Thursday, June 27, 2013

Two plots enter, no plot leaves



MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME

1985

Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie
Written by George Miller and Terry Hayes
With Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Tina Turner (Aunty Entity), Angelo Rossitto (Master), Paul Larsson (Blaster), Helen Buday (Savannah Nix), Bruce Spence (The Gyro Capt—what? he’s not the same character whose idea was it to cast the same actor who played the guy with the flying machine from Road Warrior in the role of a guy with a flying machine in Beyond Thunderdome but they’re different characters that’s INSANE Jedediah the Pilot)

Spoiler alert: ten year rule.

We begin with the horizon of a dead Earth, curving away in the far distance, desolate from end to end. A pirate in an ultralight terrorizes a lonely shepherd, chasing away his flock, for later collection, and unwittingly putting into motion the series of events that will destroy what are, as far as we know, the last remnants of society, and plant the seeds of the new civilization to come.

Max comes seeking his flock in Bartertown, the city whose reason for being is spelled out by its name.  Bartertown is a fully realized piece of pulp geography, and already Miller has bettered Road Warrior, in respect to coherent world-building. The oil well and the Humungus’ marauders fulfilled their narrative function so well you weren’t likely to ask where they came from, although if truth be told they appear to have simply leapt fully formed out from the Broken Hill soil, in order to take part in an action movie.

Bartertown, by contrast, seems a necessary outgrowth of Australian survivor-society in the post-apocalypse.  It is a mirage of technological juxtaposition, an economic engine squatting out in the desert.  We're told it is the outcome of the efforts of its founder and lawgiver Aunty Entity, but Bartertown is plausibly the result of civilization set back two thousand years and finding itself at the beginning of a very long process of rebuilding.

 Ben-Hur Beyond Hippodrome.

It is believable as a human endeavor, riddled with social division between those living amongst piles of garbage and those living in well-arranged garbage installations. There are shades of opulence to the latter—Aunty’s panoptikon administration building is little more than a raised platform swaddled in gauzy curtains, but there is no doubt that in this after-the-end, a couple thousand square feet and a bowl of fruit on a table is a reward reserved for only the first of citizens.

Bartertown unquestionably existed before Max came.  Of course, whether it continues to exist after he leaves is a bit more of an open question.

Bartertown's infrastructure, famously, is built upon pigshit (and the resulting methane).  The pigs are controlled by compound man Master Blaster, a wee natural gas engineer who speaks economic violence as a first language and English as a second, third, or possibly fourth, riding atop a giant with cognitive impairments and a dislike of high frequency noises such as the pig squeals he encounters routinely in Bartertown’s Underworld. Think of Master Blaster as a sort of Russia, ready and willing to choke off the supply of natural gas for advantage or just to make a point, and Bartertown as a European Union with lower unemployment.

Who run Bartertown?

Max, arriving in Bartertown to regain what was stolen, is rapidly singled out as a special sort, the type of guy who’ll discharge a shotgun in a crowded room to show he’s not to be trifled with. Though he has no goods, his services might be worth a trade. Taken to Aunty, he becomes intimately involved with Bartertown’s politics, surviving his prospective paymistress’ lethal test of his skills, and taking the job he didn’t know he was interviewing for, namely killing the Blaster side of the Master Blaster equation, which Aunty thinks should make the Master half rather more malleable to her wishes.

 Tina Turner Beyond Supercomb.

I really enjoyed all of this, all of Aunty’s dealing (and we’ll certainly see wheeling later).  I loved the little touches, like the spit-palm handshake, as well as the broad strokes, particularly the lawful evil characterization of Aunty, unwilling to merely slip a hired knife between Blaster’s ribs, so instead waiting for the man who could take him in a fair fight.  She needs to be rid of him, but only within the rules she herself wrote for Bartertown’s existence.  That's pretty cool.


So I was like, where are George Miller's obligatorily gay villains?  Then I said, oh man, that's not a relationship between equals.  On, like, a couple of levels.

The movie’s got a ram-rod pace in its first act, and scarcely ten minutes of Max’ sleuthing about the shit mines go by before he issues his challenge to Blaster, obtaining their entree into a death-duel to take place within a hemispherical structure of some sort.

