Thursday, October 31, 2019

Terminator: Salvation (2009)

In Terminator: Salvation (2009), John Connor (Christian Bale) commands a resistance unit against the advancing forces of the A.I., Skynet, in 2018, a full fifteen years after Judgment Day.  

Connor learns that Skynet is planning to kill off high-profile targets, including Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) which could not only change the outcome of the conflict, but eliminate John from existence all together.  

While he tries to convince his military superior (Michael Ironside) of the situation, a mystery man, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthingon) also shows up, creating a quandary for Connor.

Can Connor trust Marcus Wright, and if so, can he use him to help rescue many captive, including Reese, from Skynet's grasp?

In light of McG's underwhelming Terminator: Salvation  the third film in the Terminator cycle, Rise of the Machine, now looks like an absolute masterpiece.

To cut to the chase, the fourth film is a colossal disappointment, a flat-line thriller that never raises the heartbeat, never engages the heart, and never, for a moment, crafts a world or characters that we can believe in. It substitutes loud explosions for thrills and inserts off-the-shelf platitudes about the "human heart" for genuine character development.

Most disturbingly, John Connor (previously played by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl) has been transformed from quirky, ingenious individualist into a buff, strong-but-silent, dunder-headed action hero willing to leap before looking into any danger, small or large. The character's inaugural scene in Terminator: Salvation makes this trait a literal truth.

Now an infantryman of the year 2018, Connor (Christian Bale) -- without a second look -- dives into a vast subterranean machine complex attached to nothing but a tether. Connor can apparently defy the laws of gravity since he literally stops on a dime in mid-air -- without injuring his back or neck -- to light a torch. Then, amusingly, at the end of the sequence, we see Connor grunting and straining to climb out of the underground installation.

Free-falling and stopping his downward momentum in an instant? No problem.

But pulling himself up out of a hole? Tough work...

In the same vein, a later scene depicts Connor jumping out of an airborne helicopter into a turbulent ocean at the foot of a massive tidal wave in order to reach his chain-of-command on a submarine. We must wonder if he has become a machine himself because Connor's physical abilities would make Superman blush.

On set tantrums aside, the once-brilliant Christian Bale (think American Psycho [2000]...) has managed to appear less versatile and less emotionally-involved with each successive genre film role he's tackled, and Terminator: Salvation continues that unfortunate trend towards monosyllabic monotone. John Connor, the boy who grew up trained by his mother to be a warrior but who consciously and explicitly selected a different, unconventional path (even forbidding his pet terminator from killing humans...) has been transformed, disappointingly, into a gun-carrying, thick-necked, well-muscled commando who boasts a single tactical advantage: knowledge of the future.

And whether you believe this guy is a "false prophet" or "the key to salvation," would you -- as his military commander -- deploy him in the field where he could easily be killed; thus giving the enemy (Skynet) a substantial propaganda victory?

Terminator: Salvation is filled with violations of story logic just like that example.For instance, John Connor's wife, Kate (now played by a glazed-looking Bryce Dallas Howard...) must have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express between the events of Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation because the former veterinarian is now performing successful human heart transplant surgery.

In the field.

In a post-apocalyptic environment.

While I believe that Kate could indeed become an accomplished field medic in the fifteen year span between Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation, I don't believe the technology or education would be available to her in a post-nuclear world to learn the skills of heart transplant surgery. It's just moronic; Terminator: Salvation's final, lame gambit and reach for a "gimmick."

In broad terms, Terminator: Salvation's world does not much seem to resemble the horrifying future we caught glimpses of in the first three Terminator films.In Cameron's first film, the post-apocalyptic future was a world of perpetual night, darkness and gloom. Mankind barely survived, living atop mountainous layers of ash and debris (and human corpses...), in an unending nuclear winter. Terminators prowled and stalked by night, obliterating all resistance with dazzling, destructive lasers. 

A wicked joke in the original Terminator found a group of dirty, cold humans huddled around a TV set in an underground bunker. The light from the TV reflected on their sad, devastated faces, but as the camera swiveled around, we quickly registered that the set wasn't operational; that it was an elaborate fireplace.

Yet in Terminator: Salvation, the world around devastated Los Angeles is sun-lit, temperate, and mostly pretty safe. The resistance conveniently equips itself with Sony Vaio computer interface devices (product placement alert!), and fields military jets, helicopters, jeeps and submarines. The resistance also seems to have no problem remaining equipped with guns and ammo.  Even nuclear detonations are outrun with little concern or fuss.  Just another day on the front...

Even more baffling is the fact that all the humans in the film appear relatively healthy and well-fed. You'd think that acquiring uncontaminated food and water might be a full-time job after a worldwide nuclear winter, but Connor is buff, and Moon Bloodgood is, as a Resistance fighter pilot. Nobody mentions radiation or radiation poisoning in the film, either.  

I know that McG once expressed in an interview the idea that this is a "different" future than the one depicted in the 1984 and 1991 films because Judgment Day occurred differently in T3. But we still actually saw the nukes launch in that film, criss-crossing the country and the globe. We saw mushroom clouds too. No matter how you cut it, the planet should be deep in a nuclear winter at this juncture, and technology scarce.

Sadly, this is  also the first Terminator film in which the action scenes have failed to thrill. One particular action set-piece is a real disaster: the night-time pursuit of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) after his escape from the resistance headquarters. 

At the time of this chase, Connor is already struggling with his understanding of Wright, and has even come to sense that the man may be more than he seems...a possible ally. And yet Connor sends out attack helicopters, jeeps and soldiers to blow the guy away napalm him back into the Stone Age. It's an unmotivated action sequence, especially since Connor -- after sending in the cavalry -- makes a deal with Wright anyway. This whole sequence succeeds only in slowing down the film's march towards the climax. Like much of the film, the scene makes no narrative sense.

