Saturday, October 25, 2014

Saturday Morning Blogging: Godzilla: "The Sub-Zero Terror"

In “The Sub-Zero Terror,” a scientist named Dr. Roark goes in search of new geothermal energy sources in the Himalayas, and ignores a warning by the locals not to tread into the forbidden terrain of the region’s ancient guardian, a monstrous yeti.

The Calico arrives, and its crew attempts to help Dr. Roark in his quest. Unfortunately, the yeti turns out to be more than a mere legend.  In fact, a whole race of Yeti protect a green valley hidden in the ice.  Godzilla is summoned to protect the Calico’s team, and must defeat the snowmen as well as cork a volcano threatening to erupt.

The second-to-last episode of Godzilla’s first season, “The Sub-Zero Terror” is not one of the better installments of the Hanna-Barbera series. The plot seems rote, right down to the presence of a scientist who needs the Calico’s help, and the appearance of a mythical monster guarding local secrets.

And once more, the thin-ness of the series’ premise is. Godzilla pops up in waters in the Far East, the instant after being summoned.  It doesn’t take him minutes to show up; it takes him seconds.

Does Godzilla always follow the Calico so closely? If so, why?  Is he worried about Godzooky?  

Why does Godzilla consider it so important to protect this group of humans, besides the obvious fact that it tends to stumble into trouble?

Here, Captain Majors presses the Godzilla button and the giant green monster literally appears a second later.  He must have been present the whole time.  A little background, in this case, would have helped to explain why Godzilla is always close-by, when called.

Intriguingly, this episode also reveals that Godzilla can use tools, and boasts a strong enough intelligence to use them.  Specifically, he uses a giant stick to pick up a rock, and then cork the erupting volcano.   This act says a lot about his capacity to problem solve, and again, it seems a shame that in this early season, the series never devoted any time to the Calico crew studying the Earth’s greatest resource…Godzilla himself.

Next week: “The Time Dragons.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Terminator Week: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008 - 2009)

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles aired for two seasons on Fox Television, and the events portrayed by it occur in the franchise chronology after Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) but before Rise of the Machines (2003).

As the series commences, it is the year 1999 and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her teenage son, John (Thomas Dekker) are on the run -- wanted by the FBI -- after having destroyed Cyberdyne Systems (and successfully rolled back Judgment Day).

Before long, however, additional murderous cyborgs from the future are hunting John (the future leader of the human resistance against the machine regime).

Also sent back -- but to protect Connor, not kill him -- is a re-programmed female terminator, Cameron (Summer Glau).

Pursued by a T-888 named Cromartie, who humorously shows up at John's school as a substitute teacher in 1999, Sarah, John and Cameron utilize time travel technology constructed in the past by time traveling soldiers and arrive in Los Angeles in 2007.

It's now just four years before the new date of Judgment Day: April 21, 2011.

The hunted are unaware that their hunter, Cromartie -- though scattered in pieces -- has made the journey to 2007 with them. In the first several episodes of the series, the Terminator reconstructs himself, acquires new human skin in an utterly creepy sequence involving a bathtub filled with human blood and resumes his mission to terminate John. 

In other installments, FBI agent James Ellison -- his name  a nod to Harlan Ellison, who successfully sued for a credit on James Cameron's original Terminator -- continues his quest to bring "terrorist" Sarah Connor to justice, even as Sarah, Cameron and John join forces with Kyle Reese's brother, Derek (Brian Austin Green), a soldier from the future.

Throughout the series, the resistance cell (John, Sarah, Cameron and Derek) struggles to avert the development of genocidal SkyNet, a device which is depicted here in its early, adolescent iterations; both as "The Turk," a primitive A.I. device programmed to win at chess; and later as ARTIE, a Los Angeles municipal traffic monitoring program...

Cut down in its prime, (in 2009), The Sarah Connor Chronicles extrapolates logically and imaginatively on the entire universe set down by James Cameron in the first two Terminator films right down to mood and theme. Impressively, the series also vets feature-film-quality action sequences.