"Sure, the concept is solid. But what would we name it?"

It’s a good pace, even though the sophistication of Miller’s set-ups has been set back to original Mad Max levels, unfortunate after the pleasant trickery that we got in Road Warrior. As noted, Blaster, without explanation, happens to be susceptible to certain frequencies of sound, that happen to be produced by a certain whistle, that Max happened to find on a dead body. Max, seeing that Blaster is annoyed by such sounds, even tests out his whistle specifically during his intelligence-gathering, so we know it works.

The whistle does not fall from his pocket during the fight, shine in the dust, leading to sudden epiphany for Max and the audience.  That might have been slightly more tense, but whatever, and it wouldn't necessarily do justice to Max as a thoughtful assassin.  So there is no real uncertainty as to whether and how Max will ultimately best Blaster.  So what? What matters is the titular dome and how its geography dictates strategy.

We’re used to action in three dimensions here in our superhero-saturated century, but it may pay to remind the young ones that in 1985 the Thunderdome was a very novel creation. The amusingly zeerust game-show trappings and stale celebrity-thru-violence satire aside, the physical kinematics of the fight were, to the best of my knowledge, theretofore unimagined—and, with the advent of CGI not too far away, rarely if ever replicated.

 Doing the things a particle can.

Each combatant is rigged to bounce and careen about the dome, with random power-ups strategically placed within the superstructure.  Max’ battle against the far larger, far stronger opponent is a thrilling enterprise, even if we do know how it will end (but he lost his whistle for a minute! anything could have happened!). This is a fight for its own sake; it is so spectacular that at least one spectator gets spectacled right to death with a glaive.  It is the best scene in the movie.

Beyond Thunderdome, expect nothing remotely so joyously unique.

But we shan't let anything that happens afterward take away from how damned cool Bartertown's drastic approach to alternative dispute resolution really is.  It's so cool that apparently there are real Thunderdomes, albeit sorely lacking in chainsaws, cartoon mallets, and Batrocesque leaping.  Movie magic, everybody: the real world is always lamer.

Blaster inevitably goes down after Max sustains many, probably realistically lethal, body blows to little ill-effect.  Unfortunately for pretty much everyone involved, though, Max doesn’t want to kill a mentally challenged individual, at least when his helmet's been knocked off and he's giving him such a heartwarming cloy of a smile. Cold blooded murder of the cognitively impaired hasn't always been Max' weakness, but bear in mind that here he doesn't have any gasoline to douse Blaster with.

Aunty’s hand is revealed, and she’s understandably upset.  As the law dictates that two men may enter but only one may leave, Blaster is executed anyway, rendering Max’ change of heart all the more useless and (I guess) poignant. And, just as she had with Blaster, Aunty turns her law against Max.  Having broken a deal, he faces the wheel.

Aunty Entity: her life before the apocalypse remains mysterious, but we can't rule out "High Court justice."

Max does not spin for $1.00, so he gets GULAG.

This movie has the most impressive first act of any Mad Max film, bar neither.  I'm sure it will totally live up to that promise.  Review over.  A+  I don't even need to watch the rest of the movie.

Indeed, it would make a shockingly good short film, ending with Max' exile.

But the movie does keep rolling and it's here that the fun levels dissipate. I don’t want to imply the movie ever becomes unfun.  Suffice it to say that this puts paid to the hope of any more of the many sweet saxophone solos that we've had the fortune to enjoy thus far.

The key thing to know here is that Beyond Thunderdome started life as a totally original story, the story that’s about to begin with the second act. It’s still an okay story, but lacks an ending, and its metanarrative is probably more interesting than it is:

In the aftermath of a nuclear war, Lord of the Flies happens, largely verbatim except for the interesting parts with violence; the child survivors of the airplane crash create their own society in a creek bed, centering upon the worship of the pilot who walked out into the desert to try to secure rescue; a man comes upon them years later, mistaken for the second coming of their pilot god; some cad in the pitch meeting says, “Lol [sic], wouldn’t it be great if it were Mad Max?"; someone told George Miller; and George Miller thought it was a good idea, such a good idea in fact that he wouldn't have to do anything with it whatsoever.  Copy and paste.  Done.

