In "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome," a great deal of engine noise and clanking iron is drowned out by the audience's resounding ho-hum. It's comic books in a Cuisinart, all costumes and cute monikers and no story, a sort of case history of just what's wrong with sequelitis.
Like its precursors, the movie takes place in the not-too-distant future, when apocalyptic conflict has ushered in a new Middle Ages. Max (Mel Gibson) finds himself in Bartertown, a sleazy frontier outpost run by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). Bartertown is powered by the methane produced by the biological processes of a herd of pigs kept underground, where Master Blaster, a cerebral midget riding atop a dumb giant, presides over the pen. Disputes in Bartertown are settled in the Thunderdome, a vast steel-latticed hemisphere beneath which two opponents face off to the death, and the rabble finds its release.
Max runs afoul of Aunty and is exiled to the desert, where he's saved by a lost tribe of children. They regard him as their savior, the man who will lead them to "tomorrow-morrow-land." Instead, he leads them back to Bartertown. Why? So that "Beyond Thunderdome" can have the same chase through the desert as "The Road Warrior," that's why.
And why not? Max may have long hair here, and his friendly dog may have become a friendly monkey, but on the whole, the movie is simply a retread of the first "Mad Max" sequel, "The Road Warrior." Enter Max, doing his "Yojimbo" act -- he only cares about himself, only works for pay, etc., etc. Then someone gets him mad, something in a weak and isolated group of settlers touches him, and he leads them to the Promised Land, bailing out at the end himself (he goes it, of course, alone).
The movie exhales the contagion of its own boredom. Maurice Jarre lazily contributes the same desert music he wrote for "Lawrence of Arabia" 20 years ago; and director George Miller is so bored he hired a codirector, George Ogilvie, to work with the actors (what actors?) while he worked on the action sequences. Miller demonstrates again his signature feel for car chases, that terrifying intimacy with machines and high speeds -- the technique is still brilliant, but there's nothing fresh about it (some of Miller's tricks have already been appropriated by television). The action comes as an afterthought, with none of the straight-ahead V-8 verve of "The Road Warrior" or the opening and closing sequences of the original "Mad Max."
Something soft and bleary has seeped into Miller's soul -- the spritz of alienation that sharpened the other movies, those long shots of distant violence and close-ups of fingers severed heavenward, is gone. Instead, "Beyond Thunderdome" is suffused by a sort of aimless nostalgia, a bland, Spielbergy worship of the innocents, as Max suffers the little children to come unto him. The kids talk in "Riddley Walker"-esque futurespeak, and have names like Savannah Nix, Scrooloose, Anna Goanna and Finn McCoo.
The relationship between Max and his wee acolytes comes on a level so self-consciously mythic, it's thin as air; there's plenty of gab about the storytelling tradition, and obvious religious overtones, but the script (by Miller and Terry Hayes) never provides Max and the kids with the most elementary human connection. They leave it up to Gibson, who's not about to connect the dots for them. As usual, he's great to look at, but short on resources.
Which, paradoxically, makes him the ideal hero for a movie that's all surface. In Bartertown, the men wear big leather shoulder pads above bare midriffs, leather shin guards, masks and feathered headdresses -- a cross between a baseball catcher's "tools of ignorance" and "La Cage aux Folles." With her insistent cleavage, Turner is sexy to the max in a chain-mail mini, glare bouncing off her cheekbones; but while you wait for her to cut loose, she gives a weirdly dignified performance -- you want King Kong Bundy, but she gives you King Lear.
After going to elaborate lengths to establish Bartertown, Miller forgets to weave it into the narrative; and the long segment that's set there has no narrative of its own. Like the rest of the movie, it's all production design, a big pile of toys in which everything is sacrificed to the "look." This may be the apocalyptic future, but Miller has forgotten the first rule of the postindustrial world: Less is more.