I can only guess why, but Terminator: Salvation -- action scenes included -- is oddly lethargic and listless. It's clear now, if it wasn't before, that Arnold Schwarzenegger's presence in the previous films made some of the clunkier moments in the franchise bearable with his over-sized charisma and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Devoid of Arnie's catalyzing presence, Salvation is dull and mechanical. A CGI Arnold shows up late in the proceedings and is fun, if pretty darn phony-looking.

There are some nice touches here, no doubt. I enjoyed hearing Linda Hamilton's voice on the Sarah Connor cassettes. I also thought it was cool that, while going rogue, Connor listens to Guns N Roses (his soundtrack of choice in Terminator 2). 

If only there was more of that rebellious spirit left in this Connor. 

And finally, the late Anton Yelchin is equally impressive as Kyle Reese, even if given relatively little to do in this story.  I wish he had more screen-time.

The flat, heartless, disappointing Terminator: Salvation reminds me of Skynet's diagnosis of Marcus Wright late in the film:

"The human condition no longer applies to you."

This is a generic blockbuster, start-to-finish, an expensively-composed "hit"-making engine dressed up in a cover of human skin.  Under the skin, however, this is junk, and the first flat-out bad Terminator movie.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Although Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) from director Jonathan Mostow is not widely considered as successful a film as either of its Cameron-helmed Terminator predecessors, its reputation has improved somewhat in the last few years, perhaps owing to the lousy quality of the follow-up, Terminator Salvation (2009), or perhaps because its own virtues have become more evident with the passage of time.

And the movie does possesses virtues. 

Mostow -- a talent who directed one of my favorite action/horror films of the 1990s, Breakdown (1997) -- stages several delirious action scenes in T3, particularly one incredible demolition-derby involving a truck and several police cars. 

But more importantly, perhaps, Terminator 3 plays cannily against our ingrained belief as experienced movie viewers that big-budget Hollywood movie franchises tend towards -- if not entropy -- then status quo. 

In other words, we go into this third movie with the (cynical?) belief that no meaningful change will occur in the chronology. 

Terminators will come. Terminators will fall. Humanity will survive. Judgment Day will be prevented.

Of course, such an assumption proves absolutely wrong here, but in a sense, viewers are “tricked” into believing it, along with lead characters John Connor (Nick Stahl) and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), right up until the very last minutes of the film.  

Thus, the movie’s ending comes up as a genuine surprise, even though, in a sense, it should be perfectly predictable. Accordingly, T3 boasts the courage of its convictions, and functions not as merely as another “terminators stalking in the past” story, but as a turning point for the entire franchise.  I have always felt that this approach grants the film a level of artistic integrity that you don’t always find in a second sequel, and which deserves some praise.

And what an ending the movie depicts! Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines ends in a blaze of glory as Judgment Day arrives and nothing can be done to stop it. The twilight of human dominance over the Earth is, paradoxically, beautiful, and lyrically visualized. You get a lump in your throat watching it, and can’t quite believe your eyes.

Uniquely, this denouement also offers the movie series a new thematic approach to understanding “fate,” which has proven one of the key elements of the franchise.  If previous entries lived by the motto “no fate what you make,” Terminator 3 makes one consider the not entirely pleasant idea that some destinies are simply meant to be and cannot be changed. You may be able to delay or forestall those destinies, but what was meant to be…will be.

Also on the positive side of the ledger, Kristanna Loken is highly-effective as the T-X, an upgraded Terminator model who can over-power and co-opt other machines, transforming them into allies.  This Terminatrix can also sample DNA through “taste” and even inflate her cleavage so as to distract leering male police officers.

Never in the film does one feel that Loken is outmatched by Schwarzenegger’s intimidating physical presence, or that he is destined to emerge triumphant from their physical confrontations.  Contrarily, Loken -- like the lithe, youthful Patrick before her -- proves that physical size isn’t a necessity when crafting a sense of menace.

If T3 disappoints in any specific regard, it involves the second act, which doesn’t live up to the promise of the first or the surprises of the third. 

Although it is nice to see Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) again, the interlude at a cemetery -- with police and a shoot-out -- feels like a bit of a time-waster given everything else happening in the story, including the activation of Skynet, the discovery of Kate Brewster’s importance in the scheme of things, and the countdown to Judgment Day. 

Also, the absence of Sarah Connor in this story doesn’t quite feel right, though it is clear that Brewster -- who reminds John of his mother -- is being groomed as the next tough female role model in the series.

So Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is not another Cameron-level entry. Yet for what it is, a solid action film with a brilliant ending, it is pretty damned good.  T3’s final moments are haunting, beautiful, and surprising, and carry the film over the finish line with a degree of shock and awe.  The apocalypse at the end of the film juices the climax, and the franchise itself, and should have provided a grand opening for the most courageous, most inventive Terminator yet made.

Of course, that didn’t happen…

“The life you knew -- all the stuff you take for granted – it’s not going to last.”

It has been years since John Connor, his Terminator protecto, and Sarah Connor prevented the 1997 onset of Judgment Day. 

Since then, Sarah has died of cancer, and John (Nick Stahl) has lived off the grid as a nomad. He lurks in the shadows, and fears that the future is, as yet, “unwritten.”

And then, one day in 2003, the war against the machines unexpectedly resumes. 

Skynet sends back in time a T-X or Terminatrix (Lokken) to kill Connor’s top lieutenants, including his future-wife, Kate Brewster (Danes). 

Fortunately, a T-850 Terminator (Schwarzenegger) has also traveled back in time to stop her. But his mission this time is not to obey Connor’s orders, but Kate’s.

A confused Kate plays catch-up, even as Connor tellers her about the birth of Skynet and the future war with Terminators. Unfortunately, the T-850 has more bad news. The military – and Kate’s father – will activate Skynet today, in response to a virus scuttling the Internet and online communications. Judgment Day comes at 6:00 pm.

Connor, Kate and the T-850 attempt to stop Judgment Day, seeking to destroy the Skynet mainframe.  But it won’t be easy…

“I feel the weight of the world bearing down on me.”

