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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

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.

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.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

25 Years Later: Stargate (1994)

Roland Emmerich’s Stargate (1994) is the movie that launched a thousand ships, or at least several hundred episodes of popular cult television.  

As the initiator of the durable (though now dormant…) Stargate franchise, the film sets up a universe that, broadly-speaking, is based on the once-popular Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods (1968) notion that “God” is an ancient astronaut…an alien.

In movie-based terms, Stargate is the film that landed Emmerich on the map in A-list Hollywood.  Although Emmerich had already directed Universal Soldier (1992), Stargate quickly proved a massive, world-wide hit, and paved the way for the director’s busy career, which has included such films as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 10,000 BC (2008), and 2012 (2010). 

Frankly, I don’t regard the bulk of Emmerich’s oeuvre in very positive terms.  Despite the bad reviews it received on release, Stargate likely dominates even today as the best Emmerich sci-fi film in the aforementioned pack. In part that’s because the film’s opening act is so engaging, and it builds up a real sense of anticipation, mystery, and excitement.

Not that a number of critics would agree with that assessment.

Roger Ebert awarded Stargate one star (out of four) and derided the film’s use of “action movie clichés.” Hal Hinson at The Washington Post felt that the film degenerated by the end into “routine pyrotechnics,” and The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mike LaSalle termed the film “imitation Spielberg” that “crashed inside 20 minutes.”  

Probably all of those comments are accurate to some degree.  The movie is indeed girded with action movie clichés, it does resolve with fireballs and pyrotechnics, and Stargate plays, at points, like low-grade Spielberg.  The film’s first half-hour is also undeniably its strongest. 

And yet, in spite of these admittedly on-the-mark criticisms, Stargate is a hell of a lot of fun.  .

In part, that fun emerges from the cast’s dedicated and sometimes herculean efforts.  James Spader plays the comedy and wonder aspects of the tale wittily, while Kurt Russell – acting as though he’s starring in a hard-boiled John Carpenter or Howard Hawks adventure – brilliantly essays the role of laconic but tortured Colonel O’Neil. 

And although Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game [1992]) remains a decidedly unconventional choice for a primary villain -- being delicate and androgynous rather than physically menacing in the conventional sense -- the very unpredictability of his physical presence adds to the film’s sense of menace, as well as the villain’s unique decadence and obsession with youth and beauty.  Davidson’s Ra is bizarre, but also incredibly sinister.

I remember when I first screened Stargate in the theater in October of 1994. There was much talk that it was “the next Star Wars.”  

That kind of chatter proved to be hyperbole, and yet Stargate is a film that, somehow – and indeed a lot like Star Wars – is much more than the sum of its individual parts.  The heroic theme music by David Arnold, the knowing performances from Russell and Spader, and the film’s strong action chops combine with the intriguing Von Daniken presence to render a film experience much more buoyant and enjoyable than it surely could have been. 

In other words, Stargate works on a crowd-pleasing, blockbuster level, and in this case, that’s more than enough.  The film has been assaulted as being stupid on many occasions, but in some fashion Stargate is very canny in how it manipulates the audience and audience expectations. It’s a film about guns winning the day, and yet it also delivers an anti-gun message, underneath. It’s a film that reveals the Ancient Astronauts, not mankind, achieved wonders in our antiquity, and yet the film also showcases modern man confronting those astronauts and proving his worth. 

In short, Stargate boasts a great premise, some terrific production design, capable actors who are clearly having fun, and enough sci-fi gadgetry to, well, sturdily launch a franchise.  I should probably add that the film absolutely plays like high-art in comparison to underwhelming and even laughable Emmerich fare such as 10,000 BC or 2012.

“I created your civilization. Now I will destroy it.”

Down-on-his-luck linguist and translator Daniel Jackson (Spader) is recruited by the Air Force to help translate an ancient Egyptian artifact, one unearthed in 1928, near the Great Pyramids.  He determines that a series of symbols on the artifact represent not letters in an alphabet, but coordinates in outer space.  The artifact is actually a stargate: a door connecting Earth to a world on the other side of the known galaxy.

Jackson and a team of soldiers, led by Colonel O’Neil (Russell), travel through the stargate and find a barren desert world where human slaves toil to build a pyramid for a “God” called Ra (Davidson).  With the help of a beautiful local, Sha’uri (Mili Avital), Jackson learns Ra’s story. He is a ruthless alien being who survived his race’s extinction and went out into the galaxy seeking a way to extend his life.

Ra found that way on ancient Earth by possessing the body of a young man, and setting himself up as a God.  The primitive people were amazed by Ra’s technology, and fell in line.  But a group of slaves rebelled against the alien king’s authority, and Ra’s stargate to Earth was buried and forgotten, so he could no longer return.