By the time the series arrives at the final episode of the first season, "What He Beheld," the direction and cinematography is almost lyrical. TSCC is not just a superb adaptation of a great movie franchise, it's superb television. Specifically, a climactic assault on a Terminator in his motel room by FBI agents is lensed in stylistic montage fashion, edited superbly and wittily to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around."

During this motel assault, the camera takes up a position at the bottom of an adjacent swimming pool. We hear numerous gunshots fired, then one wounded FBI trooper after another lands in the pool with great impact -- above us, spatially -- until the water slowly turns crimson, and is literally crowded with floating, sinking corpses. One corpse comes straight down like a stone...directly into the camera's eye. Throughout this battle, we never even see the Terminator fire a single shot; but the images of the massacre are sharp, impressionistic, and bold.

I wanted to applaud at this formalist climax, because -- at this moment of valediction -- the Terminator series had found its own unique voice and the confidence to shoot something in entirely unorthodox, even daring fashion, at least in terms of visualization and soundtrack.

Additionally, the brief summary of the premise, written above, can't possibly do the series justice. Indeed, it probably makes the show sound like an un-inventive repeat of the Terminator films. In fact, that's far from the truth. 

For instance, in the series, developer Josh Friedman has adopted the notion of sending soldiers to the past our present and wildly expanded on it. Here, post-Judgment Day, John Connor sends back teams (or "cells") of soldiers, not just individuals; and he also sends them back to various time periods for specific missions. For instance, in the premiere episode, we learn that Connor deployed a team to the 1960s to begin construction of a time travel device that would be needed by Sarah in 1999. 

The mission of those men was not a familiar one to audiences (to protect John Connor from terminators); but rather to gather the necessary equipment and construct a machine. Here the past and the co-exist live side-by-side in a more complete, thoughtful way than in the feature films; with teams of fighters (and Terminators too...) operating beneath the radar.

One thoroughly impressive episode, "Vick's Chip," reveals (often from a first-person P.O.V. perspective) how a terminator named Vick infiltrated human society and even married a human woman (an A.I. developer) to complete his task of insuring SkyNet's birth. Again, this is a somewhat different, but not contradictory, tack than the movies have adopted. There, the terminators had that single purpose: kill John Connor. Here, the machines possess a larger, more devastating agenda...ensuring their own survival at the cost of the human race.

But the reason that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles succeeds more often than it fails is that the characters are treated respectfully and honestly.

First off, they speak in an intelligent vocabulary (and in a lexicon) entirely consistent with the feature films.

Secondly, none of the characters are unrepentant drama queens given to bouts of dramatic diarrhea (think: Grey's Anatomy). Thomas Dekker -- playing John Connor -- does a highly credible job of playing an average teenage boy thrust into an absolutely impossible and difficult situation, but nonetheless attempting to retain some aspects of normality. So often on television, teenage boys are depicted poorly (either as geniuses or as juvenile delinquents) and consequently derided by fans for their trespasses (think Wesley Crusher or Adric). et there is nothing annoying, brooding, trite, hackneyed or cheesy about John. He's just a smart kid trying to survive. He's emotional when the moment warrants it; tough when he can be; forever human with all the foibles that come with that description.

The addition of Cameron (Glau) to the franchise also permits Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles to wade into the underlying thematic material of the films. Cameron -- and her failure to understand humanity -- makes the series worth watching as something more than an "action" series.

In particular, it is through Cameron's character that viewers can ask the question first asked by Gene Roddenberry's Mr. Spock a long time ago (and later by Mr. Data): what does it mean to be a human being?

Or, oppositely: What does it mean to be a machine?

Terminator 2 delved deeply into this territory, but this series absolutely excels in its dedication to comparing human beings and robots, or artificial intelligence. What I found so remarkable about this is that it forges the contrast in an entirely unsentimental, intellectual fashion. In one episode, for instance, Cameron befriends a ballet dancer in hopes of getting close to the dancer's brother, a slippery fellow who may know where "The Turk" is. Cameron does so by feigning an interest in ballet; which is described by the dancer as "the hidden language of the soul."

When Cameron gets the information she requires following this mission of infiltration, she immediately pivots and leaves her ballet instructor behind. Worse, Cameron leaves the dancer and her brother to be immediately killed by Armenian goons. Cameron does not look back, and she voices no remorse. She does not comment, even, that she has left a mentor to die. 