The kids are alright, though their pocket society’s development is a little too precious. They are far more ignorant than their varying ages suggest; the youngest members of the miniature tribe constrain the time that’s elapsed since the crash to no more than seven or eight years, and the oldest are clearly in their late teens at least (Helen Buday was twenty-three in real life).  Thus we have a situation where nine or ten year olds (at the time) had completely failed to understand, or had forgotten, basic concepts like “radios,” “cities,” “established religions,” "cars," "photographs," “airplanes,” “pilots,” "guns," “geography,” “dehydration,” “deserts,” and “death.”

Maybe Miller and his co-writers didn't give it much thought.  It's also possible that they believed that a bizarre out-of-touchness and the adherence to the long-dead Captain Walker as a savior figure was more entertaining than the more plausible case—that is, extremely poorly-educated, but otherwise normal-sounding, young children, led by depressed adolescents that did not believe a man who wandered off into the wasteland would return years later with a completely different face.

The Passion of the Walker.

I suppose it's definitely more entertaining than the most plausible case—that is, they all died years ago of starvation and exposure, Max finds a creek full of child bones, and commits suicide.  But my point is that the faintly unlikely tragedy of a group of abandoned half-feral children sits uneasily against the, yes, cartoonish, but realistically functional Bartertown.

All of this does permit one of the better jokes of the movie, the View-Master image of the putative "Mrs. Walker."  Although I do question why a View-Master wheel of quasi-porngraphy existed before the apocalypse.  Did they make that "a few years from now..."? I want that.


Okay, this ‘Tomorrow-Morrow Land’? It was called ‘Sydney.’ You lived in Australia for a decade before the ‘pox-eclipse.'  I’m sorry, did you just ask, ‘What’s Australia’? Jesus!—did you say ‘what’s Jesus’? Son, stand here on the other side of this 'stick' you gave me. I’m gonna show you.”

Complications occur when the children take Max, in one of the film’s best single shots, to the dilapidated hulk of their aircraft rusting in the desert, praying that he fly them to places that no longer exist.

Look.  It's not that I'm expecting them to be aeronautical engineers, okay?

He disabuses them of the notion that he’s any type of soteriological figure, so the "atheist" faction that’s been waiting for the impetus to act, led by Savannah Nix (according to IMDB; I rather did not catch her name between the moon-language and the brogue), strikes off across the desert for whatever is out there, which they are convinced they can reach on their own.

Max, knowing their quest is moot, follows so he can drag them back. Intriguingly, but ultimately unsatisfactorily, he seems pretty content to live the rest of his life in a ditch. Given that he’s the strongest person there, and there’s ready and food, water, and (one wonders if Max is considering it) nubile young women just coming of age, I suppose the man has a point. The possibilities are left largely unexplored.

Beyond Thunderdome is extremely weak in two respects. I’ll get to the other when it comes, but these scenes underscore the lost potential and limited ambition on display here. Thunderdome is the Max film least concerned with its titular character as a human—Mad Max depicted his descent into barbarity, and Road Warrior chronicled his climb back. Max’ arc in Thunderdome is—well, is going from place to place and doing things considered a narrative arc? At best, it retreads his character’s journey Road Warrior. Actually, that’s really at worst, because that’s exactly what it does, in unfortunately degenerate form.

It was no surprise to learn that the society of kids started life as a different movie, because it never seems fully integrated into the actual Mad Max movie we’re watching. It’s just there to be a place Max can go after getting kicked out of Bartertown, to serve as setting for an exposition-heavy sequence thats fill a half hour of screentime, and to provide a supplemental reason for Max to go back to Bartertown when his treatment at Aunty’s hands had already given him one. I’m not necessarily suggesting that significantly more time needed to have been allocated to the scenes here, but it could have been time better spent—let Max enjoy the country life, get used to it, become a part of their community, before Savannah breaks off on her own and fucks it all up.

 Savannah Nix Beyond Putting Up With Your Shit.