In every end, there is the seed of a new beginning. 

And in the end of human life that comes with Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines courageously closes the book on storytelling in the pre-apocalypse world, making room for a new beginning.

Pre-apocalypse storytelling has dominated the three films in the franchise and formed the very basis of the storytelling. A cyborg from the future toils in our present to end all our futures.  

Yet Rise of the Machines ends in a way that precludes further stories in this paradigm, and in the process veritably demands that the Terminator films not stagnate, but move forward, both chronologically and creatively.  It deserves some credit for this twist in the formula, even if the follow-up film, Salvation, squandered the opportunity it provided.

Terminator 3 reaches its dramatic apex in its final moments. Connor and Brewster learn that there is no Skynet mainframe to blow-up, and therefore no way to avert nuclear Armageddon. They must then stand-by as the ICBMs launch, and a new world order is forged out of fire. 

This shocking conclusion is visualized in gorgeous terms. We see wide-open, mid-western American skies, farm silos…and then the contrails of ICBMs as they launch, and criss-cross the blue sky. Then we move higher, into orbit, as the contrails blossom into terrifying nuclear mushrooms.  It is weird and counter-intuitive to suggest that our destruction could be beautiful, but Terminator 3’s final moments are shocking and weirdly elegiac. 

In the last moment before the end, we pause to see how beautiful, how fragile, our world really is. Before all is lost, we see why the world, in John Connor’s words, is such a “gift,” every single day. 

But also in this ending, in this turning point, one must note something else: the fulfillment of destiny. Since before John Connor was born, he was destined to be the great leader who frees the human race from the yoke of the oppressive machines, from Skynet.  

Together, he Sarah, and the T-800 believe they have averted that destiny, but the John Connor we meet at T-3’s beginning is not exactly thriving. He lives off the grid with “no phone, no address,” having “erased” all connections to society and other people. 

It’s not that John wants the world to end, he doesn’t. But when it does happen, in the film’s denouement, he -- like the mushroom clouds -- can at long last blossom; can become what he was meant to be all along.  A hero. 

No one wants war, no one wants destruction, but there is a difference between trying to escape destiny and facing it with courage, and that seems to be the line the film walks vis-à-vis John. He is finally put into a position where he cannot deny what is coming, and must accept it.  “There was never any stopping it,” he recognizes, at long last.

And as I wrote before, John’s journey is on a parallel track with the Terminator franchise.  It can no longer keep telling the same stories of traveling back in time and fighting the war with the machines in the past (our present). 

Like John, the franchise accepts its destiny in this film, and that is, finally, to tell the rest of John’s story, to show him as the great leader we have heard so much about in the first three films. The franchise must move into the future, post-apocalyptic world now.

One may notice that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is book-ended by nuclear mushroom clouds, one at the beginning of the film (in John’s imagination) and one at the end, in real life. 

Between these two flowers of destruction, John learns to accept his destiny, and no longer tries to change it, or wriggle his way out of it. Again, this is a significant change for the saga, a repudiation of the long-standing franchise aesthetic that fate is elastic and our actions can change it.  I’m not saying that I feel one philosophy is better than the other, only that Terminator 3 provides us a shift in thinking that, again, pushes the franchise forward.  It suggests that the saga will not be one in which we can keep setting up back or destroying Judgment Day.  The inevitable shall happen, and here it does.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines also has some other notable ideas and themes that render it worth a second or third watch.  Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is one of the greatest of all female action-heroes in film history (second only, perhaps to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley). Although Connor is not present in the film, Rise of the Machines at the very least seems mindful of its legacy and responsibility to depict female characters in that kind of light. Though Sarah is (sadly) absent, T3 introduces viewers to the other woman behind this great man, John’s wife, Kate. And it also creates a female menace in the T-X that can rival Arnold in terms of raw power and screen presence. So those viewers who complain about a Sarah-less entry have a point in one sense, but are missing, in another sense, the film’s achievements in a similar regard. Female characters are not given short shrift here.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines moves at a fast, violent clip, and Arnold Schwarzenegger instantly conveys his remarkable magnetism and humor in the role that, more than any other, made him a global star. Arnold may not be a great actor, but he is a great screen presence, and he invites viewers into the world with his trademark humor and self-awareness. By playing an (emotionally-dumb) machine, Schwarzenneger is able to unexpectedly plum scenes for laughs, pathos, and even humanity.  You will want to stand-up and cheer, for instance, when the T-850 overcomes the Terminatrix’s programming and re-asserts his prime directive, to save John.  

Basically, Schwarzenegger can do no wrong in this familiar role, and he brings his best game to the film. When you couple the presence of Schwarzenegger with the third film’s new, well-expressed philosophy about fate, and the unforgettable ending, there are more than enough ingredients to declare the film an artistic success.

It would have been wonderful if those to whom Mostow passed the Terminator baton for the fourth film, had demonstrated the same level of ingenuity and creative integrity as he did in Rise of the Machines.

To misquote John Connor in T3, the first three Terminator films are a “gift” we should enjoy everyday, especially considering what comes after them.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (199)

"The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."

- Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

While never quite the lean, ruthless thrill machine that its blockbuster 1984 predecessor was, Terminator 2: Judgment Day boasts other delights and virtues.  For one thing, it continues  the story of the frequently imperiled Connors with stirring intensity and amazing pyrotechnics and stunts.

And -- perhaps more significantly -- it provides the genre one of its most amazing and influential villains: Robert Patrick as the T-1000, a shape-shifting, CGI-morphing leviathan.

I still vividly recall seeing this film theatrically in 1991 and being blown away not just by Patrick’s steady, focused performance, but also by the elaborate and confident special effects presentation of the character.

Patrick carries his strength not merely in his narrow, athletic form (a far cry from the bulging, super-muscular Schwarzenegger) but in his predatory, all-seeing eyes, which showcase enormous power and drive.

