“Who run Bartertown?”

“Who run Bartertown?”

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In anticipation of the dystopian Aussie crime drama The Rover, check out these other post-apocalyptic visions.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride.”

The third Mad Max movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, is best known for its bricolage production design—which influenced decades of post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies and games—and for Tina Turner’s time capsule theme song. Yet, it’s the film’s strangely memorable dialogue, written by Terry Hayes and George Miller, that most thoroughly reflects its vision of a post-nuclear-fallout world.

Beyond Thunderdome is set roughly 15 years after Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, in an Australian wasteland seemingly salvaged from bits of Lawrence Of Arabia, spaghetti Westerns, Peter Pan, and Metal Hurlant. It finds series protagonist Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) visiting two contrasting societies: the proto-capitalist, pig-powered Bartertown, and The Crack In The Earth, an oasis inhabited by feral children who have created a cargo cult around a crashed 747. (It’s implied that the kids’ parents were survivors of the plane crash, who abandoned them to cross the desert and possibly join Bartertown.) 

Though Bartertown is violent, ruthless, and populated exclusively by adults, its inhabitants speak in ways that suggest a regression into childhood: They call their leader (Tina Turner) “Aunty,” and seem especially susceptible to rhymes (“Master Blaster,” “H2O, that’s my go”) and catchphrases (“Bust a deal, face the Wheel,” “Two men enter, one man leaves,” “Fighting leads to killing and killing gets to warring”). Aunty rules Bartertown like a kindergarten teacher, with the titular Thunderdome as a time-out corner; like children, her subjects mimic her peculiar speech. (The use of “raggedy man” as a pejorative is especially telling.) 

When Max arrives in town, he immediately stands out as an outsider because of the way he talks. His speech is simple and direct; the Bartertown residents speak in deliberately constructed phrases, which suggest truisms or folk sayings. In the space of three or so scenes, Hayes and Miller’s dialogue manages to create a society of meme-like slogans. In contrast, the kids of The Crack In The Earth speak a patchwork English sewn together from phrases they remember (or misremember) from early childhood, chock full of Finnegans Wake-ish eggcorns (”Pox-eclipse”) and eccentric reduplications (”Tomorrow-morrow-land”).  

Though Beyond Thunderdome’s worldview might be dichotomous to a fault, it takes on a certain elegance in the dialogue. Max, the only character who speaks in identifiably modern English, serves as the audience surrogate. Bartertown is trapped in Autny’s catchphrases. The kids, with their shifty grammar, suggest an evolving language, and a hope for the future. 

Availability: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.


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