling how she did it, or what it cost her. Instead of delving more into this fascinating history, we get Mel Gibson yelling at filthy children. It’s as if Miller changed his mind halfway through writing the script and decided that he’d rather make a version of Lord of the Flies, but with teen pregnancy.
This brings us to the next Cluvie, Savannah Nix (Helen Buday), co-leader of the feral children and the one who finds Max in the desert. For what it’s worth she has a decently meaty role as a storyteller and leader; Buday does a respectable job of holding her own against Gibson. But Savannah and Aunty never address one another, and so Beyond Thunderdome fails the Bechdel Test.
The other two Cluvies are Master and Blaster. The former is played by Angelo Rossitto, a 2’11” actor with dwarfism. The latter is played in two parts: for most of the film, someone else plays the masked Blaster, but during a crucial moment in his fight against Max in the Thunderdome, Blaster is unmasked as a slow-witted man with a baby face, played by actor Stephen Hayes, who has Down Syndrome. So that’s it for Cluvies: one black woman, one teenage girl, an old man with dwarfism, and an actor with Down Syndrome.
Beyond Thunderdome is a fun watch if you keep your expectations low, especially because it features that staple of Mad Max films: an exciting road chase. But anyone looking for people of color after the end of the world will find Beyond Thunderdome to be a mostly barren wasteland.
Movie Review originally published by Meredith Morgenstern on Medium