Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (dir. Miller & Ogilvie, 1985) further expands the Mad Max saga’s existing themes. Again, we see Max (Mel Gibson) encounter two differing societies; Bartertown – whose civilisation has inherited many of the failings of our own – and the innocent Lost Tribe. While the Marauders, the bad guys from Mad Max 2 (dir. Miller, 1981), could be mistaken for members of the counterculture, here the antagonists’ connection to the establishment is made clear. Bartertown operates via a hierarchical structure, consisting of three social classes that literally and figuratively live on different levels. At the top, representing the elite, is Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). Having built Bartertown, she is its ruler and lives in a luxury palace, towering high above the other townspeople. Although she lives a leisurely life, she receives the most rewards, being provided with air conditioning, clean water, fresh fruit, music and servants. At the bottom, representing the proletariat, are the workers of Underworld; a pig farm beneath Bartertown where methane from pig faeces is used to fuel the town. The conditions are horrible, the workers are literally living in shit, and although they endure the most and it is their hard work that gives the town its power, they have the least. Between the two are the traders, who buy and sell goods and services in a large marketplace on the surface. Max arrives in Bartertown with nothing, having had his camels and vehicle stolen from him by Jedediah (Bruce Spence), who he has tracked there. To the Collector (Frank Thring), who admits people to Bartertown, this renders Max useless.
THE COLLECTOR: “People come here to trade. Make a little profit, do a little business. Got nothing to trade, you got no business in Bartertown.“
In Bartertown, people’s worth is estimated by the value of their commodities. People who have no commodities cannot survive within the system, like Pig Killer (Robert Grubb), who is forced to kill a pig to feed his family and is branded and sentenced to a life shovelling shit in Underworld. Comparisons are drawn between Bartertown and our capitalist society. The sign above the town entrance resembles a company slogan: ‘BARTERTOWN – HELPING BUILD A BETTER TOMORROW’. And Dr. Dealgood (Edwin Hodgeman) auctions Max’s camels using the language of a used car salesman (“800 miles to the gallon. They’ve got independent suspension, power steering. Ride ’em away now”). The capitalist system Bartertown has adopted is presented as encouraging immoral self-interest (The first trader Max meets lies to him, trying to sell him radioactive water), preying on the poor, benefiting the rich and promoting a survival of the fittest mentality. Human beings are also used as commodities. Traders hold people in chains, and when Max offers to trade his skills to the Collector, he’s rudely informed, “the brothel’s full”.
Master Blaster (Angelo Rossitto/Paul Larsson) runs Underworld operating as a single unit. Master is the brains, but having dwarfism, being only 2’11”, he is physically weak. Blaster is the brawn but is mentally vulnerable, having Down’s syndrome. However, this fact is concealed as his face is covered by a helmet. Master Blaster rebels against Aunty’s unjust rulership by cutting off all power until she admits they run Bartertown. Master Blaster acts as a criticism of Bartertown’s inequality and its survival of the fittest mentality. Master is lacking physically and Blaster mentally but working together they can help each other thrive; one without the other would be exploited by Bartertown’s system. In another expansion of the themes of Mad Max 2, we see that established society has laws (unlike the anarchic Marauders). However, the elite are more than willing to corrupt them for their own gain, as we see when Aunty hires Max to kill Blaster in exchange for the return of his camels and vehicle. Max works within the laws of Bartertown by starting an argument with Master Blaster so their dispute can be settled in Thunderdome, a gladiatorial arena where conflicts are resolved through a fight to the death, similar to those used by the Roman Empire; linking capitalism with imperialism. Max defeats Blaster, but after his helmet is knocked off and it’s revealed he has Down’s syndrome, he refuses to kill him and reveals Aunty hired him as an assassin. Thunderdome resembles our own media, specifically game shows. Flashing neon lights read, ‘Thunderdome Live!’, Aunty announces, “Welcome to another edition of Thunderdome!”, and Max’s fate is decided by the spin of a wheel of fortune. The people of Bartertown are controlled via a combination of written law and media manipulation. Aunty, like a corrupt politician, uses this to avoid punishment, claiming, whether right or wrong, Max has broken their agreement, and citing the law, “Bust a deal, face the wheel.” The brainless masses, oblivious to the manipulation, accept the law as if they have no choice, chanting it in monosyllabic unison. The unfairness of the justice system is shown as Max’s fate is decided by the spin of a wheel (“You take your chances with the law. Justice is only a roll of the dice, a flip of the coin, a turn…of the wheel”). In showing compassion towards Blaster, Max proves he cannot operate within Bartertown’s exploitative system and is banished. While Master, now separated from Blaster, is powerless and becomes a slave, just like Pig Killer.
