Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Radioactive Theatre: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

It is amazing how a little bit of money can ruin a perfectly good apocalypse.

Just four years prior to the release of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a little movie called Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) set the standard for all post-apocalyptic movies with a budget of $2 million dollars (US). The movie went on to earn eleven times that amount at the box office in the US alone. It’s therefore no surprise that the sequel saw its budget inflated to three times its predecessor’s and had a whole lot more people interested in the success of the film. In Hollywood, that’s usually a recipe for a disaster and Thunderdome can’t quite escape that morass unscathed.

Before we get down to the nitty gritty, here’s the thumbnail recap:

Max, last seen standing alone on a desolate stretch of highway, is still wandering the wasteland. With the last of the V-8 Interceptors a smoldering ruin, Max has traded in horsepower for camel-power to haul his wreck of a truck across the desert. That is, until he’s cold-cocked by the landing gear of a Transavia PL-12 and finds his camels and vehicle heading off into the desert without him. Luckily, Max has replaced his dog with a monkey, who tosses Max his boots and bosun’s whistle—which will come in handy later. Everything’s better with monkeys.

Hot on the trail of his hijacked vehicle, Max makes his way to Bartertown, a sort of Los Vegas/Mos Eisley/flea market that represents the return of civilized life to the wasteland. When Max finds his camels up for sale, he makes a stink that attracts the attention of Bartertown’s head honcho, Tina Turner (Aunty Entity, really, but I think the movie is improved by pretending Tina, finding her singing career dead after the apocalypse, becomes a semi-benevolent despot). Aunty has a problem: a certain “George and Lennie” duo named Master-Blaster that effectively runs Bartertown via a stranglehold on the settlement’s methane supply (energy consumption and control being a recurring theme throughout the Mad Max series). If Max kills Blaster, he’ll, like a country-western song played backwards, get his weapons back, his truck back, his camels back, etc. Max takes the deal, showing exactly how far his morality has crumbled since his days as a police officer prior to civilization’s collapse.

Through an arranged conflict, Max finds himself in the Thunderdome, which is the film’s greatest contribution to Western culture so I need not elaborate. During the fight, Max discovers that Master, hulking brute that he is, is mentally disabled and has a child’s intellect. When Max refuses the kill Blaster, Aunty, sensing that her administration is about to have some uncomfortable questions lobbed at it, gets Maxgate swept under the rug by strapping him to a horse, planting an oversized Carnival head on him, and sending him out into the desert.

Normally, this would be a death sentence, but Max is discovered by the band of ridiculously-named, adolescent hunters-and-gatherers. The movie then picks up an aviation theme and runs with it, which is appropriate because this part of the plot almost causes the whole film to crash and burn.

It turns out that these kids were all survivors of a plane crash that occurred not long after the fall of civilization. Organized by the messianic figure of Captain Walker, a small group of adults and children fled the cities aboard a jet liner only to go down in the wasteland. The adults, probably as annoyed by the kids as I was, decide to abandon them to go find help. They wisely never come back for them, leaving the children to grow up, go all Blue Lagoon, and wait for Captain Walker to return to take them to “Tomorrow-morrow Land,” that magical place where steel-eyed airline pilots live in luxury with their Vegas showgirl wives.

The kids mistake Max for Walker in a most contrived plot development, but Max sets them straight quick after realizing he’s about six seconds away from wandering into Daddy Daycare territory. Some of the kids say “Screw you, old man,” and decide to head off to Bartertown, which they mistake for the Land of Pilots and Showgirls. Max, perhaps seeking redemption or just trying to avoid spending the rest of his life with these mouth-breathers, heads back to Bartertown to save the Kids Who Went. The Kids Who Stayed are thankfully never seen again.

It will surprise nobody to discover that the kids quickly find themselves in hot water (or at least warm pig shit) and Max has to rescue them. In the process, Max blows up Bartertown before escaping with the kids, a convict named Pig-Killer, and the previously mentioned Master, who, like so many of his race (see Yoda), is a mental genius yet unable to speak using coherent sentence structure.

A train-and-car chase erupts when Aunty sets off in pursuit of Max and her escaped brain trust. Luckily, Max runs into the same father-and-son team that stole his camels at the start of the movie and everybody but Max escapes in the airplane, leaving Max to face Aunty Entity –who chuckles and leaves. The film ends with the kids who left now established in the ruins of Sydney with a new civilization growing around them.

You’ve probably guessed that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is not my favorite of the series. It is a film that doesn’t seem to know what it’s supposed to be about or who its audience is. Digging around a bit to get the behind the scene story makes it clear that Thunderdome was following a wildly spinning compass from the very start.

Thunderdome began life not as a Mad Max film, but instead about a group of children living in the wild without parental figures. When the screenwriters began tossing ideas of who might find these kids around, Max’s name dropped into the mix and the film was reworked as a Mad Max vehicle. And since Mad Max 2 had been a hot property, this film found American financing sniffing around it and offering up gobs of cash, which is why you get Tina Turner shoehorned into the largely Aussie cast. A bigger budget also calls for a wider audience, so the film was shot with a PG rating in mind.

