Somewhere in the desert of a post-apocalypse Australia, there is a walled-in trading city called Bartertown. "City" isn't the right word, really. Human dung hill might be closer to the truth. But in the world it inhabits, apparently, it is all there is.
Every day, a procession of what is left of humanity, with goods to trade, parades into Bartertown. The streets, with their mud and ramshackle buildings, are teeming with people, trading, meeting, getting a head-shave, or enjoying a drink at the outdoor bar of the Atomic Cafe. The people look like a mélange of leftovers; they wear ragged costumes that hint of early and mid-twentieth century Europe, ancient Rome, China, and other cultures, with tools and machinery that also seem to be mostly junk from what was left after a nuclear war. Amid them are the city's soldiers, with wild hairdos and headdresses that look like something a punk rocker might dream up on a bad drug trip.
Towering above the chaos, in a bird's nest of a building that sits atop stilts, is Aunty Entity (played magnificently by Tina Turner), the tough, semi-benevolent, dictator who created Bartertown out of the destruction. Her home in the sky is ethereal: the walls are translucent veils of sheer material that open up to reveal the city she created below her.
Underneath Bartertown is Underworld, an underground pig sty and energy plant, wallowing in the pig manure that is used to produce the methane gas that supplies Bartertown with its electricity and fuel. It is a place teeming with pigs and slaves, in which pig feed and manure are constantly being shoveled or conveyed from place to place. It is governed, not by Aunty Entity, but by Master a dwarf who is the brains of the pig sty operation, and by Blaster, a giant and the brawn of the pair. Master perches on Blaster's upper back and, together, they make up the two-person unit -- Master-Blaster -- that controls Underworld. To assert his control over the rest of Bartertown, Master keeps imposing an "embargo", cutting off the methane supply to the city, until Aunty Entity publicly acknowledges that he is the one who is really in charge, upon which he restores the city's electricity.
This is the setting in which the first part of the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome takes place. The movie begins as Max, a nomad played by Mel Gibson, is attacked in the desert by a father-and-son robbery team in a jalopy of an airplane that, like everything else in this world, seems to be one step away from falling apart. The two steal his vehicle and camels, and leave him in the desert for dead. But Max makes his way on foot to Bartertown, where we are shown the characteristics of the city, as related above. There, Max is taken up into the bird's nest throne room of Aunty Entity, and offered a deal: kill Blaster, the brawn that protects the dwarf, Master, and, in exchange, Max's property will be restored and he will be resupplied. Assassinating Blaster is the only way Aunty Entity can reassert control over the underground and become the sole governor of Bartertown. Master is to be spared, since he is the brains of the pair and the only one who knows how to run Underworld.
As Aunty Entity offers Max the deal, she walks over to the edge of her elevated home and looks down at Bartertown.
"Come with me. Look around, mister," she says to Max. "All this I built; up to my armpits in blood and sh--.
"Where there was desert, now there's a town. Where there was robbery, there's trade. Where there was despair, now there's hope. Civilization. And I'll do anything to protect it. Today, it's necessary to kill a man. What d'you say"
In order to create a legitimate reason for the kill, it is arranged for Max to insult Master-Blaster, and provoke a dual. Fortunately, a reason for such an insult is right at hand: Max's stolen truck has been conveyed to Master-Blaster. As the two person unit parades around on the truck, during Bartertown's outdoor evening festivities, Max demands it back, and Master responds by demanding that Max fight Blaster to the death in Thunderdome.
Thunderdome. It's a giant bird cage of a structure in which the two opponents will be suspended on tethers, as they bounce around and grab for weapons hanging from the bars. It is also a night's entertainment, live theater for the masses, who hang all over the outside of the cage, holding on to the lattice of vertical and horizontal bars, looking in on the action. Or, rather, it is a parody of what once passed for entertainment. Just as Bartertown has recycled the objects of the preholocaust past, and turned them into the bizarre mélange of the present, so it has recycled our entertainment, but with a twist: this entertainment looks like fantasy, but it is a deadly reality.
"A spinning, Vegas-style, sign announces the night's offering: "Live! Thunderdome."
