As evidence of Beyond Thunderdome’s illegitimate claim to the Mad Max name, Fury Road is the smoking, flame-spitting guitar-gun. But if Beyond Thunderdome has been abandoned by one of its fathers, its road from exile to adoption has proven to be an astonishingly short one. Just one week after the release of Fury Road came Disney’s Tomorrowland, an original, futurist sci-fi adventure story that’s a truer sequel to Beyond Thunderdome than Miller’s latest film. Despite a seeming absence of comments from director Brad Bird, or screenwriter Damon Lindelof that conclusively link the two films, a side-by-side comparison reveals Tomorrowland as conspicuously indebted to the concepts and characters that Beyond Thunderdome brought to life 30 years ago.
The most obvious connection is right there in Tomorrowland’s title. In the film, a reclusive, cynical, older man, Frank Walker (George Clooney), teams up with a bright-eyed youth, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), to find Tomorrowland, a lost utopia separated by time and space from the soon-to-be-doomed Earth of the barely-distant future. In Beyond Thunderdome, a reclusive, cynical, older Max (Mel Gibson) corrals a band of young children in search of Tomorrow-morrow Land, a lost pocket of civilization separated from the already-doomed Earth of the barely-distant-er future.
The desert children of Beyond Thunderdome form part of The Lost Tribe, descendants of a 747 plane that crashed mid-apocalypse. Handed down the tale of a better life waiting for them in Tomorrow-morrow Land, the children mistake Max for the prophecy’s original foreteller, the plane’s captain. With Max’s arrival, they expect the downed, skeletal 747 to once more “catch the wind,” and fly them to paradise. In a similar vein, Casey is part of a younger generation dealing with the long-unfulfilled promise of spaceflight and travel to better worlds. Instead of prophecy, Casey has only her unwavering optimism and gumption to keep her spirits up. And rather than waiting for someone to come and show her the future (though this does come to pass), Casey actively tries to prevent its delay, sabotaging equipment meant to deconstruct NASA’s gutted launch platform in Cape Canaveral.
As Tomorrowland progresses, the parallels to Beyond Thunderdome seem more intentional the more granular they become. Where Casey is able to glimpse Tomorrowland through a perception-altering antique pin, the children of the Lost Tribe see their Tomorrow-morrow Land through slide photos on a proto-View-Master. Where Frank left Tomorrowland jaded by the dream of a promised land gone unfulfilled, Max has memories of the broken old world, and its complete destruction keeping him from believing the tribe’s legend. The captain that the Lost Tribe mistakes Max for shares Frank’s surname of Walker, just as the tribe’s leading female, Savannah Nix (Helen Buday), shares hers with Tomorrowland’s pessimistic leader, Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie).
There are numerous other corkboard-conspiracy ways of linking the films through little references (the Thunderdome itself is a Stone Age double for the ominous spherical MacGuffin in Tomorrowland, and Casey’s tiny ally Athena [Raffey Cassidy] at one point straddles a giant robot like she were Beyond Thunderdome’s Master atop the hulking Blaster), but the conceptual symmetry of the pair is ultimately what binds them better than any nods, intentional or otherwise, by Bird and Lindelof. “Two men enter, one man leaves” is the motto and law of Beyond Thunderdome’s Bartertown, a hardscrabble but stable outpost that’s as close a recreation of old world life as yet found in the wasteland. The phrase makes for a simpler, survivalist take on Tomorrowland’s own existential duel: two halves of humanity’s outlook, one of light and hope, the other of darkness and despair, forever fighting for the steering wheel of mankind as it heads towards the future.