Friday 8 May 2015

Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome

Thunder Woman

Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome
Australia 1985
Directed by George Miller & George Ogilvie
MGM Blu Ray Region B

So I finally watched the last movie in the original Mad Max trilogy... but this seemed like something completely different to what had gone before and, frankly, didn't seem nearly as sympathetic to the style of the previous two movies as it perhaps might have been. Turns out there’s a couple of good reasons for this which I was unaware of when I was watching this thing.

The first being that this was initially conceived as the story of a group of children in a post apocalyptic environment who would be found by an adult... which is pretty much the second half of the movie as it currently is. It wasn’t until a later stage of the script writing, however, that it was decided that the adult who finds them would turn out to be Mel Gibson’s, somehow strangely iconic, Mad Max character. So the pitch of the original story was never, in its original version, intended to follow on from the style of the first two films or even have Max in it... until it later took that direction.

Secondly, the producer of the first two films and friend of George Miller, Byron Kennedy, died in a helicopter crash scouting locations for this one. I guess this obviously had an effect on Miller and so he only handled the action scenes in this movie (and I can hazard a guess as to exactly which big sequence he did get involved with but I’ll get to that a little later)... the bulk of the film being directed by George Ogilvie.

Now, I don’t know for sure whether the film would have turned out radically different in style had Miller been directing the whole thing but, what I do know is that it noticeably doesn’t match the feel of the first two. Maybe because there was a bigger budget with American money in it... I don’t know... but it feels a heck of a lot more polished and, strangely and perhaps because of it, feels the most dated of the three films. You can tell just by looking at this one which decade of cinematic history it comes from.

The film feels different from it’s predecessors straight away because, as a standard credit roll starts, we have the first of two Tina Turner songs written for the film playing over these credits... which completely shifts the tone of this installment and pushes it into 'magical 1980s land' straight away... I’m surprised there wasn’t a load of break dancing inserted into this film somewhere, too.

After the credits we have another thing which took me out of the whole Mad Max feel of the saga... sweeping panoramic helicopter/plane POV style shots... this just seems totally out of place here. This is then followed by what is probably the strongest sequence of the movie, bar the final, obligatory chase scene and it’s a little scene of a vehicle being driven by camels followed by a pilot and his son disabling the driver with a dropped rock, stealing the vehicle and then heading into one of the two main locations of this film, Bartertown... where the Thunderdome of the title resides. When the driver of the camel towed vehicle wakes up he is revealed as Mel Gibson’s Max and he goes to the post apocalyptic town in search of the people who took his car.

Max now looks completely like the “star” version of Mel Gibson we all know and recognise but they’ve still kept certain elements of his look relating to injuries received in previous installments... they’ve also gone and given him the “full Elsa Lanchester” make over when it comes to a less toned down version of the double white hair streak in this one... as opposed to the single streak he had in the second movie. Gibson also carries a mauser for a few shots, which would have added greatly  to the whole iconic look of the character if he'd kept it all the way through but... this leaves his possession pretty early in the film. Which is a shame, really, because it’s a definite wink to Westerns like The Great Silence, which I suspect Miller would probably, judging from his directorial output in the trilogy, have been a big fan of.

Bartertown is a tough place to get into and looks vaguely like it belongs in a Conan movie but Max manages to cut a deal with the main leader of the town, Auntie (played by Tina Turner), so that he can get all the transport and gasoline he wants in return for killing half of a two man team that make up, together, the more powerful leader (although not in name) of Bartertown. The two in question are the midget Master (who runs the power in the community) and the giant henchman whose back he rides, Blaster (the two together make up... Master Blaster... this film is so 1980s).

Tina Turner is pretty iconic in herself, thanks to her costume, which hastwo  additional series’ of hoops circling through each ear.What this means is that, every time you see her looking straight on at the camera, the two sets of hoops on either side of her face form these striking, vertical patterns which are totally reminiscent of the headdress of an Egyptian queen or Pharaoh... which I thought was a nice touch with the costuming carrying an almost subconscious echo of her status as the official leader of Bartertown.

Max’s deal ultimately leads to a big fight scene, halfway through the movie, which may have looked good in the 1980s but really is just two geezahs in a big dome/cage (sorry... I meant the Thunderdome) trying to catch, punch, cut and mutilate each other while hanging from big bungee wires... this is so camp and laughable it’s unbelievable and I can’t imagine Gibson sitting still for this kind of thing these days but... hey... the 1980s.