If Robert Patrick were not completely convincing in his role, this movie wouldn’t work, plain and simple. But he’s up to the task, and thus creates a classic villain. A true testament to his powerful presence is the fact that throughout the film, Arnold truly seems imperiled and outclassed by his enemy. Given Arnold's size and weight advantage over Patrick, that's an astounding accomplishment.

In terms of mechanics, the T-1000 was created through the twin techniques of morphing and warping.  Morphing is described as the "seamless transition" between two images or shapes, and generally uses points in common (like the shape of a nose, or a mouth...) as the basis for the transition. 

In the early 1990s, these visual fx techniques became the de rigueur effects in genre films, appearing in such efforts as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Sleepwalkers (1992). Although morphing can apparently be traced all the way back to the 1980s and ILM work in The Golden Child (1986) and Willow (1987), Terminator 2: Judgment Day represents, perhaps, the finest and most meticulous utilization of the pioneering technique, again placing Cameron at the vanguard of technical achievement.

Comparing The Terminator to Terminator 2, one can see that the sequel -- while still a serious film obsessed with fate and man's self-destructive tendencies -- is remarkably less bleak in tone. As the quotation at the top of this review indicates, a sense of " hope" permeates the sequel. 

Notably, Cameron also mines the Terminator character (Arnold's, I mean) for laughs. The T-800 is the proverbial fish-out-of-water, unable to understand key aspects of the human equation, including how to smile, or why human beings cry. This set-up fits in very well with Cameron's career-long obsession with the outsider; the person unfamiliar with a world/class system who steps in and attempts to navigate it, all while simultaneously pointing out its deficits. The outsider can be social gadfly or observer, and reveal a new perspective about the film's dominant coalition (Ripley as the non-marine/non-Company exec in Aliens; Jack a Dawson lower-class passenger on the Titanic, etc.).

Although much of the  material involving Arnold's new Terminator character is indeed very amusing, particularly the actor's gloriously deadpan delivery of modern colloquialisms ("No Problemo," "Hasta la vista..."), some of this fish-out-of-water material feels very much like left-overs from Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

It's not so evident today, but at the time of Terminator 2's release, I was shocked at just how much the Terminator's journey towards humanity appears to mirror and reflect Lt. Data's (Brent Spiner) odyssey on that TV series, which ran from 1987 - 1994. It's a very intriguing dynamic: Gene Roddenberry acknowledged that Data's spiritual parents were Questor (from The Questor Tapes) and Bishop in Cameron's Aliens (1986). Here, turnabout is fair play and Data is certainly a spiritual predecessor to the T-101, only one assuredly less prone to bloody violence. 

Yet, interestingly, Star Trek: The Next Generation never rigorously established a thematic motivation behind Data's obsession with the human race, and becoming "human."  Audiences were left to infer that the character felt this ongoing fascination because his creator was human, or because he served with humans in Starfleet. Data wanted to more like those he was "with," in other words, a fact which raises the question: would he feel the same way for Klingons if they had built and/or found him? 

By contrast, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-800's "learning" mechanism (his method of becoming more human) is utilized by Cameron with laser-like precision to transmit a very specific thematic point:  If a Terminator can "learn" the value of human life, than there's hope for us conflicted, self-destructive humans in that regard too.

And once more, this lesson fits in with the film's real life historical context: 1991 was the year of the first Gulf War, the first televised war which saw the deployment of  precision or "surgical strikes" on enemy targets.

Underneath the impressive Defense Department briefings on the War -- replete with stunning camera imagery of bombs striking targets -- the truth was evident. Our automated weapons had made a quantum leap forward in accuracy and destructive power since the Vietnam War Era. The Terminator (and SkyNet too) thus did not seem so far out of reach, given the (automated) tech we saw deployed in Desert Storm. Today, we are even further down that road with our automated Predator drones and the like.

In terms of theme and vision, Terminator 2 also appears obsessed with the idea of forging a positive future for the planet Earth. Not necessarily for this generation, perhaps, but certainly for the children of the 1990s. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is only ten years old in this film (which makes it set in 1994), and he very much becomes the focus of two distinctive parental figures: Sarah Connor, and the T-101. Accordingly, Cameron frequently showcases images of children in the film, either fighting with toy guns, or seen at a playground that becomes -- terrifyingly -- the setting for a nuclear holocaust.

Ultimately more complex, if less driving and focused than The TerminatorT2 also derives significant energy from audience expectations; playing ably on our preconceived beliefs about the series.

And again, Cameron was on the vanguard of a movement in cinema here. The 1990s represented the era of the great self-reflexive genre movie, from efforts such as John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness to Wes Craven's New Nightmare and the popular Scream saga. Part of this Terminator sequel's appeal rests strongly in the creative fashion that it re-shuffles the cards of the Terminator deck to present new outcomes, and new twists and turns. The film gently mocks the franchise and the cultural obsession with "political correctness," transforming the Terminator into a "kinder, gentler" model who only shoots out kneecaps.

"It's not everyday you find out that you're responsible for 3 billion deaths."

Facing defeat and destruction in the 21st century, SkyNet sends another Terminator into the past to destroy resistance leader John Connor.

This time, however, the attacking machine is even more advanced than before: a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) made of "poly-mimetic" alloy and a machine that can assume the shape of any human being it physically "samples."

Fortunately, General John Connor manages to send a protector for his younger self through the time displacement equipment too, in this instance a re-programmed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

The T-800 is programmed not only to defend Connor from the T-1000, but to obey the ten year old's (Furlong) every command.  This quality comes in handy when the T-1000 attempts to "acquire" Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), now incarcerated at the Pescadero mental hospital, and John orders the T-800 to mount a rescue operation.

After John, Sarah and the T-800 flee the sanitarium, they must make a decision about how they intend to stop "Judgment Day," the occasion in August of 1997 when a self-aware SkyNet precipitates a nuclear war.  Key to Sarah and John's decision-making process is Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the man working at CyberDyne Systems who develops SkyNet in the first place.