As the show begins, the master of ceremonies, a particularly ghoulish character in a black robe, with a scepter, who looks like he immigrated from death (or is death -- the Grim Reaper), announces the theme of the evening:
"Listen all of you. Listen all of you. This is the truth of it. Fighting leads to killing and killing gets to warring and that was damn near the death of us all.
"Look at us now -- busted up and everyone talking about hard rain.
"But we've learned; by the dust of 'em all, Bartertown's learned. Now when men get to fighting, it happens here (in Thunderdome) and it finishes here. Two men enter. One man leaves."
The audience chants: "Two men enter. One man leaves."
Then he continues:
"And right now, I've got two men
"-- two men with a gut full of fear.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls:
"dyin' times here."
After some gladiator-type action, bouncing around Thunderdome, Max bests Blaster by blowing a high-pitched whistle that has the effect of incapacitating him. But when Blaster's headpiece is knocked off and Max sees that the giant is obviously retarded, with the face and mind of a child, he refuses to kill him.
"This wasn't part of the deal," he says to Aunty Entity in front of the audience of the town, revealing to everyone their secret agreement to do away with Blaster.
And so, after Blaster is given his dyin' time by one of Aunty's soldiers, it is decided that Max will be punished for breaking their agreement. His sentence will be decided by a spin of the Wheel. Whatever category the wheel lands on -- acquittal, life imprisonment, gulag, amputation, and so on -- will be his fate.
Once again, the ghoulish master of ceremonies explains the moral of it all to the crowd:
"All our lives hang by a thread. Now we've got a man waiting for sentence. But ain't it the truth. You take your chances with the law. Justice is only a role of the dice, a flip of the coin, a turn of the Wheel."
Like Thunderdome, the Wheel is a demonic parody of entertainment, one that takes a metaphor and an imitation, and makes it real. Whereas today's entertainment industry creates contests that are imitations of genuine fights, Thunderdome turns the contest back into a real fight, to the death. Whereas the entertainment industry stages television and movie dramas that depict fights that are about upholding society's moral order, Thunderdome stages a real one to uphold that order.
And whereas today's Wheel of Fortune-type game shows offer a theatrical metaphor to represent the uncertainty of life and death, Bartertown's Wheel turns the metaphor into a game with genuine life and death stakes. In place of law, which is supposed to be predictable and proportionate to the crime, it offers a demonic parody of law that is (more or less) as unpredictable and unfair as chance. That, in turn, becomes a new, living metaphor, for the precariousness of life in an age when life is barely hanging on. Both Thunderdome and the Wheel eliminate the make-believe but not the theater, to create a form of what we now commonly refer to as reality programming.
In any case, the wheel turns and, to Aunty's relief (she secretly likes him) Max is to be exiled into the desert, in place of some of the more gruesome punishments he might have been subjected to. Like a ritual scapegoat, he is tied up and mounted backwards on a horse, with a giant papier-mâché-like carnival head placed over his head, a pilgrim to nowhere.
And so, once again, Max finds himself lost in the desert. In the course of his wandering, his horse is swallowed by the sand. Unconscious, and near death, Max is saved by a tribe of children who take him to their home: an oasis at the bottom of a rift in the desert, surrounded by cliffs. Down in this crevice of a world, they live in a primitive paradise that has the look of an Aboriginal never-never land.
The children are convinced that Max is someone named Captain Walker who has come to fly them home to a place they believe is called "tomorrow-morrow land". As Max lies there, white as death, the children spin an old record album, while a teenage boy, who appears to be the priest of the group, talks into a broken radio headset, in the mistaken belief he can make contact with the unconscious man.
"...Delta Fox X-ray. Come in. Is anybody up there?," the teenager says, as all the children crowd around Max, as he lays there unconscious. "Can you read me, Walker? Delta Fox X-ray...."
Having just escaped the nightmare of Bartertown, where he was dragged into other people's agendas, it seems that Max has now been incorporated into this tribe of children's waking dream.
