The last two nights I watched the Mad Max trilogy: Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Beyond Thunderdome. I have no desire to see the new one. I’ve heard mixed reviews about it and I think my main motive was nostalgia for some half remembered movies of my boyhood, not to see something new.
Mad Max, the original, I had never seen all the way through. Sure, it is a cliched cop movie, but I can see why it was memorable; it taps a natural fear. Ordinary citizens are not conditioned to deal with something like a band of roaming sociopaths. If the mechanisms of security were to break down, how on earth would we cope? What could we do if our sleepy little towns were invaded by the modern equivalent of Vikings or Saracens, except hope to die last?
We get an answer: an ordinary man responds by giving into his dark side and becoming something of a sociopath himself.
Mad Max never explains the cause of the social erosion, but the impression of bad times getting worse, of people trying to carry on and ignoring the impending doom, is powerful.
The Road Warrior I must have seen twenty times as a boy. Less drama and dialogue, it is mostly action without being overbearing. Now civilization is in full collapse, the fall blamed on nuclear war. Cars crash, people die horribly, and things blow up in fairly predicable sequence. Why does this dumb action movie have such staying power?
I am just going to throw out ideas: the action is powerful but raw, not slicked up with huge budgets. Mel Gibson had improved as an actor and brings much more presence to the role. The visual details hold together: Max is still in his police uniform, still wearing a brace on his knee, but become a hardened survivor in an unforgiving land.
I think in the end it is those atmospheric details that give the movie its strength.
Beyond Thunderdome is the least memorable of the trilogy. I saw it last night and I’m already forgetting it. The plot too closely mirrors the second and the new elements fail to leave much of impact. While the atmosphere of The Road Warrior seems original, Beyond Thunderdome feels like every other post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie ever made. A few too many plot contrivances thrown in (How did the slave know to send the goddamn monkey? How did the goddamn monkey find Max? What are goddamn monkeys doing in Australia?) and it just feels cheap, like Alien From LA cheap.
Oh, and the soundtrack sucks.
But in spite of obvious weaknesses I found things to like about it. Tina Turner is surprisingly good as the bad guy: she mixes ruthlessness, vulnerability, showmanship, self-possession, and visionary leadership in a respectable performance.
As for the stupid kids… the hardened hero having to rescue adorable children etc is a horrible plot choice (see the failure known as The Temple of Doom), but…
Provided enough of the bigger kids were decent sorts (so they would not go full Lord of the Flies), wouldn’t a tribe of children left to themselves for a few years turn out something like that, with screwed up language, group emotional displays, and tragically distorted notions of the world?
The kids were generally good actors and the Savannah character, the bright-eyed believer who finds new ways to sustain her hope in a better future, gives the film an emotional content the others lacked.