When Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome hit in 1985, it was a big deal. Or at least, it was a big deal for a certain subset of kids in a certain town on a certain Long Island. I had been addicted to the film’s predecessor, The Road Warrior (a.k.a Mad Max 2), since first glimpsing the post-apocalyptic epic a couple of years earlier (either in heavy HBO rotation or on a VHS recording of the network TV version or… who can remember where at this point).
But Beyond Thunderdome, which we were actually sitting down in a theater to watch when it opened that July in 1985, was from the get-go obviously a different species – a PG-13, family-friendly adventure that, while still set in the Wasteland of the Australian Outback, also featured a bunch of cute kids who Mel Gibson’s Max had to protect.
And not just that, but the film’s apparent villain was actually pretty likable – not to mention stylish. Aunty Entity was played by the late Tina Turner, after all.
Hearing about Turner’s passing this week at the age of 83, I’m reminded of Beyond Thunderdome, which was not only the most commercial and Hollywood entry of what was back then the Mad Max trilogy (Fury Road would follow, finally, 30 years later), but also the oddest. That peculiarity was in large part the result of Turner’s presence and the rock- and pop-star theatricality she brought to the role. And while that may sound like a slight, it’s actually a compliment. For from Aunty Entity’s high tower in Bartertown, a more fantastical, cleaner, and dare I say glamorous version of the Mad Max universe showered down.
See, the Mad Max movies have always benefited from being quite different from one another. Yeah, the gazzzoline-deprived, post-fall-of-society setting is always the same (even if it’s under-sketched in the first film), but the specifics of each, and certainly the tone, have varied greatly across the four films. So a Mad Max movie starring Tina Turner in a chainmail one-piece with '80s shoulder pads, complete with omnipresent music video tie-ins – where she was still wearing that chainmail! – must’ve made perfect sense to franchise auteur George Miller and Warner Bros. at the time. How could it not?
From the first moment we meet Aunty Entity, as she drinks in the down-on-his-luck (even by end-of-the-world standards) Max and chuckles, “But he’s just a raggedy man,” it was clear that the actress-singer-legend was approaching this world on her own terms. And that’s saying a lot in a realm where everything is powered by pig shit, Aunty is engaged in a cold war with a guy (guys?) named Master Blaster who controls said pig shit, and the way disagreements are settled is, of course, via the titular Thunderdome, where the aggrieved parties hang from giant elastic lines and fight each other mid-air with spears and chainsaws… and smarts.
True, Turner had played the Acid Queen in the cracked movie version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy back in 1975, but for the most part her credits prior to Beyond Thunderdome had the singer appearing simply as herself. But that relative lack of movie acting experience just adds to the unexpected pleasures of her turn as Aunty Entity.
Take what ensues after she first meets the “raggedy man.” She and Max engage in some brief small talk where she unpacks Max’s backstory – telling her own personal saxophone player who she employs despite it being the end of the world to “play something tragic.” Next thing you know, she bites into a juicy apple as a signal to her men to attack Max. The ensuing hand-to-hand fight sees Max emerge triumphant, of course, but Aunty’s reaction isn’t as easy to predict. Her men defeated, she simply smiles broadly, satisfied: “Congratulations. You’re the first to survive the audition.”
If Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome suffers, it’s from the fact that it’s two separate films trying to be one. Max’s journey into the Wasteland – Aunty sends him there to die, a patsy after her Machiavellian plan to take out Master Blaster fails – results in him finding those aforementioned cute kids. And while that part of the film offers its own pleasures, it takes us away from Aunty Entity and her malformed and deprived/depraved minions back in Bartertown. We don’t even get a second round in Thunderome, and the movie is called Thunderdome!
Which is to say, there’s not enough Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, but the Tina Turner that we do get is a key ingredient to what is perhaps the strangest Mad Max movie of them all. That we only got half a movie’s worth of Aunty, that her character doesn’t die by the end of the film, and indeed that she has something of a face-turn in its final moments (she spares Max’s life despite his totally ruining her whole operation) leaves one disappointed that we never saw the character again. But at this point all we can do is say to Aunty Entity, and Turner, what she said to Max at the end of Thunderdome: “Goodbye, soldier.”
Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!