Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the occasion for a very rare type of disappointment for me: the inevitable realization that not every film made by a great director is going to be a masterpiece. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a good enough film, but it is not nearly as good as The Road Warrior or George Miller's segment of The Twilight Zone. It's just a solid action film, not really anything special, and that disappoints me more than a full-blown artistic failure. The latter can be seen as overambition or merely a valiant effort that failed. A perfectly average film, though, suggests that maybe the director doesn't have a lot of juice in him, maybe he's shown us everything he has already. (For a good example of this contrast, compare 1941 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 1941 is definitely a failure, but it's a failure because Spielberg tried something different that just didn't work. IJTOD failed because Spielberg lazily tried to copy precisely what he had done before rather than do the real work of coming up with something new.)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, co-directed by Miller and George Ogilvie, is set in the same world as Mad Max and The Road Warrior, but several years after the latter film. Mel Gibson, as Max, runs afoul of Auntie Entity, a powerful leader in Bartertown, a fairly vile trading village she has built up from nothing. Bartertown runs on energy controlled by Master-Blaster, a dwarf genius (Master) who rides a huge, brawny hulk of a fellow known as Blaster. Auntie Entity wants complete control of Bartertown, and she intends to use Max to get it. After a variety of plot twists, Max finds himself out in the desert where he meets a tribe of lost children who are expecting a messiah. Max involuntarily takes the role, leading to yet further complications.

If the above description sounds a bit diffuse, there you have the major problem of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Unlike The Road Warrior, it doesn't have a clean plot line. Instead, it has incidents strungs together rather uncomfortably. The early part of the film is best. While not up to the previous films, it is crisply directed and has a sense of purpose. The latter half of the film is muddled and uncertain. We are given no sense at all that Max has any plan worth speaking of when he returns to Bartertown. We don't know what he wants to do, and he doesn't seem to, either. Even the final chase scene, which has its moments, doesn't have the clarity of the chase in The Road Warrior. In that film, the chase was so perfectly constructed that every incident in it seemed both inevitably correct and crystal clear. The chase in this film doesn't hang together, nor is there the terrible sense of desperation present in The Road Warrior. Hence, it just isn't as exciting.

Mel Gibson also isn't as strong a presence as he was in either of the first two films. In those films, he really was the center of the story, the one who made things go. In this film, he seems more acted upon than acting. Neither is there the iron core previously present in the character. Part of this may be due to the fact that he doesn't have as clear a villain to work against. Tina Turner is quite good as Auntie Entity, but she isn't the pure force of evil and destructiveness the earlier villains were. Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Terry Hayes, doesn't make it clear why Max should oppose her. Master-Blaster certainly seems more unpleasant and dangerous. Max's opposition could be made to work, but Miller, Hayes, and Ogilvie don't succeed. The supporting roles are very well played, though the casting of Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior, in a completely unrelated yet similar part is more than a bit confusing.

I don't want to get too down on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It has some fine sequences, there is a point behind the entire plot (much clearer, alas, after reading an extensive interview with Miller; I didn't need that kind of help on The Emerald Forest, a film which delivered its message much more successfully), and all involved deserve praise for attempting more than a mere retread of The Road Warrior. Particular praise goes to Grace Walker, the production designer. The only reason I can think of to see Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome again is to compare the many subtle differences between the sets and costumes of it and The Road Warrior. Obviously, much thought has gone into deciding just how artifacts and communities are going to degenerate as things run out and wear down, and the results are sometimes more interesting than the plot.

Co-direction is extremely uncommon in America and most of Europe, but apparently happens a lot in Australia. Contrary to rumor, George Miller and George Ogilvie both worked on the entire picture, side by side throughout. Ogilvie's theatrical background shows up in some of the ensemble work with the children and the citizens of Bartertown, but otherwise he seems to contribute little. Either he watered down Miller or that gentleman is running out of steam, for his incredible ability to sustain the tension of an extended action sequence is notably missing from this film. One cannot blame the failures of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome on Ogilvie, however, as Miller, who also served as producer, could easily have made the film by himself, if he wished.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a good adventure film which I enjoyed, but it just isn't a classic. If I hadn't seen The Road Warrior, I'd probably be perfectly satisfied with this film. Unfortunately, I have seen The Road Warrior, four times. I consider it the best film of the eighties, so far, and have every intention of seeing it again. On the other hand, I cannot picture myself sitting through Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome again. Much as I like the character and the setting, I think Miller should retire him and try to find some entirely different project to work on.

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