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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Mad Max as Social Criticism:
Technology as a Source of Values

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a remarkable movie, perhaps coming closer than any other to giving audiences a sense that they are, themselves, participating in a myth, understood not as a story that is mistakenly seen as a true account of the world, but as a telling of the essential metaphors of life in a story about human destiny and ultimate things. Like all post-apocalyptic fiction, the movie shows us a world turned upside down, that is a warning of what we fear we could do to the actual world. Like many works of post-apocalyptic fiction, it offers us the ultimate in pessimism -- the destruction of almost everything -- and converts that into the happy ending of knowing that humanity will get a second chance. And like Westerns and other frontier stories, it is about humanity's exile from civilization, and the founding, or, in this case, the refounding, of civilization.

But the invented world of the movie is also an ironic metaphor for our own fallen state, since our world is also, in its own way, as Bartertown's master of ceremonies describes it, "busted up." Here, what the movie suggests is that, like the future it depicts, our world might also be a demonic parody of the truth; it too may have taken the fragments of existence and put them together wrong.

At a web site titled Mug's Mad Max Page (which the reader will find a link to with the other Mad Max links), one of the writers and co-producers of the movie, Terry Hayes, is quoted as explaining what the movie is about. His description provides an essential insight into how the movie portrays our own world as one that is, as suggested above, a demonic parody of truth.

"Bartertown is really our world today," he is quoted as saying. "A world which is vital, lively, funny, grim, totally relying on commerce and trade. There are bars and pigs and technology of a sort, and industrial complexes and singles' bars and girls on the make and guys fighting, and all those things. It's people trying to live their lives the best way they can. There is very little concern for what might be termed 'spiritual values.' Of course, it's a heightened version of our world.... "

"Crack in the Earth (the tribe of children at the oasis) is a place which appears from the outside to be idyllic when we first arrive there, and it's mystical in a way. You might guess that it has a rich spiritual life, but its real undercurrent is superstition, fractured knowledge and ignorance. It looks wonderful, like Swiss Family Robinson, and all your dreams as a kid of growing up without adults....(But) What I think you realize is, that no world can flourish in that way. Crack in the Earth could never flouri(s)h, it's too fractured. It has no knowledge. It can't make the connections between things. Everything got all mixed up. So, as wonderful as it might be, it is, in its own way, as barren as Bartertown.

"There's a wonderful saying, and I don't know who said it --- and it wasn't about this film, but it just fits so well --- 'One world already dead, another unable to be born.' Well, the world that's already dead is Bartertown, and there's one unable to be born, Crack in the Earth. The man who moves between those worlds, the catalyst for this story, is Max. What he does, of course, is take what is good and positive from Crack in the Earth, that compulsion to alter, that innocence, all those spiritual things, and combine them with the real world. What we see is not the old city being resurrected. It's something new that will be born out of the ashes of the old...."

The movie, then, by indirectly portraying the present, depicts us as a less exaggerated version of Bartertown: a practical world of commerce and power without spirit, lacking in spiritual values, creating rituals that are forms of demonic entertainment. As in Bartertown, our leaders can make incremental progress but instead of bringing about reform, they are satisfied benefiting from the fallen state of things. To the degree we are like Bartertown, the movie says, we no longer have the ability to hope, to believe in dreams -- myths -- except, perhaps, myths of despair.

The other half of us is Crack in the Earth, which is innocent and has the ability to dream of something higher and better. But it has got things wrong, with an unrealistic myth of an attainable paradise based on consumer abundance and technology, apotheosizing machines and mistaking them for a font of spiritual values. Bartertown can no longer dream; Crack in the Earth has the dream all wrong and confuses its mistake for the truth.

The movie portrays a future in which these two aspects of our present have become separated into two societies. In our world, they are unified. Our world (or the exaggerated version of our world symbolized by the movie) is a place of commerce, lacking in true spirit, in which the only spiritual value we have left is one in which we have come to believe that consumerism and machines will lift us into a paradise of abundance. Perhaps it is this myth of commercial progress, embodied in the sign over the outer entrance to Bartertown -- "Helping Build a Better Tomorrow" -- that, in the invented world of the movie, led to the destruction of civilization.