Sarah attempts to kill Dyson in cold blood to prevent the dark future from coming to fruition, but John and the Terminator stop her and propose a different course.  They will destroy all of Dyson's working, including the prototype chips (left over from the 1984 Terminator).

The mission is successful, but Dyson dies in the attempt.  Finally, the T-1000 re-acquires the Connors, and the T-800 must put his life on the line to stop an opponent of far greater strength and abilities.  At stake is the future of the human race itself.

I know now why you cry. But it's something I can never do.

Although overly-long and somewhat heavy-handed at times, Terminator 2 still works nimbly as a self-reflexive thriller that dances a veritable ballet on the audience’s knowledge of the first film.

For instance, as in the first film, this sequel opens with two men appearing from the apocalyptic future. One is thin and lean, and very human-looking. The other is the pumped-up juggernaut Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Because of the earlier film, viewers are conditioned to expect Schwarzenegger as villain again, and look for the Michael Biehn-ish Robert Patrick to be a sympathetic hero. Of course, the opposite is true instead.  Our pre-conceived beliefs are used against us.

Secondly, Terminator 2 takes the unlikely but clever step of transforming Linda Hamilton’s character, Sarah Connor, into a Terminator herself. I’m not referring merely to her amped-up physique, either, but rather her very life philosophy.

Here, Sarah sets out to murder a man named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) before he can complete SkyNet, the system that ultimately destroys mankind and births the terminators. In essence then, Sarah is adopting the approach of the machines she hates so much; killing a person BEFORE that person actually commits a crime. Just as SkyNet sent back a Terminator in 1984 to murder Sarah before she gave birth to John, so does Sarah endeavor to kill Dyson before he gives birth, in a very real sense, to SkyNet.

The implication of this approach, of course, is that Sarah -- in preparing for the future -- has sacrificed the very thing worth fighting for, her humanity itself.

Terminator 2 very much concerns Sarah's loss of humanity, and her opportunity to re-discover it, in large parts due to her son, John. As the movie begins, Sarah is lost and overcome with pain about the future that awaits mankind. But John ultimately teaches Sarah that it is okay to hope again, that the future is "not set," and that there is "no fate but what we make."

This sequel to The Terminator is also fascinating for the manner in which it incorporates the dominant social critique that “these films” (meaning the films of Schwarzenegger and Cameron, I suppose) are “too violent.”

In Terminator 2, young John makes Schwarzennegger’s emotionless machine promise not to kill any more humans, and the compromised Terminator spends the remainder of the film shooting up cops’ knee caps. This is quite funny, and it’s deliberately on point with what was happening in the culture of the nineties. In other words, it's inventive, unconventional and politically-correct all at the same time.  It's not the eighties anymore, and Arnold has, in a sense, been domesticated. At least a little...

Like so many horror films of the 1990s, Terminator 2 also concern the American family and the modern changes in the shape of the American family. Sarah Connor comes to the conclusion that instead of providing her boy, John, a flesh-and-blood, human father figure, the Terminator played by Arnold is the sanest answer in an insane world. The Terminator won’t grow old, won’t leave, and will never hurt John. He will always be there for the boy, she realizes, and in vetting this idea, the movie states something important about men and machines.

When more and more American families were drifting towards divorce in the 1990s or outsourcing child care to nannies and day-cares, it’s not that odd that a woman should wish for the “ultimate nanny” – an unstoppable robot – to protect her son. This also fits with the crisis in masculinity played out in films of the era, including Brian De Palma's Raising Cain (1992). Men of the 1990s were supposed to be sensitive and masculine, strong and sympathetic, peaceful and -- in a single instant -- relentless protectors of the family unit.  Arnie's character dispenses with such contradictory input and sticks to his programming.  He has no conflict about what he should be, even if others impose on him their own set of rules. Still, he manages to get the job done.

Although it spends relatively little time in the post-apocalyptic future compared to The TerminatorT2 is nonetheless haunted by the specter of nuclear war, another familiar Cameron obsession. In this case,  no less than five views of a playground are featured in the film. The playground is seen at peace (before the war, in Sarah's dream), in flames (during the war), and ruined (after the war), behind the prowling, murderous Terminators. 

The pervasive playground imagery reminds viewers again and again what is at stake if humans take the unfortunate and unnecessary step of rendering this planet virtually uninhabitable: the innocent will suffer.

Children do not boast ideologies or political parties, and do not care about issues like nationalism. They are collateral damage in any such  bloody conflict, and the prominent placement of the playground -- the domain of the child -- throughout the film makes this point abundantly plain.

At one point in the film, the T-800 also gazes upon two children fighting with toy guns and notes that it is in our nature to destroy ourselves. The idea seems to be that as children grow and develop, these tendencies towards competition and aggression emerge fully, and move off the proverbial playground into matters of politics and international confrontation. That may be the root of our problem.

It's interesting and also telling that Cameron has the T-800 make this observation about man in relation to children, and then later has Sarah Connor voice the conceit that males only know how to destroy, rather than to create life. This seems a little like the pot calling the kettle black given Sarah's hardcore actions in the film, and yet one can't really deny the truth of the observation, either. Women have simply not been afforded the reins of power as frequently as have men, historically-speaking, so guilt must fall upon the male of the species more heavily for our legacy of war and destruction. It's an unpleasant truth, but a truth nonetheless.

But yet again, that sense of hope sneaks into the movie.  John Connor -- a male child -- proves able to curb the killing instincts of Sarah Connor and the T-800 here, paving the way for what ostensibly should be a positive future. In almost all genre films, children represent the opportunity for a better future or better tomorrow, and T2: Judgment Day adheres to that trend. It is possible to change, to correct our course, but sometimes it isn't this generation, but the next that sees that potential.

