Maybe you’ve forgotten the backwards horse ride through the desert with the garish, creepy Mardi Gras head. Maybe you don’t recall the half-pint chanting mud tribe that sound an awful lot like the kids in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”. Maybe even the theme song that topped out at number two on the Billboard chart somehow eludes you.
But if you are a child of the 80’s, these words are likely forever burned into your grey matter: “Two men enter, one man leaves.”
Mad Max Rockatansky heard those words over and over during his furious duel to the death with the giant man-beast Blaster in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the third chapter of George Miller’s sci-fi opus named for its rugged protagonist.
The phrase (and the entire concept of the Thunderdome itself) has become as deeply rooted in popular culture as lightasabers and time-hopping DeLoreans. It shows up time and again in sitcoms and stand up routines. And where would mixed martial arts be if not for Thunderdome (dojos? bars? frat houses?)?
But the majority of Beyond Thunderdome’s themes and elements go back a little further than a galaxy far, far away.
Nearly twenty years have passed since Max’s reclusion into the Outback; twenty years since the new world order that has become humanity stole his wife and child. As Beyond Thunderdome opens, Max has become a vagabond and is steering a pack of camels across the dessert when his sometimes ally, Jedidiah the gyropilot (Bruce Spence, who debuted in The Road Warrior) and his son steal his wagon and supplies. Max beats feet after them and follows them to burgeoning settlement called Bartertown, where anything and everything is available—for a price. Realizing his only collateral is his propensity for violence, Max offers his services to Auntie Entity (Tina Turner—yep, that Tina Turner), the de facto mayor of Bartertown. After Max survives an attack by her guards to determine his merit, Aunty agrees to return all he has lost if he takes care of a little (actually a little/big) problem named Master Blaster.
Master Blaster is pair of thugs who oversee Bartertown’s subsurface energy plant, appropriately named Underworld. Master (a midget and the brains of the operation) rides on the shoulders of the hulking Blaster (the muscle). Together, they oversee the pig-poop-shoveling prisoners sentenced to Underworld (yep, Bartertown runs on—you guessed it—methane) and hold Bartertown hostage by embargoing energy whenever they choose to flaunt their power.
Aunty’s proposal requires Max to enter Thunderdome—a steel, weapon-laced cage that serves as a “civilized” way for men to solve their problems now that murder has become a big no-no in Bartertown—and fight Blaster to the death. But after catching a glance of his giant opponent, Max volunteers to slop in Underworld so he can spy on Blaster and hopefully spot his potential weaknesses.
Joshua, the great military strategist and leader of the Israelites after the Exodus, used a similar tactic. When it came time to battle the seemingly impenetrable walled city of Jericho, Joshua sends in two spies, instructing them to set up their surveillance quarters at the home of Rahab the prostitute. When the king gets wind of the plot, he sends his soldiers to find the spies. But Rahab protects them, hiding them on her roof. She then asks that they spare her and her family in return for her kindness and they agree, instructing her to hang a red cord from her window during the upcoming battle as a sign that she is not to be harmed (Joshua 2: 1-21). Rahab would later go on to show up in a more unlikely place: the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).
Blaster takes the fight to Max as soon as the rusted door slams shut, and our hero’s plight initially seems as dire as Daniel’s when the lions first ambled in. Max wields a series of clubs, maces, and even a chainsaw when he’s not having his face slammed into the cage, but nothing seems to keep Blaster down. But the big man meets his Waterloo when Max blasts on the hidden whistle he’s been keeping in his boot. Blaster falls in pain, but as Max moves in for the death blow, he realizes Blaster has a severe mental disability. Master pleads for his friend’s life, saying he is the mental equivalent of a child. Max can’t bring himself to finish Blaster and reneges on his deal with Aunty. As a result, he’s forced to spin a wheel of fortune that would make Pat Sajak wince in order to determine his fate (“Break a deal, spin the wheel!”)
As a result, Max is bound, blindfolded (the creepy Mardi Gras head), and set atop a horse that wanders him into the heart of the desert. Downed and dying, Max is discovered by a strange Lord of the Flies/Lost Boys hybrid clan who’d been left in the desert by their parents following a pre/early-stages-of-the apocalypse plane crash. The adults, along with the pilot, Captain Walker, left in an attempt to find civilization. The clan mistakes Max for Captain Walker, thinking he has returned to rescue them. Max bursts their bubble, insisting that he’s not Captain Walker, and warns the kids to stay put lest they discover Bartertown—the only civilization within reach.
As in The Road Warrior, we see Max’s reemerging humanity. As man’s empathy for his brother continues to erode, Max’s concern for his fellow man continues to expand. And when they wander away despite his warnings (much like his Moses persona from The Road Warrior), Max leads them back, even when they wander toward the idol-soaked Bartertown. And in doing so, he saves himself a little bit more. He’s been in the far country—literally and figuratively—he’s seen the absolute worst it has to offer (and flirted with it more than once) and he still keeps trying to come back around. There was a guy in the New Testament Jesus talked about who had a similar story. It’s commonly called the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32).
A son who’d been given everything by his father took that money and ran, turning his back on the ones he cared about. And when he’d squandered it all and was left hanging out with the pigs (sorta like Max in Underworld), he knew it was time to go back home. But he was afraid of what his father would say; of what he would do. But instead of lecturing or punishing, the father ran to greet his son, dressed him in his finest robes and threw him a feast because he was so glad not only that he’d come home, but that he’d returned to be the man he once was.
By the end of the film, Max may not necessarily have the same light in his eyes that he had while hugging his wife in Mad Max twenty years earlier, but he has his heart back. We know the world will never go back to the way it was before the apocalypse, but we know Max will be okay, even so. And we know that for him, there will indeed be life beyond thunderdome (see; I knew I could work in that earworm of a theme song in by the end. You are welcome).