Now, Ra – who possesses the power to resurrect the dead – plans to punish Earth for that long ago rebellion and its recent incursion.  O’Neil has brought a bomb through the Stargate to destroy any threats, and now Ra plans to send it back…to destroy the planet.

Jackson and O’Neil must not only find a way home now, they must help the humans of this faraway planet defeat Ra, and save the Earth in the process.

So you think you've solved in fourteen days what they couldn't solve in two years? 

Erich Von Daniken’s published works about “ancient astronauts” represented a major fad in the 1970s, even though the books were widely debunked and ridiculed by the scientific establishment.  Von Daniken’s theory suggests that artifacts and constructs of the ancient world -- such as the Pyramids or Stonehenge -- are the works of advanced, star-faring aliens because humans of those historic eras did not possess the technology or skill to build them. 

Primitive man thus perceived the builders – aliens – as “Gods.”  Von Daniken interpreted stories from the Old Testament (like Ezekiel’s description of a ship of angels in the Old Testaments) as being literal stories of alien encounters and incursions.

Von Daniken’s ideas have found significant currency in science fiction television and cinema over the decades since Chariots of the Gods was published.  Battlestar Galactica (1978) and The Phoenix (1982) both traded on the idea of ancient astronauts and “brothers of man” in space.  More recent films such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Knowing (2009) also developed these Von Daniken-esque notions.  The upcoming Prometheus (2012) also appears as though it will mine this idea rather thoroughly: that aliens visited man in antiquity and helped shape his future and his very world.

The appeal of these stories (and thus the appeal of Stargate) rests on twin concepts.  First, that we are not alone in the universe.  And secondly, that we are intimately connected with the alien races out there, existing beyond the stars.  Meeting these alien races, we are faced with the resolution of a mystery that connects our most distant past to our immediate future.  The promise is that we will join our cosmic brothers one day, and with a full understanding of where we came from.  In other words, the key to knowing who and what we really are rests on contacting the ancient peoples who set our culture in motion.  In space, then, we find our both our origin and our ultimate destination as a species.

The first twenty-three minutes or so of Stargate, -- the film’s strongest -- tread deeply into such ancient mysteries.  Who built the pyramids? Why were they built?  And what can we learn from the Ancients? 

As Stargate opens, Dr. Jackson is asked to translate the symbols that will activate a stargate, the doorway to the other side of the known universe.  The film lands the audience on Jackson’s side almost immediately, as he is ruthlessly mocked by his narrow-minded colleagues.  Then, the audience shares Jackson’s excitement as he translates the alien language inscribed on a 10,000 year old alien device. 

This part of the film races by with intrigue, humor and excitement. The sense of anticipation, of wonder, is palpable.  Spader proves especially strong here as the audience surrogate and as a committed detective.   Jackson’s obsession with “knowing” becomes the audience’s obsession thanks to Spader’s enthusiastic portrayal, and his self-deprecating sense of humor.  A lot of this could seem like dry, dull exposition, but Spader makes the material riveting to watch, and colors it with his character's idiosyncrasies.

Once the Stargate is discovered and activated, however, the film gets mired down in familiar-seeming desert terrains and the like.   After the visually-amazing “ultimate trip” to another planet, it’s a little disconcerting to come down to Earth, literally, and see familiar sand dunes and sky.  And watching Jackson and O’Neil encounter a city of primitive slaves is not exactly heart-pounding. 

But by the time the first hour is over, Ra arrives and the film picks up again. Emmerich makes the most of the film’s unseen menace at this juncture.  

In particular, he shoots an underground siege absolutely perfectly by utilizing P.O.V. shots.  Members of O’Neil’s team are picked off one at a time, and we don’t see the hunters.  Instead, the camera creeps up on the unsuspecting soldiers, and then the film cuts to their bodies being dragged off-screen by unseen creatures.  It’s almost as though we’ve shifted gears into a horror movie, and the grunting, inhuman sound effects of Ra’s soldiers augment the idea of a terrifying, unknown presence.  Even the final, momentous reveal of these minions remains quite powerful.  Looking at these glowing eyes, metal-headed soldiers, it’s easy to see how man could misinterpret them to be Gods. 

When Ra is finally introduced, he isn’t at all what we expect.  But in an action film, that kind of surprise can be a good thing, indeed.  We expect a seven-foot tall monster -- a Darth Vader, perhaps -- and are instead presented with a wispy, lithe, uncomfortable presence in Jaye Davidson.  Ra lives inside a human form, so it’s appropriate that we feel ambivalent about his appearance. We don’t know how to process him, at least not initially.  Is he male? Female?  Some strange combination of both?   