I'll now state the obvious in regards to the film: The action sequences here are truly exceptional. The film’s first major set-piece, involving a truck, a motor-bike and a motorcycle in motion, is a high-point, featuring stunning stunts and seamless cutting.

The finale, in a factory and lead works also proves highly dynamic, with the T-1000’s death scene seeming like an homage to Carpenter’s The Thing

But of course -- as we know from Cameron's other films -- the magic of the director's films occurs not just in the staging of the action, but in Cameron's capacity to make the action stirring.  He makes the action affect us on an immersing, emotional level.  Here, we have characters we truly come to care about (Sarah, John and the T-800) and so we feel heavily invested in the narrative's outcome.  I'm not ashamed to admit it, but when the T-800 sacrifices himself in the lead works, I always get a bit misty-eyed.   

For John, he is losing a father and a best friend. And the T-800 has finally learned what it means to be human, and in doing so come to the conclusion that self-sacrifice is necessary. It's a great, even inspirational ending, if one sadly marred by the cheesy "thumbs up" gesture that accompanies the beloved character's demise.  

T2 is a bigger film than its immediate predecessor, and more ambitious in many ways. It isn't however, quite as hungry, quite as lean as the 1984 original. There's a sense here that the movie knows it is a blockbuster, and doesn't have to deliver on quite the same visceral level. Still a great film, of course, but these days I prefer, at least slightly, the first entry in the franchise.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Terminator (1984)

"This is burned in by laser scan. Some of us were kept alive... to work... loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherfuckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah, your unborn son."

- Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator (1984)

Today we travel back in time -- to the distant year 1984 -- and to Jim Cameron's first smash-hit motion-picture, the science-fiction action thriller: The Terminator. This intense, fast-moving film not only began Cameron's career in Hollywood, it vaulted star Arnold Schwarzenegger to super-stardom (following the Conan films) and even gave him a recurring catchphrase: "I'll be back."  

Speaking to the film's quality and longevity, The Terminator has spawned five movie sequels (in 1991, 2003, 2009, 2015, and 2019 respectively) and even a spin-off TV series: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Also, the Library of Congress added The Terminator in 2008 to its National Film Registry, marking the film as culturally, aesthetically, and historically significant.

An ugly incident in the film's history involves a threatened lawsuit from late science fiction legend Harlan Ellison, who claimed that The Terminator ripped-off elements of Ellison's The Outer Limits episode "Soldier," the second season premiere that featured two future soldiers accidentally traveling to the present and battling one another.  The matter was settled out of court, and Ellison's name was added to the film's end credits, apparently over Cameron's urging to Orion to fight the matter.

This matter acknowledged, there's no way to gaze at The Terminator as anything other than the product of James Cameron's stellar visual and storytelling imagination. Looking back across the decades, it's plain to see how his film fits in with the remainder of his oeuvre, and introduces his career-long obsessions with strong women, star-crossed lovers, fish-out-of-water protagonists, and the bugaboo of nuclear war.

Going back to the original Terminator in 2019 it's a little amazing just how well the film holds up.  In many senses, it holds up even better than does its 1991 follow-up, Judgment Day. The action scenes here are still breathtaking, the love story remains affecting, and film features a relentless, driving sense of urgency. Indeed, The Terminator never lets up, never stops, never looks back...much like its titular character.

And yet, gazing beneath the surface, one can detect the unconventional but canny manner in which Cameron approaches the film, and how his directorial strategy buttresses the quality of the piece substantially. For instance, there are relatively few conventional locales or settings featured in the film at all. This is a movie that takes place in parking garages, in speeding vehicles, inside seedy motels, in sewers, and in smoke-filled police station waiting areas. The film never truly settles down in any one place too long, and that fact actually contributes to the driving pulse of the piece. You feel like the movie has been made on the fly, filmed in one brief sanctuary after another, as the protagonists' safety is constantly eclipsed and imperiled.

Secondly, The Terminator creates -- at times -- this weird, almost authentically dream-like vibe. It arises from the conjunction of Brad Fiedel's effective synthetic score, and Cameron's frequent use of slow-motion photography to extend time and mine the latent tension in many sequences. Time, of course, is the very crux of the film, and the way that Cameron stretches and bend time matters a great deal in the film's overall artistic tapestry.

Heroes Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor only share just "one night" together, as the film's dialogue reminds the audience, and yet they experience a "lifetime" of love. This is not merely romantic hyperbole. It's an accurate expression of how deeply the audience comes to sympathize with the heroes and their doomed relationship. James Cameron's choice of techniques reminds us that it's not how much time we have that matters, but what we make with the time we're given. His directorial flourish -- slow-motion photography, particularly -- is a perfect example of form highlighting or reflecting content.

A near-perfect fusion of big emotions, big concepts and stellar action-movie filmmaking, it's almost impossible to conceive of The Terminator as Cameron's first, since it is remains so accomplished on so many fronts.

Come with me if you want to live.

In the year 2029 A.D., the human survivors of a devastating nuclear war are on the verge of defeating their enemy, an artificial intelligence called SkyNet.

In response, the intelligent machine sends a cyborg called a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), back in time to the year 1984 to kill waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will one day be the mother of the future resistance leader, General John Connor.

The resistance responds to this initiative by sending back to 1984 someone to stop the killing machine, a foot soldier named Kyle Reese ( Michael Biehn).

In 1984, the Terminator uses the the phone book and begins to methodically kill all L.A. residents named Sarah Connor.  As the police (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) assemble the disturbing clues in the case and grow concerned they're dealing with a serial killer, an unwitting Sarah encounters the Terminator at a club called Tech Noir.

Kyle rescues Sarah and soon tells her the story of the future not yet written; of her unborn son, John, and her tutelage of him in the ways of war.

But even as Kyle and Sarah fall in love, the Terminator continues his relentless drive to find them and murder Sarah.  After decimating an entire police station, the Terminator pursues an injured Kyle and Sarah on the road.

The final battle to decide the future occurs in an automated factory, Cyberdyne Systems...

Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who's gonna care?

Perhaps the very best quality about The Terminator is that it eerily and effectively crafts two very distinctive and atmospheric worlds.

The first such world is Los Angeles of 1984, and city life is dramatized here as this weird twilight-and-neon world of seemingly never-ending night.

The city boulevards are rain-soaked and wind-swept. Garbage blows continually through alleyways. Strangers, hobos and other fringe dwellers seem to move back and forth, half-conscious, in the neon-lit streets, unnoticed and un-commented upon. Here, in total anonymity, a monster arrives; a technological boogeyman that can change the direction of the future itself.  But because he is human in appearance, he is perfectly disguised, able to fit in easily with the human flotsam and jetsam.

As Cameron paints it, this world feels particularly fragile and unwelcoming. '

The punk rock music (as heard in the club Tech Noir) is harsh and driving, and there's a feeling that the denizens of daytime such as Sarah Connor don't easily see or understand the denizens of the city's night. This is important, of course, because a war is being waged secretly at night.  Two warriors - the Terminator and Kyle Reese -- slip into this world and, unnoticed, fight for the very future of mankind.They pick off resources (clothing, weapons, groceries, etc.), and march forward on competing agendas.  The overall feeling is that no one in authority is watching. Nobody cares.  These people and their urban world have been written off as unimportant, inconsequential. This world, at least from the perspective of the future, is already dead, a metaphorical if not literal graveyard.

Cameron artfully picks up on a true 1980s aesthetic here, showcasing the homeless, the hopeless, and the lost as part of his twilight world. Other films in the 1980s such as Vamp (1986) and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) capture a similar  mood; the electric notion that another world co-exists with ours, and could intersect with our experience at any time. It's half-seen and half-acknowledged, but it's there...

The second world that The Terminator creates with frightening acumen is Los Angeles of 2029.  It's a world in which human skulls appear to form the firmament of a new terrain, and the skies are forever gray and dark.

Many science fiction films visit post-apocalyptic futures, but The Terminator presents one of the grimmest and most effective visualizations of such a landscape. The world of 2029 is a colossal junkyard that consists of ruins as far as the eye can see. Where some films (such as The Road Warrior or the Planet of the Apes films) have opted for showcasing real deserts as the aftermath of a  nuclear war, The Terminator really goes for broke here, showcasing broken, desperate humans living in horrible, miserable conditions. Man's world has been twisted and broken.  In fact, it isn't man's world at all anymore.

One terrific shot in the post-apocalyptic scenes reveals two starving children huddling in front of a TV set. Cameron switches views after a minute, and we see the yellow light emanating from the television is that of a candle, one set inside the broken screen. The moment is picture perfect as gallows humor, and as heartbreaking glimpse of a tomorrow that must never be.

The feeling evoked  in the contrast between 1984 and 2029 is that one world leads to the other world, as easily as the present flows into the future. There's a feeling in the 1980s scenes that mankind has abdicated his sense of responsibility to the world and to civilization at large. The police detectives, expertly-played by Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen, are well-meaning but over-worked and under-equipped. In one scene involving the police detectives, the question is asked "who is in charge here?"  The answer seems to be nobody.   Nobody is in charge.  Nobody is making a difference.  Man seems to have given up on his world and his fellow man.  Again, there's the feeling that this world is already dead; its epitaph already written.

Sarah's roommate, Ginger, for instance, tunes out of reality even while making love to her boyfriend, Matt. And Sarah and others seem to constantly be speaking to answering machines or unfeeling telephone operators.

Punk-styled predators -- played by Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson -- stalk the night too, seizing on the world's very lack of order. It's not difficult, given the shape of the world of 1984, to imagine a future in which man surrenders his very well-being to a machine.  Indeed, Tech Noir -- the Night of Technology - precedes the dawn of SkyNet both metaphorically and literally in the film's chronology.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), "the antidote to this techno-punk world is human love and connection." And here, Cameron gives the audience star-crossed lovers Kyle and Sarah, two classic characters in film history.

They not only love each other, they conceive a savior for human-kind out of that love. Implicit in this scenario is a criticism of the world as it stands in the 1980s. It's one where, to quote Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, there seems to be an abundance of lovemaking, but little real love.

Murder is as easy as flipping through a phone book (let your fingers do the walking...), the police are ineffective, and even medical science (as represented by Earl Boen's Dr. Silberman) is incapable of feeling empathy or providing help.

The seed Kyle brings back to Sarah, then, is one of love, compassion and self-sacrifice. Kyle is a man of duty who understands how valuable human life is, and he brings that understanding to a purposeless Sarah and to her disaffected, empty world.

Consider Kyle for a moment. He could have escaped from his apocalyptic world back to 1984 and made a very selfish decision. He could have stolen some clothes, abandoned his mission, and had a pretty decent life (at least until 1997). But Kyle didn't do that. He cared about his peers and his purpose and stuck to his mission of saving a woman he had never met, and only fantasized about.

In Terminator 2, Sarah tells Silberman that everyone blindly living life (before Judgment Day) is already dead; and that's also clearly the vibe of The Terminator.  The world seems to be running on fumes, as a culture of death spirals further and further away from not just inter-connection, but civility and decency itself.

Reese opens Sarah's eyes to the fact that "a storm is coming," and that the world in this half-awake, half-asleep state, cannot continue.  Sarah also opens up Kyle's eyes to love too. She makes him see that he can't remain disconnected from pain or hurt, or that he'll be making the same mistake as the 1984-ers.

At several crucial junctures in The Terminator, Cameron utilizes slow-motion photography to enhance the power of his visuals.  In the first such case, the Terminator kicks open the door of a middle-aged woman named Sarah Connor (not our final girl, but another S.C....). He forces her way into the house, levels a gun at her head, and fires.  It's all vetted in  agonizing slow-motion, and so the nature of the intrusion and violation is heightened significantly. The terror of the moment -- the seeming randomness of the crime -- is punctuated.  As the moment lingers, we reflect on the horror of it.  Of a stranger coming to our door, breaking it down, and leveling a gun at us.  Again, this is a very 1980s brand of fear: of random violence and crime run amok.