All well and good but when Max holds back from killing Blaster, once he sees his face and understands a basic home truth about him, Max is thrown out of Bartertown into the desert with no food or water, to die... wearing something which largely resembles the exact same head masks that the Autons used in certain scenes of Doctor Who: Terror Of The Autons actually (reviewed here) ... so I’m guessing it must be a traditional mask design which has passed me by and not hit my radar anytime over my life (either that or George Miller is a closet Doctor Who fan).

And then the story goes somewhere completely different and this is another tonal jump for the saga because, in the second film which ties into the first, everybody is after the gasoline as a resource they need to survive and, although that particular carrot still holds true in this one... in this film it’s just a secondary driver to a more complex plot. That is to say, it’s not a single “do this to get that” mission kind of story... it goes all over the place. So when Max is rescued by a bunch of children who think he is the second coming, in the next half of the movie, the story almost splits into two separate things which the writers then try and tie back up in the end with an almost “tacked on” sequence where Max has to take a small group of them back to Thunderdome and then escape all over again, this time with various custom vehicles in hot pursuit. So the single mindedness and purity of the first two installments is jettisoned for something which is overly complicated and flashy... at least comparitively, in terms of being a Mad Max movie. It’s also a whole sequence of film which has a heck of a lot in common, both visually as well as in terms of the attitude of the content, with The Lost Boys from J. M Barrie’s famous story Peter Pan. I can’t help remembering an interview which Tina Turner gave at the time this movie was released. I probably saw this interview on something like Film '85 (as it would have been then) and Ms. Turner was asked what it was like working with Mel Gibson. I think the answer at the time was something along the lines of “Mel Gibson is a little boy/captures his inner child” etc and now, having seen the film, I wonder if she was latching onto the bizarre thematic element of the second half of the movie when she was contemplating her answer.

It’s during the last 20 minutes that the film finally starts looking, and feeling, like a Mad Max film again.... with the inevitable chase sequence involving a load of custom, weaponised and armoured cars chasing Max and whoever he happens to be with, this time escaping in a train which suddenly seems to have a bizarre track stretching out into the desert. I’ve got no idea what’s going on here or why this track would even exist but I’m not going to let logic get in the way when this is the only half decent part of the movie. I’m guessing, and it is only a guess so please let me know if I’m completely wrong here, that this is the sequence of the film which is well and truly directed by George Miller. The stunts and high speed shenanigans are reminiscent of the similar scenes in both Mad Max (reviewed here) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (reviewed here) and the ending to the chase is typical in that it leaves Max more or less exactly where the endings of the previous two had left him... a lone cowboy wandering the prairie plains to fend for himself and be a force of righteousness in a lawless land. Actually, as if the Western metaphors aren’t enough in this one, there’s even a scene in the first half of the movie, in the Thunderdome, where Max is announced as... The Man With No Name... so the writers of this are still, very much, wearing their influences on their sleeve, it seems.

One other thing that keeps the tone of the movie straying too far into proper Mad Max territory is a change of composer. This one isn’t scored by Brian May as the previous two were and, of course, it therefore has a different feel. This one is, in fact, scored by Maurice Jarre and it’s very hit and miss, at least in the sound mix in the movie, but contains some nice “metal percussion” elements and it’s quite appropriate to the images it’s supporting... it just feels a little too polished, again, for a Mad Max production but, definitely, works for what it was written for... so that’s a good thing, at least.

And that’s about as far as I’m riding with this one. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome really didn’t feel like it was a Mad Max movie at all for most of it’s running time and certain scenes, like the silly bungee jump fight scene, really shouldn’t be seen on anything outside of old TV episodes of It’s A Knockout, as far as I’m concerned. A competently put together movie, for the most part, but nothing too special and certainly not up to the level of the first two in the series. The fourth installment, sans Gibson in the title role, hits British cinemas in less than a week, at time of writing, and from the trailers, it looks closer in tone to the spirit of the first two movies while, at the same time, also looking terrifically overpolished for something to sit comfortably, shoulder to shoulder, with any of the movies in the original trilogy. Still, time will tell on that and you can be sure I’ll be reviewing it on here as soon as I’ve seen it. Please come back and have a read... if you’ve got a few minutes.

Mad Max @ NUTS4R2

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