Max wakes up and one of the oldest of the group, a young woman named Savannah reveals who and what they are by telling the tribe's central myth, which is a mixed up description of the events that led to the destruction of civilization and the stranding of the children. As the tribe puts it, she engages in "the tell." As she does so, drawings on rock are used to illustrate the story, and Max is told to look through a hand-held picture viewer at some old slides, which show scenes from the past that have been misunderstood and incorporated into the tribe's mythology.
As she explains it in the tell, it seems there were once people who dwelled in a paradise of tomorrow-morrow land, with "highscrapers" and "v-v-v-video" and with a special "knowin(g)" that is now lost. Then a catastrophe, a "pocsaclypse", took place, which ushered in time and left everyone at the mercy of "Mr. Dead". But one group, led by someone named Captain Walker, escaped into the air and ultimately crashed on earth, where they gave birth to the children. Then, one day, missing what they had left behind, they returned home to tomorrow-morrow land, promising they would send someone to bring the children back, as well.
During the telling of the story, the children use the picture viewer to show Max a slide of what they believe is tomorrow-morrow land. It is actually a photograph of preholocaust Sydney (Australia).
Out in the desert, near the oasis, half-buried in sand, is a large airliner which is the plane that the actual Captain Walker crash-landed. According to an engraving on rock, the surviving adult passengers trekked out into the desert to find help, leaving the children to fend for themselves, which the children have misinterpreted as the adults' return to the paradise of highscrapers from which they came.
And so the children wait, expecting the plane in the desert, flown by their messiah, Captain Walker, to rise up at the appointed moment and take them home.
Although it may not have been obvious to all American audiences, the children are clearly based on Australian aborigines. Their clothes and hair and body paint are a take-off on that of the Aborigines; their myth is a fictionalized re-creation of Aborigine myths of the dreamtime, recounting the origin of the world; and their rituals, including the storytelling, the audience participation that is shown taking place during the story, and the use of drawings to illustrate the story, are all references to Aboriginal rituals.
In the movie, these elements are depicted as have been blended together with the bits and pieces of the past and put together by the children into something like a post-apocalyptic cargo cult. As in Bartertown, so here, the past has been turned into parody. But in place of the sardonic amusements of Bartertown, this crevice of a world has transformed the past into a false myth that the children mistake for the truth.
In showing us two societies that are demonic parodies of the present, the movie is offering us an idea of what culture is, as postmodernism sees it, in which ideas and objects and behaviors get appropriated, transformed, and turned into entertainment, and myth and ritual to meet our needs. But this is postmodernism as junk salvage, picking over the bones of the dead to see if there are any rings on the fingers.
But the movie also shows us myth and ritual as something people use to express their pained awareness of what they have lost. In Bartertown, the ritual of Thunderdome expresses this sense of loss by confining violence to the arena, to ensure it will never again ruin the world. The Wheel expresses this same sense of loss by acting as a living metaphor for the vulnerability people now have to death and suffering, something civilization once, to a significant degree, protected them from, before the wheel of fortune landed on war. The children are also painfully aware of what they have lost, although they misunderstand the particulars. They are castaways in the desert, waiting to be lifted up and taken home. Like the small society of people depicted in Gilligan's Island, they long to be rescued and returned to the wonders of consumer society.
What both societies have lost, of course, is our present. We are the paradise they yearn for.
But Max can no more take the children to tomorrow-morrow land than he can undo time. So, after he fails to fly them there, a group of children, led by Savannah, the one who did the tell, tries to go on a potentially fatal journey into the desert in search of it, themselves. Max shoots his gun to intimidate them into stopping.
"Now listen good," he says. "I'm not Captain Walker. I'm the guy who keeps Mr. Dead in his pocket and I say we're gonna stay here and we're gonna live a long time and we're gonna be thankful."
Having altered the course of Bartertown, for better or worse, but not been in a position to re-create it in the image of his more humane values, Max now tries to do so with this more manageable world. But, this world, too, is determined to go its own way and in the end, Savannah leads one group of the children into the desert. Max goes after them and finds them deep in the middle of nowhere, but not before the sand has swallowed a child.
