Passion is a strange, fleeting feeling. What we may aspire to do or be may feel repugnant or worthy of dismissal on a second look. Director George Miller had a clear vision when he set out to make both Mad Max and Mad Max 2. It is a duo that features a good bit of entertainment and provides Miller with the opportunity to understand and grow his apocalyptic world. Was a third instalment necessary? Not particularly, no, for there is only so much one can do with the titular, rage-induced Max (Mel Gibson). He is mad, and as it transpires, not much else. His third outing, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, offers a bulkier budget and bigger set pieces, but something feels off almost immediately.
Something in the mind of Miller has not quite settled. He brings achingly good cinematography to the fold, but with little purpose or reason. Survivors travel their way through the wastelands, to Barter Town, whose name shows the level of inspiration Miller is working with. He has no passion left; it has all dried up. Where he had a story to tell in Mad Max and one to expand on in Mad Max 2, he has nowhere to go with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. He explores a world beyond buffed-up biker gangs and leather-clad criminals, attempting to fit economics, barter and brutality into the rather primitive notions that the series provides. Maybe that is the issue, with too much on his plate it is hard to sift through something with nourishment. But what doesn’t help Miller and his already Herculean task, is the need to fit pop stars and culture into the Australian apocalypse.
Case in point, Tina Turner. Pop icons forcing themselves to fit into the Hollywood machine is no surprise, but it has a higher success rate now than it did in the 1980s. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is not such a success. Despite every effort from Gibson to do his part as the gruff and simple hero, he is mired by a manic, panicked Miller and a less-than-exceptional Turner. Even a returning Bruce Spence as Jedediah the Pilot cannot save the show, proving once and for all that the only character people care about in the Mad Max trilogy is the titular man himself. Why would we care for anyone else? The beauty of the first film was his descent into madness and the repercussions this would have on those that had wronged him. Mad Max 2 was somewhat similar, although he put that driven anger to good use and used it for the greater good. It is the archetype of the brute anti-hero. He has no real morality or care but is tasked with doing the right thing. What Max is tasked with in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is of no real care or interest, not even to Miller. Ironic, since he is straining himself trying to build something, anything, that can carry the torch of the series.
He would realise this decades later, thankfully, but for Max, that was that. He would wander the desert forever. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a brief fumble away from the beaten track. It is a side-quest for his constant wanderings of the wasteland. It makes no difference if he fails or succeeds, Miller fails to conspire or kindle any sense of urgency. His set design proves sluggish but still collates the rough and dust-swept vehicles of that Mad Max style. It is sad to see these worldbuilding exercises because for the few that work, they are worth exploring. We are beyond that now though, we are beyond Thunderdome, and so is Miller.