Condensed Cyberpunk Cinema Classics
There are those who say that the third Mad Max film,Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, was the worst of the trilogy. But then again, there are also those who think The Road Warrior was the first Mad Max film.
To be fair, Beyond Thunderdome is unlike the first two Max films, and in its difference it bears comparison to what is perhaps the greatest of science-fiction trilogies, the original Star Wars trilogy. Despite a comparatively low-tech feel and bad dialogue, both Star Wars and Mad Max managed to strike a chord with movie-goers, and are the best of their respective trilogies in many regards for what they accomplish. With more action-packed scripts and deeper character development, both The Road Warrior and The Empire Strikes Back are arguably the most entertaining films. And for their scope and not-so-hidden Oedipal/mythological overtones, both Beyond Thunderdome and Return of the Jedi are perhaps the most deeply meaningful, albeit despite at once being the most commercialistic.
In fact, it is with Return of the Jedi (RotJ hereafter) firmly in mind that we'll explore Beyond Thunderdome (BT hereafter), because since both films are firmly grounded in mythical structure, it's easy to see what they were trying to do when we compare them to one another.
Both of the aforementioned films start out in the desert--BT in the Australian outback, RotJ on Tattooine. In BT, Mad Max is wandering in the desert, having lost just about all of his worldly possessions at the end of The Road Warrior, when he was duped into carrying a load of sand so that others could escape. Now, of course, he's got more sand than he knows what to do with, but alas, no fuel, which is what he'd need to drive a car. Instead, he's stuck with what is effectively a stagecoach, a camel-pulled cart that's nothing more than a way to get from point A to point B and back again.
Max is looking for something--himself. Being the anti-hero, he's plunged himself into a hellish cyberpunk wasteland, a sort of Biblical wandering in the desert that all protagonists must do at some point in their journey. He's an anti-hero in search of a hero, a man in search of himself. In RotJ, of course, the hero is Luke Skywalker, come to Tattooine to search for his friend (and the film's anti-hero) Han Solo. Max is both of these people rolled into one--scoundrel ragamuffin lost in the desert, and heroic soul in search of what he once was.
Max is attacked (as usual) and his belongings are stolen by a pair of almost comical thieves, father and son, tall and short (C-3PO and R2-D2, anyone?), whose bungling interference ultimately leads Max directly to Mos Eisley... I mean, Bartertown.
Bartertown is a ramshackle collection of scraps and odds and ends, a place where bounty hunters and scavengers and warriors and thieves all flock in order to barter with one another. Into this world of scum has come a female warrior-chief, Auntie Entity (played wonderfully by Tina Turner) who, with her fellow rebel warriors, keeps some semblance of order amongst the chaos. Unfortunately, the town is really run from the Underground, where a being known as Jabba the Hutt... I mean, Master Blaster... rules supreme. Auntie Entity is helpless, a veritable slave in his dungeon, as Master Blaster controls the energy supply to the city from within his world of dung.
Wandering into this hell in search of himself comes Max, who quickly meets up with Auntie Entity and hatches a plot. Max is to meet with Master Blaster and challenge him to a dual in the town's gladitorial arena, the Thunderdome; something Max is certainly willing to do anyway since Master Blaster is now the owner of Max's stolen vehicle. Max meets the beast (who is actually two creatures in one, Master being the dwarf who rides on Blaster's brawny back. And of course, Max gets to fight the stronger half--Blaster.
Listen all! 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 them all...Bartertown learned. Now, when men get to fighting, it happens here! And it finishes here! Two men enter; one man leaves.
The Thunderdome itself is a brilliant concept, one that has reappeared in everything from Hip Hop stage sets to the basketball court in Escape From LA to nine inch nails' "Wish" video, a dome of steel and wire resembling nothing so much as a birdcage. Within the gladitorial pit, Blaster and Max bounce around on elastic bungee cords, attacking each other with weapons strewn about the arena (in much the same way as Luke battles the Rancor beast in RotJ). Ultimately, however, it is Max's hidden weapon which results in his victory--by blowing a hidden high-pitched whistle, he incapacitates Blaster.
But it's not over there--Max removes Blaster's helmet, and discovers that the brutal beast is not truly a monster, but merely a simple retarded man, one not fully in control of his own actions. Max refuses to kill him, and so goes back on his deal with Auntie Entity. Blaster is killed anyway, and Max's life is put up to a spin of the wheel. The wheel turns, and Max is banished to death in the desert (in much the same way as Luke and company are to be fed to the Sarlacc Pit in the desert after Luke bests the Rancor). And so Max is sent off to death, and he quickly succumbs to the merciless heat and falls unconscious.
Fast-forward to Endor.
Max is not doomed to die; he is discovered and rescued by a tribe of cute little beasts, half-child, half-savage, who recognize that he is part of one of their legends, and drag him back to their home--an oasis-like world of ropes, vines and caves within a rift in the desert. They have a legend of a man named Captain Walker who came from the sky in a plane once, and will come again to rescue the children and take them to Tomorrow-morrow Land (which is actually pre-holocaust Sydney, Australia).