Left for dead in the wastelands, Max is rescued by the Lost Tribe; a group of young adults and children who live in a desert oasis. The Settlers being primarily characterised as the good guys in Mad Max 2 could be misinterpreted as endorsing conservative religious values and their search for paradise as suggesting religious ideals can lead to social progress. Like the Settlers, the Lost Tribe resemble a religious order. They sing choral hymns, possess sacred relics, carry out rituals that restate their beliefs, and are waiting for a messiah to lead them to paradise. Unlike the Settlers, their faith has led them to stagnate, as awaiting their messiah’s guidance has robbed them of their agency and prevented them from progressing. When Max arrives, they mistake him for their messiah, Captain Walker, who they believe will lead them to their paradise, Tomorrow-Morrow Land. Like the Settlers, the validity of their faith is mocked, as they are a cargo cult, children of the passengers of a plane that crashed fleeing the apocalypse, and their mistaken beliefs are based on artefacts from the crash and memories from infancy, such as the plane’s pilot, Captain Walker, and Sydney, the city they originated from. Max falls unconscious upon his arrival but the Lost Tribe, desperate for his guidance, attribute godlike abilities to him, suggesting he could be communicating with them telepathically. When he awakens and is unable to understand what is expected of him, they use religious terminology, believing he is ‘testing them’, showing they are unwilling to progress without hearing the word of their god. Max refutes his divinity and the existence of paradise and insists the Lost Tribe stay where they are; knowing the dangers they face if they leave, fearing they could come across Bartertown. There is a division formed within the tribe. Some, led by Slake (Tom Jennings), still wish to follow Max’s word and stay. However, a small faction, led by Savannah (Helen Buday), realise Max is mortal (“He ain’t no different to us”), accuse Slake and his followers of closed-mindedness (“Programme! All of you programme”), and wish to leave in search of knowledge and progress, despite the dangers.
SAVANNAH: “Nobody’s saying it ain’t a hard slog. We knows that now. But if we wants the knowing and the doing of things, there ain’t no easy ride.”
Beyond Thunderdome criticises sexism within religious texts, subverting the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise by criticising man’s desire to stay faithful to God and live in paradise in ignorance, and praising woman for seeking knowledge and enlightenment.
Max initially prevents Savannah and her followers leaving, even going as far as physically assaulting her; a symbol of the brutal effect of God and man’s oppression of woman. Despite this abuse, they are still determined and escape while he is sleeping and he ventures after them. After he rescues them from a quicksand pit, they come across Bartertown and sneak inside to steal transportation. They rescue the enslaved Pig Killer and Master, who help them escape in a train that is the centre of Bartertown’s generator, and the proletarian revolution causes the destruction of Bartertown by smashing the machinery of capitalism. They are pursued by Aunty and her warriors, swapping the train for Jedediah’s plane halfway through the chase, and Max reclaims his vehicle from one of the warriors. Face to face with the enemy, there is not enough runway between them to take off. Consequently, Max again sacrifices himself, crashing his vehicle into the oncoming warriors, leaping to safety and clearing a path for the plane (shifting from a God-like figure to a Christ-like figure). The plane makes it to the ruins of Sydney, where a new society is formed based on Max’s altruism, in the spirit of Master Blaster’s cooperation, and in opposition to the exploitation of Pig Killer. A society that like the Lost Tribe reveres stories, but not of heroes and messiahs, but of the deeds of ordinary people. A society that’s learnt from the past so it can build a better future, a paradise, where the city lights are lit to guide those who have nothing to a life beyond exploitation, a life of equality and communal spirit.
SAVANNAH: “Time counts and keeps countin’. And we knows now, finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride. But that’s our track. We gotta travel it. And there ain’t nobody knows where it’s gonna lead. Still ‘n’ all, every night we does the tell so that we ‘member who we was and where we came from. But most of all we ‘members the man who finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city. Not just for him but for all of ’em that are still out there. ‘Cause we knows there’ll come a night…when they sees the distant light…and they’ll be comin’ home.”
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