On a tragic note, Byron Kennedy, producer of the first two Mad Max films and a friend of director George Miller, died in a helicopter crash prior to shooting. Miller lost interest in the project in the wake of Kennedy’s death and a co-director was hired to take some of the weight off his shoulders. This second director, George Ogilvie, handled most of direction so that Miller could concentrate on the action sequences.

To further burden the movie, the children actors are not especially memorable or gifted one. Many eyes glaze over once they show up in the film, which brings the movie to a screeching halt just as things get going. This, however, is not the strangest decision regarding actors in the film.

For years, I never could understand the relationship dynamic between the character played by Bruce Spence and Max. They had formed a partnership if not friendship during the events of Mad Max 2, but events in the film separated them by the end. I always assumed that the hijacking of Max’s truck at the start of the film was a random accident, as it must be hard to identify a robed figure sitting atop a buckboard while clinging precariously to the wing of a moving aircraft. I figured that it was this perceived betrayal that leaves Max and the pilot at odds near the climax of the film. But then, to my surprise, I learned that Bruce Spence is not playing the same character in both films.

The decision to have Spence play two pilots in the wasteland and do nothing to differentiate them other than change aircraft and give one character an actual name (which is never mentioned on screen) boggles the mind. You can’t blame poor Spence for the situation and one wonders if even he was informed that he was indeed playing another character before the film finished shooting. I think this is another sign of the film’s lack of specific direction.

I will give a hearty round of applause to Tina, however. She’s got charisma and presence, and she holds her own on the screen in a role that she appears to be having a lot of fun with.

Phew. I guess my issues with this one go deeper than I imagined. Now that I’ve vented them, let’s look at what there is to steal for a Gamma World campaign. There’s not a whole lot, but the stuff worth taking is all 100% pure cinematic beef.

Top of the list is Thunderdome, no questions asked. Whether as wasteland justice, Cryptic Alliance initiation, or an alternative to jugging, the apocalypse will forever remain incomplete without a Thunderdome or at least a similar form of public execution/sports entertainment. One of its ilk will be incorporated somehow into campaign.

Next is Bartertown itself. While the trend in later editions of Gamma World was to bump up the tech levels and baseline civilization development at the start of the game, I’m old school apocalypse and the idea of a grungy, rad counter clicking settlement with a bar and grill called the “Atomic CafĂ©” hits all my right buttons. There will be Bartertown, albeit under a different moniker. I’m on the fence about the pig shit power plants though. Maybe big honking mutant pigs instead…

Third and final thing to steal:

Cow F’ing Car: Don’t cruise the wasteland without it!

I was going to cover The Quiet Earth in a future installment of Radioactive Theatre, but some time has elapsed since I watched it for this series and my impressions of the film have grown a bit dim. Although an entertaining film, I’m not certain if I want to go back there again so soon just to cover it here. From what I remember, there is not a lot worth stealing for an outright Gamma World game. I may instead do a big budget Hollywood double feature next month and cover both The Road and The Book of Eli. I need to think on it.


edowar39 said...

Nice write up on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. You pretty much hit it spot on. And while it's not the best Mad Max movie, it's still a decent post-apocalypse movie (I've seen far, far worse).

If you're looking for more movies with potential Gamma World inspiration, check out She with Sandhal Bergman and Omega Doom with Rutger Hauer, if you haven't already.

She has some gonzo stuff in it, like a gang of Nazi-wannabes feaks and a cult that worships a god-like mutant fellow, while Omega Doom is basicaly a post-apocalyptic remake of Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars/Last Man Standing, only the two warring gangs are robots fighting over a 'treasure' of buried guns.

On second though you probably don't actually need to watch Omega Doom; I've just told you everything you really need to know about it for Gamma World inspiration. :)

Ed Green

JB said...

Excellent stuff (and thanks for the behind the scenes anecdotes). As far as theft-worthy stuff for a game, I think you just about nailed it...though a random, Lord of the Flies community of ignoramuses wouldn't be a terrible wilderness encounter (depending on how close the campaign is set to the apocalypse).

I did a similar analysis of The Road and the Book of Eli for similar reasons (game-worthy material) back when they first came out on video. Unfortunately, I found very little worth purloining. MAYBE Oldman's obsession with Eli's book (though Eli himself? Nuh-uh). I suppose random acts of cannibalism if you're into that kind of thing...

JDJarvis said...

Great write-up.

Bruce spence plays two different but identical characters in two films in the same franchise......that's nuts.

W said...

Beyond Thunderdome's weird 'Mr Walker' material is an homage to Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker - as is 'Aunty,' the name given to the creepy mythic witch-woman in the book. Riddley is an astonishing post-apocalyptic tale set in a broken-down England ('Inland') going through a second Iron Age, living in the wreckage of our era.

It's probably the single coolest bit of Gamma World inspiration there is - and is, by the way, a nearly perfect (and relatively short) novel.

Carter Soles said...

Yes, great write-up, spot on. A real tragedy about the death of Kennedy -- I have long wondered what might this film have been with Miller-Kennedy at the helm?