Nostalgia trip: three takes on thunder - Georges Miller and Ogilvie, Ray Bradbury and Richard Wagner's resounding visions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:38pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:38pm


Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Mel Gibson, Tina Turner
Directors: George Miller, George Ogilvie

Science fiction franchises don't get more dystopian than the Mad Max series, three of the most unrelentingly brutal and pessimistic visions of the future ever on film.

Ostensibly a thinking man's action movie, first instalment Mad Max introduces us to a post-apocalyptic Australia, where power is measured by the petrol needed to speed away from the marauding gangs that survived the nuclear holocaust. These bloodthirsty motor-pirates, borne on vehicles customised for speed and murder, haunt the Outback highways that offer the only escape from the destroyed cities. In this mix we find former cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), whose sense of duty amid the violent chaos propels the series.

While the first two iterations are generally regarded as the best of the series, it's the third episode, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, that pulled in the money, made a star of Gibson and saw the budget swell to Hollywood proportions. It was also given a huge dollop of glamour thanks to the inspired casting of in-vogue pop star Tina Turner as the villain, Aunty Entity.

Finding himself in Bartertown, a terrifying tribal hill fort of the future where petrol is produced and traded for basically anything, Max is forced to battle to the death with Masterblaster, a dwarf-giant duo whose pig population produces the excrement essential to the manufacture of the petrol.

Max realises he's been duped into the battle as part of Entity's power play to oust Masterblaster, and when he refuses to kill his foe, all hell is let loose. Bartertown falls, Entity swears revenge and so begins the hunt for Max that makes up the high-octane remainder of the film.

Shot amid the heightened fear of cold war nuclear destruction and the "me-me-me" generation of the Reagan years, the films are a gritty satire on society's moral and actual breakdown, with Max a symbol of humanity's struggle against greed and power, and a beacon of hope for an increasingly uncertain future.

While Thunderdome is the most American of the three movies, it retains the Aussie humour and symbolism that made the previous two films so engrossing.

But beneath the road rage, the guns and sadistic killers is Max's greatest achievement: Bartertown is an insightful commentary on the free-market economics that was being wrought on the world at the time of the movie's making. It posed the notion that in the soulless, lawless chaos where commerce is the sole reason to exist, the only logical outcome is destruction.

The fourth instalment in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road, is scheduled to be released on May 14. 

Charlie Carter



A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories
by Ray Bradbury
William Morrow

Thunder in this outlandish story stems from the steps of a monster: a dinosaur, whose reputation precedes it.

"The jungle was wide and full of twitterings, rustlings, murmurs, and sighs. Suddenly it all ceased, as if someone had shut a door. Silence. A sound of thunder. Out of the mist, 100 yards away, came Tyrannosaurus rex," writes science fiction master Ray Bradbury.

The tall tale first appeared in Collier's magazine in 1952 and Playboy in 1956, before featuring in a Bradbury anthology titles The Golden Apples of the Sun, which was reissued a decade ago.

A Sound of Thunder is far more than a script in search of a disaster movie. The story unfolds in the year 2055 when time travel has come to fruition. Tapping the market, a firm named Time Safari Inc offers cashed-up curiosity seekers the chance to rewind in time and hunt extinct species including dinosaurs.

Enter a hunter named Eckels, who pays US$10,000 to join a hunting party that will go back 60 million years to the late Cretaceous period. Participants will try to bag a specimen of the ultimate apex predator, Tyrannosaurus rex.

When they arrive in the past, the guide, Travis, and his assistant, Lesperance, warn Eckels and the two other hunters - Billings and Kramer - to influence as few events as possible before they return. It's a tall order, but the trio must try because tweaks could trigger disastrous changes in the path of history.

To Travis' angry disappointment, Eckels strays from the safe, prescribed metal path. After dispatching the thunder lizard, he narrowly makes it back to 2055, only to find that, ominously, despite no time officially passing, society has changed.

The reason for the changes, it transpires, is a subtle determinant - a crushed butterfly stuck to the mud on Eckels' boots. The insect's death has sparked a string of insidious changes that warps the present. Cue a clap of thunder, which implies Eckels' death from a gunshot fired by the vengeful Travis.

A Sound of Thunder is over-the-top melodrama, but it lives on, buttressed by the "butterfly effect", which means just one event, however small, can change the course of the universe forever.

Physicist Edward Lorenz coined the phrase, inspired by Bradbury's story, which ranks as one of the most republished science fiction works of all time.

David Wilson



Der Ring des Nibelungen
by Richard Wagner

Music doesn't get any more thunderous than Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The operatic tetralogy, which runs for between 16 and 20 hours depending on who is wielding the baton, uses an expanded orchestra featuring 18 anvils, steer horns, Chinese gongs and instruments specially developed by Wagner himself.

So thunderous is the music that Wagner built a special opera house, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, to provide acoustics that would allow the opera singers to be heard over it. The tetralogy, which is usually referred to collectively as the Ring Cycle, is generally performed over four consecutive nights.

A high point of the Romantic era, it's the ultimate expression of Teutonic mythology.

The Ring Cycle consists of four parts, with the last written first: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The Ride of the Valkyrie, from Die Walküre, made its mark on popular culture when American director Francis Ford Coppola used it to accompany the helicopter attack in his film Apocalypse Now.

Wagner, unusually for a composer of that era, wrote the libretto himself, drawing on sources that included Norse mythology and the mediaeval German epic poem Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelung). Wagner began the story by sketching out brief sections of the libretto like a modern-day scriptwriter. He started writing the story in 1848, began composing the music in 1850, and worked on it for about 28 years.

The story, written in Wagner's native German, is long and winding, but it's not impenetrable. Aspects include the titular magical ring of power fashioned by a dwarf from gold stolen from the magical Rhine Maidens; the Teutonic gods, led by Wotan, and their adversaries, the giants; the Germanic hero, Siegfried; the Valkyrie Brünnhilde; and the destruction of Valhalla, the home of the gods, by fire. Wotan steals the ring from the dwarf, but the giants steal it from him.

The Ring Cycle is now a canon of Western opera, but it was innovative when first performed in 1876. Wagner is the first important composer to use the leitmotif, a technique he has become associated with, although he didn't invent it, and never used the word. Leitmotifs are short musical phrases that are associated with characters, situations and concepts, and appear throughout as a reminder of these.

The Ring Cycle has many ardent fans, though unfortunately, one of them in the 20th century was Adolf Hitler, who felt it expressed his nationalistic Nazi ideals. Wagner was a socialist whose beliefs led him into exile from Germany for a time; he was also a vocal anti-Semite.

Richard James Havis