Impressively, Jaye Davidson conveys a sense of both uncomfortable beauty and absolute malevolence at the same time.  He may look beautiful on the surface, but his eyes and movements pulsate with a brand of wickedness that suggests the alien’s true nature.

Again, there’s something to be said for choosing an atypical direction in a spectacular like Stargate.  The filmmakers might have cast a bulky strong-man as Ra, but their selection of the slight, whisper-thing Davidson unhinges matters a bit.  The story becomes almost instantly more unpredictable because there is a sense in watching Davidson that we don’t know what he is, literally, and therefore what he will do.  On the few occasions that his alien features shine through his skin, we get a sense of the diabolical Ra’s inner ugliness.

Action films made today depend a great deal on quick cutting and herky-jerky, hand-held camera moves to transmit a sense of urgency.  However, the over twenty-year old Stargate plays as refreshingly retro during its accomplished action scenes. The film builds a sense of pace and immediacy through cross-cutting, first between two opposing scenes, and then, finally, between three.  

The approach generates a strong sense of momentum leading into the climax, and it’s carefully-wrought.  It helps too, no doubt, to have the muscular, steely-eyed Russell fronting an action scene.  No one in the film is made out to be a superhero, and there’s something refreshingly human and tenacious about the way Colonel O’Neil just dukes it out, punch-after-punch, with Ra’s muscle-bound minion.  I admire this scene because it doesn’t rely on special effects (except for the macabre punctuation…) or even wild (but improbable) stunts.   Instead, it’s just an old-fashioned slug-fest.

I would like to comment again -- as I have in the past – about at what an absolutely great leading man Russell is.  His O’Neil is distinctly different from his Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, or MacReady in The Thing.  There’s a kind of retro, non-showy grittiness in Russell’s performance here.  The film features a number of scenes during which he stands back in the corner of a frame and just silently smokes a cigarette, an act which is pretty unusual in mid-1990s cinema but which reminds one of Humphrey Bogart or some other leading man of yesteryear. 

In these moments, Russell quietly dominates, and all eyes reflexively turn to him.  Even if the script doesn’t exactly give the actor emotional layers to explore, Russell’s taciturn approach suggests a contemplative mind at work, a man silently watching and reacting to everything happening around him.

Perhaps Stargate seems less-than-impressive mainly in several canned, off-the-shelf moments.  O’Neil’s subplot about losing a son is all-too-familiar in this genre, for example, but Russell’s sincerity in vetting it makes it less-than groan-worthy.  His expressive, guilt-ridden eyes go a long way towards making the commonly-seen trope seem powerful and new again. 

Not so strong, however, is the moment -- rendered in over-the-top slow motion photography -- when one of the rebellious slave youngsters goes down in a blaze of glory, and the last we see of him is a tumbling army helmet.  It feels like a moment that would be right at home in Team America: World Police (2004).

Another moment – a trade of salutes between the former slaves and O’Neil – also plays as eminently cheesy and way over-the-top.  You’ve got to wonder why a film that can foster a sense of wonder (in the first twenty-minutes), transmit a strong sense of menace (at the hour point), and convey strong action (at the climax), feels the need to go schmaltzy and sentimental in conclusion.   I suppose it’s just Hollywood: a land where implication isn’t enough and you must be spoon-fed “emotions” so you know EXACTLY how to feel all the time.  It’s insulting.

Despite such missteps, Stargate is nimble in its special effects (especially the depiction of the stargate itself) and boasts a nice through-line about technology.  Technology doesn’t necessarily make one superior, at least in the long run, the film seems to state.  Here, the slave community comes together to stop Ra (just as slaves did on Earth, in antiquity), and the idea that gets conveyed is that we succeed when we work together.

Although I have distinct memories of the late Gene Roddenberry complaining about the ancient astronaut theory because it failed to take into account human intelligence and human ingenuity, Stargate actually possesses a commendably optimistic streak too.  Humankind here is ready to confront its former gods.  Primitive superstition is behind us.

Of course, on the other hand, both Ra and the military men of Earth still attempt to dominate situations through violent means: with bombs, guns and other weapons of destruction.  We may not literally be slaves anymore, but even as advanced as we are, we’re still slaves to our destructive (and self-destructive) impulses.  

Stargate is never quite smart enough to square that circle.

Still, this is one of those “big” sci-fi movies where it helps if you allow yourself to get swept up by the bigness of it all.  The bigness of the soundtrack. Of the performances. Of the (high) concept. Of the desert vistas. And of the special effects. 

If you do let yourself succumb to all of that impressive eye candy, Stargate is a film of wonder, humor, imagination, and not a small degree of charm.

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...