So I had a weird Tina Turner fixation as a child, and it’s all George Miller’s fault. Thirty years before his magnum opus of post-apocalyptic tribalism, feminism and practical effects, 2015’s Mad Mad: Fury Road, George Miller directed and co-wrote another transformative work of cinematic genius featuring post-apocalyptic tribalism, feminism and practical effects. I am speaking, of course, of 1985’s cinematic masterpiece, Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome.
Despite the fact that Thunderdome would under modern rating guidelines be a hard PG-13, my parents decided that it would be a totally appropriate parenting decision to let their seven year old daughter (namely me) watch this movie over and over until the VHS tape broke. What can I say? They were young and I was not afraid to land myself in the emergency room scaling the movie cabinet like an intrepid mountaineer to get at the grown-up films.
The end result was this: where other little girls wanted to be princesses for Halloween, I lobbied hard to be permitted to dress up as Aunty Entity and go Trick-or-Treating throughout the housing area. Did I mention I grew up entirely on American Air Force bases? And that Aunty Entity dresses like a dominatrix with a chain-mail fetish?
Yeah. That would not have gone over well with the military police. At all. Not that you could blame me for trying, though. Aunty Entity is amazing. She has the hair. She has the voice. She has the legs. She might be stuck in a post-apocalyptic desert shit-town, but she runs that joint. LIKE A BOSS. So of course I wanted to be her. I mean shit. I still want to be her.
I have often observed, however, that films I adored as a small child do not always hold up upon being viewed as an adult. Actually, let me rephrase that. Films I adored as a small child which were not intended to be viewed by larval persons rarely hold up. For the record, the other film I watched over and over as a kid was Xanadu. The premise of Xanadu involves Olivia Newton-John, feathered hair, the 70’s and 80’s band ELO, Greek gods, neon, fog machines, and roller-skates. You may look that list of ingredients and go “that sounds like a recipe for something hardcore campy awesome.” And you would be wrong.
Watching that again at thirty-two was not a pleasant experience. No sir. Just hearing Olivia Newton-John is currently enough to make me break out in hives. After that experience, I was a little afraid to watch Thunderdome as an adult. I wasn’t sure how much of my childhood I could stand watch go up in flames, even if it had an epic soundtrack full of 80’s pop. I should not have been. Most of Thunderdome holds up pretty darn well.
Most of it.
Lets recap, shall we? A non-exhaustive list, for your consideration:
The Set and Costume Design
It’s incredibly hard to overstate how influential the set and costume design of this movie have been across all forms of genre media over the last thirty years. For example, take a look at this shot of the set of Bartertown.
Does that look familiar? You may be sitting there and thinking, well, Keyes, really, of course it does. That looks like every other desert post-apocalyptic wretched hive of scum and villainy I have seen and what’s so original about that? Why, that could be any random town from Fallout, especially Fallout: New Vegas and I am relatively sure that’s actually the setting of a recent Lindsey Sterling video. And to that I say, yes. Exactly. Except for the part about it actually being the set of a recent Lindsey Sterling video, though I totally get why you might be confused.
In any other film of its era, Aunty Entity would be an eye-candy side villain, existing only so our hero can perhaps flirt with her or perhaps be terrified of her militant-woman-ness and then soundly defeat her in combat, perhaps not even having to try very hard.
That is not this movie, and Aunty Entity is not a punch-clock henchman. In a world where civil society has completely collapsed, where resources are scarce, and technology so close to lost it seems half magic, Aunty Entity single-handedly rebuilt and rules, with an iron (chain mail?) fist, a bastion of (relative) safety, commerce and civil order. It might be an extremely violent civil order, but still. Order it is, and not to be underestimated in a world that has very little. In Bartertown, her word is law. Bartertown is hers, and she will scheme and fight and shed amazingly huge amounts of blood to hold sole dominion over it.
And, spoiler? She doesn’t lose. She might not exactly win, either, but…well. Watch the movie. She’s not even all that mad how things go down in the end. Anyone who was surprised by Furiosa in Fury Road clearly never sat down and watched this movie. The bones were already laid down, thirty years before.
Just watch the clip below, would you?
What Sort of Works
If you had asked me before I saw Fury Road whether I thought Max’s character works in Thunderdome, I would have nodded and told you that I thought it did. I’m not so sure, now. He’s not a bad character. But he’s not as interesting as he is in Fury Road. It’s an open question whether there is actually a Mad Max timeline and canon, or whether every time we see Max it’s a different Max, a variation on a theme. If he’s the same Max, he’s in a far better place than he will be (or was) in Fury Road. He’s less broken and less feral and less crazy, but the end result is that he ends up coming off as a quippy generic guile hero, Indiana Jones in the Outback, with shades of Yojimbo. He doesn’t particularly grow as a character and you don’t look at him and wonder how on earth he ever ended up this broken, because he’s not. He blows into town. Crazy shit happens to him (…literally, on several occasions.) He upends the social order. He blows out again. He’s not awful and Mel Gibson’s acting is completely serviceable if not gripping. But you don’t eyeball him and wonder if he’s actually a rabid feral dog in a person-skin, either, and I certainly spend a good part of my repeated viewings of Fury Road wondering that about Tom Hardy.
What Makes Jar-Jar Binks Look Like A Great Idea
Oh god, the kids. Make the kids and their cargo cult and their obsession with Tomorrow-Morrow land stop. Can’t we go back to Bartertown and the death sport and grappling with ramifications about how we treat the developmentally disabled? And Aunty Entity? Please?
No? Fine. I’ll talk about the kids.
Max, about a third of the way through the movie, is exiled from Bartertown — because reasons — and is saved from dehydrating to death by a bunch of adorable dirty urchins who believe that he is their savior, Captain Walker. Captain Walker is married to a smoking hot Vegas showgirl and the children believe that he will fly them in an airplane to a magical city. You will have to sit through about twenty minutes of their jibbering to get back to the awesome in Bartertown. I’m sorry. I promise you the ending is totally worth it.
This idea would later be executed on a thousand times better, with more exploding and fewer waifish moppets, by the Boomers in Fallout: New Vegas.
I have in fact dressed as a Boomer for Halloween. I am sure none of you are surprised.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome holds up, and if you enjoyed Fury Road, do yourself a favor and catch Thunderdome the next time it’s streaming on Netflix, or pick it up at Best Buy, where I have regularly found it on Blu-ray for like, eight bucks. It’s not a flawless movie. Fury Road is better. But Thunderdome is still good. And hey. Even the bad parts of Thunderdome are better than any part of Xanadu. If I had to choose between Tina Turner belting out a nihilistic paean to a dystopian future and Olivia Newton-John encouraging me to build a roller skating rink and name it after Ghengis Khan’s grandkid’s summer palace, I know which side I’m on.
And that’s all I really have to say about the subject.