Max is not, of course, Captain Walker, and when he disappoints the children by refusing to fly them off to their magical heaven, a group of the children heads off into the desert to find their own salvation. Max, of course, feels guilty and obligated to pursue them, and he eventually finds them deep in the desert, close to Bartertown. It's now obvious that if they try to return directly to the Oasis, they will all die, and so Max opts to lead the crew deep into the corridors below the Death Star (Bartertown) on a veritable suicide mission, in the hopes that he will be able to pull out a miracle and retrieve a vehicle that can take them all back to their Oasis.
Max sneaks inside and discovers Master, who has now become a slave to Auntie Entity without Blaster to protect him. The dwarf joins the other little savages, and they all hatch a plot to escape by stealing a train car deep at the center of the Underworld. As they make their escape, Bartertown erupts in explosions, and Auntie Entity and crew give pursuit in their dune buggies as the rebels rocket across the desert towards freedom. The train quickly runs out of track, however, and Max and crew are stuck in the desert... conveniently near the man who stole Max's truck in the first place, a man who also conveniently owns a plane that can fly them all to safety.
Just as he did in The Road Warrior, and just as Luke does in RotJ, Max opts to sacrifice himself for the good of the others, the little people, by driving a truck into the center of the onrushing Thunderdome jalopies so that the plane filled with children can have room to take off. He does, they do, and Max is surrounded by Auntie Entity and her men, helpless. Which is when she looks at him, smiles, and says
Well, ain't we a pair... Raggedy Man.
The anti-hero has come full circle, found the hero inside himself and lost something in the process. In saving the children from certain death, Max has doomed himself to life in the desert once again. To be fair, the end of RotJ is certainly more optimistic than the ending of BT, but both end in much the same way, a battle for the sake of a bunch of little savages, of those with technology versus those without it, ending with savages triumphant thanks to stolen technology, explosions, the death of an enemy who was not truly evil, and the near escape from death of our anti-hero turned hero turned anti-hero, once again back where he was when he started, on a search for himself.
The mythic structures present in both films are clear--hero's descent into hell, combat, resurrection into heaven, the search for one's self, the motley crew of heroes surrounding him, helping him on his journey, but ultimately leaving him to his own devices. The themes in BT are also the keys to every great Cyberpunk adventure:
1. The loss of something found: Time and time again in Cyberpunk stories, the central figure is bequeathed with his "magic sword," and promptly loses it and is forced to do battle without it. In Escape From New York and its sequel, Snake Plissken is given mounds of weapons and technology, all of which he promptly loses during the course of his journey. In Neuromancer and Johnny Mnemonic, Case and Johnny (respectively) each have special magic toys they use to do things with their nervous systems and minds... and both have that gift crippled right from the get go. In The Road Warrior and BT, Mad Max has weapons and vehicles, and loses them almost immediately. And so on. The short of it: Cyberpunk isn't necessarily about a man with wonderful toys battling bad guys with wonderful toys. Often, it's about a central figure who has to face bad guys with better toys than he has. Cyberpunk isn't about having. It's about wanting, getting, and losing, an endless search for a Heaven that can't quite be achieved.
2. The finding of something lost: Cyberpunk is often about a search, trying to uncover a secret, whether about one's own self or one's client. Max is in search of water, of fuel, and ultimately of himself. Snake is in search of the President, of a tape, of a way to save himself from death. In Johnny Mnemonic, Johnny is in search of the lost codekey so he can save his own life. And so on. Finding what is lost is ultimately the point of the whole thing. The search gives meaning.
3. A lie becomes truth: Often the truth of the matter isn't known until you're already knee deep in dung, so to speak, and by the time you realize you've found the truth you wish you hadn't. In The Terminator, the ultimate truth concealed in lie is that the man hunting Sarah down is not a man, but a cyborg killing machine. In Blade Runner, the truth (arguably) concealed in lie is that Deckard, hunting down replicants, is himself a replicant. And in BT, Max discovers that by eliminating the "evil" Blaster, he only eliminates a helpless, mindless creature and turns the reins of power over to a worse evil--Auntie Entity.
4. A truth becomes a lie: Even when you think you see the truth behind the lie, that truth itself is usually obscured in several layers of untruth, shades of gray covering over the white or black. Max is hunted down by Auntie Entity, but she really likes him and so lets him live. In Escape From LA, Snake goes about his mission thinking he'll die, when in fact he's only suffering from a mild case of the flu. And so on. The point being, even when your players have uncovered the lie and discovered the truth, there's still a way to pervert that truth and turn it back on its own head. Keeping 'em guessing is a lot of fun.
But don't keep me guessing--let me know what you think. And while you're at it, help me decide which movie from 1987 to cover next week. We've got Robocop, The Running Man and Predator, any of which could be said to be Cyberpunk, any of which could be said to be mere science-fiction. And of course, there's bound to be someone who'll email me and tell me that I've forgotten some classic bit of Cyberpunk cinema, and I'll be obligated to mention it. So go ahead, reveal your truths to me. Fiat Veritas Pereat Vita. And by the way, happy new Millennium. Let the year of the Cyberpunk begin!
Condensed Cyberpunk Cinema Classics:
The One | Unbreakable | The Matrix | Dark City | The Crow: City of Angels | Escape From LA
City of Lost Children | Strange Days | The Crow | Leon | Nemesis | Sneakers
T2: Judgment Day | La Femme Nikita | Batman | Predator | Robocop | Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Max Headroom | The Terminator | Videodrome | Tron | Blade Runner | Escape From NY