Lo and behold, Max and this group of innocent dreamers are now stranded in the wasteland, not far, as fortune would have it, from Bartertown. With no way of getting back to the oasis on their own, Max leads the group secretly inside and down into Underworld. He intends to contact the dwarf, Master, (who is now a slave, without Blaster there for protection), and use his assistance to get home.
Of course, the intruders are found out and another battle ensues. With the help of Master and another slave named Pigkiller, who was sentenced to a life in Underworld for killing a pig to feed his family, they best the soldiers. As Max and the kids and Master pile into a train car that is at the center of Underworld, Pigkiller starts it up and rams their way out. Things immediately start collapsing and exploding, as Bartertown is destroyed, (which seems like a lot of devastation to wreak when all they really needed was some water to tide them over on the trip home). As havoc spreads, the camera shows us the master of ceremonies, once so sardonic when on stage, now in a panic, screaming, as his world is being destroyed. Reality, it seems is only a living metaphor when it happens to somebody else.
There then follows the chase of the junkmobiles as Aunty Entity and her crew go after Max in vehicles pasted together from bits and pieces of vehicles past,, in an effort to get back their dwarf., who is still, presumably, the only one who knows how to produce electricity. When the train car can go no further on the track it is on, the dwarf, Pigkiller, the kids and Max make their way down into the underground shelter of the man who robbed Max initially, (which is conveniently nearby) and they force him to fly them to safety in his plane. But there isn't enough open space between the plane and the oncoming junkmobiles, for the plane to take off, so Max gets out and drives a truck into the oncoming junkmobiles, to clear a path. The plane ascends and Max is left behind on the ground, where Aunty Entity, who is much too subtle to be your average murderous dictator, leaves him alive, and heads back to rebuild Bartertown.
In the second to last scene, this strange remnant of refugees that left in the plane makes its way in the air to the ruins of a city. The camera shows us their awe-struck faces as they see what once existed on the earth.
In the last scene, Savannah is doing "the tell" in the broken English of her tribe, to what has now become a village full of people who have gathered to live in the ruins of the city. Her words begin while we are still looking at the city from the air, and feeling the sense of awe and loss that she and the others in the plane feel as they see it. Then, as we continue to hear her words, we see the village full of people sitting on the floor in the shell of one of the city's ruined buildings, listening to her recite the tell, as she cradles a baby in her lap. Some of the words she uses are similar to the words she used in the earlier tell at the oasis, but now she is more mature and she has the story right:
"This you knows: the years travel fast and time after time I done the tell. But this ain't one body's tell; it's the tell of us all, and you've got to listen it and (re)member, cause what you hears today you gotta tell the newborn tomorrow.
"I's lookin behind us now, into history back. I sees those of us that got the luck and started the haul for home and I members how it led us here and how we was heartbroke cause we seen what they once was.
"One look and we knew'd we'd got it straight. Those what had gone before had the knowin and the doin and things beyond our reckonin, even beyond our dreamin.
"Time counts and keeps countin and we knows now, findin 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 wheres it's gonna lead.
"Still, in 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."
That concludes the movie. In the end, it seems, the remnant of children who went out into the desert got what they wanted, or at least an ironic version of it. They expected to take off in a giant airplane that would take them to tomorrow-morrow land, a paradise of "highscrapers." Instead, this one group of the children ended up packed inside a small jalopy of a plane that took them to the real world of skyscrapers, the ruined reality of what is left of humanity.
When they lived in the oasis, they were stranded, waiting to return to the paradise of home. What they didn't realize was that they were really stranded in myth. Now, at least, they are stranded in reality, and the tell they tell is the right one. Like the humanity depicted in Logan's Run, they will give humanity a second chance, and create history with memory and work and toil.
As Savannah explains in the tell, "Time counts and it keeps on counting." Time matters and it matters because it passes inexorably, and so part of their job now is to keep a correct record of the past so new generations will know where they came from and understand.
Max also gets what he wanted, but once again not as he expected. He wanted to re-create the world of the children into a society based in realism and his own (mostly) humane values, where they would be thankful for what they had, rather than dreaming of something else. He ends up creating that society, but it is not one he can share in. Like the tribe of children who were stranded at the oasis, (and the children who remain at the oasis), in the end, he is left behind.