Later, Cameron uses slow-motion photography during the lead-up to the Tech Noir fight sequence, and this time he deploys it to lengthen the audience's feelings of tension and suspense. Sarah Connor has no one to protect her, no avenue of escape at all, and as The Terminator nears in slow-motion, his power and dominance -- and her vulnerability -- attain near-epic proportions.

Finally, Cameron uses slow motion photography at the culmination of Sarah and Kyle's love scene.  Intertwined, their hands open slowly, as if a flower blooming. The idea here -- again -- is that time may be constant, but as humans we experience it as relative. Here, the connection between Sarah and Kyle is significant and meaningful, and the "blossoming" image of their hands suggests that their love has, well, literally borne fruit. Their love-making is also like a stolen moment during an un-ending nightmare that "will never be over."

In The Terminator, one of Cameron's neatest conceits involves this manipulation of time's passage in the edit. And yes, it's a highly appropriate selection given the film's theme about time travel. Cameron's approach reminds us that time feels different at different times, and that ultimately the secret of time is to make something positive out of what time we have.

Over and over again in the film, Cameron reveals great ingenuity in how he deals with the concept of the future.

For example, Sarah's waitress friend notes that in a hundred years, no one will care about what's she doing in 1984, but that is not technically true. The people of 2029 no doubt wish that the denizens of that earlier age had made different choices, especially regarding the invention and implementation of SkyNet.

And personally, of course, Sarah Connor's name will no doubt be long known -- even in 2084 -- if human beings manage to defeat the smart machines.

Also, the film is downright poetic in the way it deals with Sarah Connor's photograph, and Kyle's possession/loss of it. Interestingly, we see the photo burn in the film before we even see it developed.

But we are asked by Reese to wonder what Sarah is thinking about when the picture is snapped. By the last reel, we know precisely: she's thinking of him, of Kyle. Thus Kyle fell in love with a photograph of a woman who, before he was ever born, was already in love with him. Mind-boggling stuff.

Other aspects of the film are equally stirring and admirable. For instance, the disintegration of the Terminator's human appearance is splendidly vetted. His eyebrows are singed off first. Then he loses an eye. Next he injures his fore-arm (and must repair it with a razor knife...). As the movie progresses, the Terminator appears less and less human, until finally -- during the climax -- he is revealed as the soulless automaton that he is, no longer able to pass in human society as one of us. The methodical disintegration of the Terminator's appearance, however, barely seems to go noticed by society at large, and again a point is made about people only seeing what they want to see; of avoiding the confrontation with something different or unpalatable.

Sarah Connor is also James Cameron's first great female character. She starts out living a largely un-examined life, and yet by the end of the film can clearly "see" a future that others can't.  She survives the attack on her life and becomes the person she was destined to be. Although Sarah protests along the way of her development -- noting that she can't even balance her checkbook -- she soon becomes literally the mother of humanity's future.

The shadow of nuclear Armageddon hovers over The Terminator, and that too is a common aspect of Cameron's canon. Nuclear weapons play a critical role in every one of his films save -- for obvious reasons -- Titanic (1997). Here, Cameron focuses on the madness of putting life-and-death nuclear decisions in the hands of "the machine," and that theme would become even more pronounced in the sequel.

But again, the context of this film must be named, and no offense is intended, just a recitation of facts. In the early eighties President Reagan sometimes joked about nuclear war. On an open mike he once declared that "bombing begins in five minutes," and in a 1984 debate with candidate Walter Mondale he inaccurately reported that nuclear missiles could be recalled from submarines after their launch. Many of his advisers in his first term stressed the concept of "winnable" nuclear war, and that's simply a terrifying thought. To President Reagan's ever-lasting credit, he backed down from these beliefs (and even recanted his "Evil Empire" comment) in the name of peace. Regardless of his welcome evolution, the "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s was a hugely powerful force in American cinema mid-decade -- think War Games (1983) and Dreamscape (1984) --  and one can see it here, very prominently, in The Terminator.  

I've also often likened The Terminator to a technological version of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) because both films involve an unstoppable, relentless monster pursuing a young woman, and that woman's ultimate turnaround to fight back. Michael Myers is "The Shape" and not quite human, and Arnie's Terminator is a technological monster. But these boogeymen certainly share traits in common. They both come and go as they please; they both often hide in plain sight; and their thought processes are quite opaque to audiences. They both kill and pursue victims, but we don't really know what they're thinking or why they're thinking it. Like Michael, the Terminator -- who also survives being beaten, bruised and flame-broiled -- is truly a classic movie villain because of his relentless nature.

In the sequels, Arnold would play the machine as a hero, but there's something potent, callous and devious about his portrayal of this Terminator, this first time out. Underlying the cold, mechanical nature of the thing, there's some sense of an identity, of an enjoyment of his vile actions. This Terminator thrives on the hunt, it seems, and isn't entirely immune to concepts such as irony or humor. His selection of rejoinder to a nosy landlord in a sleazy motel is a perfect example. "Fuck you, asshole."  Why select that particular option (from a table of options)?  It has something to do, I would argue, with the machine's personality.

The Terminator is an incredibly effective thrill machine, but the reason the film is remembered today (and will be remembered well into the future) is because James Cameron has surrounded his meticulous action scenes with "living human tissue," namely an affecting love story and meditation on time itself.  This skin on the story's mechanical bones makes the film resonate on a deeper level, and point explicitly towards Cameron's future approach in film making.

 It's "something about the field generated by a living organism"...and it's called heart.

Memory Bank: The Hindenburg (1975) "Hindelry Keepsake Medallions"

Now here is a weird film collectible from the disco decade.  In 1975, Universal Studios -- at the height of the disaster film craze t...