But credit where credit’s due! Savannah ’s unbelievably foolhardy course straight-up results in a seven year old getting sucked into the sand and 100% dying. This was pretty great, and the highlight of this phase of the film.  I'm always pleased to see a kid die when a kid really ought to die in a movie, and it happens rarely enough that when it does, it's a special treat.

This is where the original plot and the actual plot clumsily intersect. Having determined that they can’t survive getting back to the creek, Max and the kids forge ahead to Bartertown for water and food.  Sneaking in through Underworld, they more-or-less accidentally wind up freeing the imprisoned Master, liberating at least one other Underworld slave, and blowing up the methane works and immolating to death a lot of other Underworld slaves not to mention thousands of poor little pigs.  I guess one man burned to death horribly is a tragedy, hundreds of men burned to death horribly is a statistic, particularly if it's off camera.

All this is completely uncommented on even through as far as we can tell a disaster like this means that the gross domestic product of surviving humanity just got decimated and the thousands that rely on Bartertown’s existence will probably starve to death. Man, we really didn't need another hero.

"Accidental" is no exaggeration. It is never part of anyone’s avowed program to destroy Bartertown. If it was Max’ goal all along it is certainly well-concealed. If the idea was to set up a contrast and inevitable conflict between the idyll (big question mark) built by Walker's children and the dystopia of Aunty's regime (ditto), it was certainly not very well-drawn.  Really, it’s probably never a good idea for your protagonist to just blunder into the third act, especially by way of terrorism.

Yet all might be forgiven if Aunty’s swift retaliation were not just Road Warrior except not nearly as good. Imagine the climactic tanker chase from the previous film, except it’s on train tracks, and Daffy Duck, playing Aunty’s apparently invulnerable chief henchmen, is deeply involved in the fighting. I miss Wez.

Yes, Miller doesn't even deliver a conclusion that differs except in competence of execution and a few cosmetic details—and a lot of those aren’t even that different, since Bruce Spence shows up with his flying machine.  Again.  And Max is left stranded on the desert floor alone. Again.  And the kids go off to form their own great tribe.  AGAIN.

The one saving grace is Aunty.  Even though her city is in ruins, her rule fatally undermined, and her days of decadence basically over, she can laugh: “Ain’t we a pair, Raggedy Man?” You sure were, Aunty, before this movie stopped being about you.

There is something about her unexplained about-face that doesn’t strike me as simply laziness or an unwillingness on the writer’s parts to kill Max.  Instead, it's as if there is something mysterious in Aunty’s psychology that just lets her find amusement in her own downfall. It’s Turner’s compelling performance, perhaps—she really does sell this powerful and ambitious woman, who is more satisfied in the striving for power than she is in the mere wielding of it.

 "It's not the ruling with an iron fist, it's the journey."

I have no idea why Aunty has a more developed and satisfying character arc in this movie than the title character, but it's still pretty excellent.  It makes me wonder why Turner wasn't in more movies.  Although she reportedly enjoyed her experience, at age 79, it’s probably too much to ask that she cameo in Fury Road—but, hey, we live in hope. Perhaps at least a Turner song makes its way in there somewhere.

So, epilogue: Savannah Nix tells us that as the years pass her tribe will blah blah blah the Feral Kid was the Narrator.

To sum up: Thunderdome collapses after it leaves Bartertown.  Even though interesting ideas are teased and a great vehicle chase to rival Road Warrior could have been made from all those cool methane-powered dune buggies, the possibility of advancement for Max’ character is forestalled so none of the interesting ideas bear any fruit, and the chase is an inferior clone. It would have been nice if anyone writing this script had, in fact, known the way home.

...And nevertheless, I’m still Goddamned fond of this film. It builds the Mad Max mythos in a way the other two films never even seek to do, and its successes are significant, while its sins don't quite outweigh the feather of truth.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is more than just worth watching for completism.  It's essential.

Score: 7/10

P.S. Wipes galore, but no bug-eye effect.  However, we have a new creator signature: an abiding love for sus scrofus domesticus.  They are cute and meat is murder, especially if it's a talking pig.

P.P.S.:


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