The point is that Cameron is a machine...nothing more and nothing less...and so she can't relate to humans in terms of loyalty or friendship. And yet, later in the episode -- unobserved by anyone but a spying Derek -- Cameron mysteriously indulges in a moment of ballet, in that "hidden language of the soul."

See, things aren't so simple, are they? What's this all about? Why would a machine engage in dance? How can a machine unemotionally leave a human being to be killed one minute, then indulge in an entirely human act in another? These are the questions that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles raises. Fortunately, it tends not to offer easy answers or sentimentalize the characters. Cameron is beautiful and inquisitive, but she's not "cute." She's not heading off to the holodeck to play Sherlock Holmes, if you know what I mean, unless it helps her complete a mission.

I am also impressed with the series' careful handling of the James Ellison character (Richard T. Long). Let's face it, Ellison the FBI agent is that old, durable TV cliche: the hapless pursuer. You know the type: Barry Morse on The Fugitive; Richard Lynch on The Phoenix; Jack Colvin on The Incredible Hulk; Michael Cavanaugh on Starman, Lance LeGault on Werewolf.

These are the dedicated law enforcement officials (or journalists) who relentlessly dog the heroes of these classic series...but never, ever catch them. Oh, they get close to catching the protagonists every damn week...and then -- for some reason -- don't get them. Of course, this fact makes the pursuer look incompetent or...hapless since it happens again and again; hence my name for the archetype.

But Ellison resists classification as a hapless pursuer because his investigation actually develops logically over the course of the episodes; and he doesn't remain a single-minded pursuer, never open to new information. No, what separates Ellison from other hapless pursuers (and Terminators, for that matter), is that new evidence changes him as a person. His beliefs change; his allegiances change. By the end of the series, Ellison is not the same single-minded pursuer of Sarah Connor that he was at the start of the series. That's...refreshing.

Of all the characters on the program, I actually found Sarah Connor (Headey) the most difficult to warm up to. Perhaps this is because Sarah Connor is -- authentically -- not really a very warm person. In some sense, Sarah is more like the enemy she fights than she might care to admit. She is ruthlessly single-minded: dedicated to changing the future and altering her son's dark destiny. These qualities don't make for a warm and fuzzy character; but I can't claim it should be any other way. Of all the performances, I found Headey's sort of the cheesiest and most two-dimensional to begin with; but the actress grows dramatically in the role over the course of the course of the series.

It is sad indeed that TSCC was added to the roster of series that were killed before their time, when still at their creative peak.  If I had to choose between watching the series again, or watching Terminator Salvation, I'd choose the series in a heart beat.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Terminator Week: 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, Anton Yelchin, who impressed me as Chekov in the new Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (not to mention as Odd Thomas...), 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.

Terminator Week: Terminator: Salvation (2009) movie trailer

Terminator Week: 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.

Terminator Week: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) Movie Trailer

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Terminator Week: Action Figures of the Week: Terminator: Future War (Kenner)

Terminator Week: Collectible of the Week: Terminator 2 Bio-Flesh Regenerator (Kenner; 1991)

The year 1991 brought a whole line of new Kenner toys -- including vehicles and action figures -- based on James Cameron’s blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day.   One of the neatest of these toys was the Bio-Flesh Regenerator Playset which offered kids the opportunity to “Mold and Destroy your own Terminator!”

As the box describes the set, “The Bio-Flesh Regenerator was created in the year 2030. This awesome unit is used to completely cover the metal skeleton of the TERMINATOR with real skin to make him totally undetectable to humans.”

The Bio-Flesh Regenerator “Molds Ten Figures,” “Comes with six battle weapons,” and “Skin actually comes off in Battles.”  The box also notes that the set includes: one playset, two Endoskeleton Action Figures, two Cans of Non-Toxic Bio-Flesh Refills, one Trim Knife, and six Weapons.”

“Create your own Terminator…then tear him apart in battle!”

Terminator Week: Lunch Box of the Week: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machiines

Board Game of the Week: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Terminator Week: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

"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.