In showing us that sign, at the beginning, against the dilapidated backdrop of Bartertown, the movie tells us right off what is being parodied. It also tells us we are in an invented world that has an acute sense that it is in exile from the good world that should be. The world it yearns for is, as noted, our own. But, by analogy, our myths express, in a misguided way, this same essential sense that we are in exile from the home we were meant to live in.

In addition to criticizing our present-day mythology, the movie also depicts another aspect of society, by depicting Bartertown as a class society with stark contrasts when it comes to power and privilege, between the ruler, her soldiers and assistants, the common people and the slaves in Underworld. It is a place of political intrigue and assassination in which justice also has largely gone underground.

But Bartertown isn't merely an image of Western civilization; it is a parody of a part of Western civilization that the authors and much of their intended audience know very well, namely Sydney, Australia, since this is an Australian movie. Bartertown is a disguised depiction of Sydney as a place of commerce without spirit, a colony of humanity busy at the work of trade and outdoor partying, isolated by vast stretches of nothing.

One indication that Bartertown is Sydney is the fact that Aunty Entity's bird's nest house, hovering over Bartertown on stilts, bears more than a passing resemblance to two Sydney landmarks. It is like Sydney Tower at Centrepoint, a Jetsons-style structure (said to be the highest in Australia) that looks like a tall pole or column with a futuristic building on top. And it is like the famous Sydney Opera House, since both the opera house and the bird's nest house in the movie are made up of various sections, with walls that look like wind-filled sails that come to a point at the top. To invent Aunty Entity's house, the authors took the Sydney Opera House, stuck it on the pole of Sydney Tower at Centrepoint, and added a few more poles. They then added a few flourishes from history, making its walls out of sheer material in imitation of the outdoor pavilions, field tents and desert tents made of fabric that we've all seen in movies about European and Mideastern history, and also in imitation of Japanese buildings with sheer walls that slide open to reveal the outside.

In this symbolism, Aunty Entity's home above the city represents those who have ruled and created Australia, perhaps colonial governors. The surface level of Bartertown is Australian society, with influences from Europe and Asia, which the movie depicts by showing styles of dress from both. Underworld, full of slave labor, is the penal colonies, since Sydney began as a penal colony.

By contrast, Crack in the Earth is the pre-European Aboriginal Australia, representing spirit and innocence that lacks a knowledge of the larger world. But, in geography, it too, seems to be another version of Sydney, which had Aboriginal settlements before the coming of the Europeans. One can see this by looking at Sydney, which is a fertile place of human habitation, wedged between water and the sheer cliffs of the Blue Mountains, with more fertile land and then a vast desert beyond the mountains. The fictional Crack in the Earth, modeled after Sydney, similarly is a fertile place of human habitation, wedged between water and cliffs, with desert beyond the cliffs.

At the end, a new proto-civilization is born that has learned the lessons of the past. It is founded in an urban city, full of high-rises. Given the fact that the photo of the urban center that the kids expect to go to, is of Sydney, I suspect that literally or, as metaphor, this is supposed to be Sydney also.

Since all three habitations shown in the movie represent the same place, it would seem, at one level of meaning, anyway, that Max and the other characters aren't really traveling from place to place. Instead, they are experiencing different aspects of Western society and of life, which, like much else in the movie, have become fragmented and divided into separate parts.

Max's role, as social and political revolutionary, is to begin the process of destroying this fragmented existence and making it whole. He frees the tribe of children from their self-destructive ideology of consumerism and faith in technology, and he destroys the class and slave society of Bartertown, freeing some of its slaves. Then, remnants (fragments) from each of the two societies begin to build something that presumably has the realism of Bartertown and the ability to create constructive myths that will define, and give an appropriate meaning to, people's lives.


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