Posted by Will Ooi | Posted in Film | Tags: Movie Reviews, Schwarzenegger, Terminator | Posted on 09-06-2009-05-2008
Preamble, T1 and T2
I am a hardcore Terminator fan and this rant has been a long time coming.
The original was one of the very first movies I ever saw as a kid of about 6, complete with all the violence and swearing and even the sex scene – none of which made any sense to my child mind, of course. Along with the Conan films which my parents also enjoyed, I suppose it’s fair to say that I was born into being a Schwarzenegger fan, although only in hindsight do I realise that I was actually born into being a James Cameron fan. I was terrified by the dark vision of the future in the film, by how hard it was to destroy just that one Terminator, and how when 1991 came round all the kids raved on about how awesome the sequel was and how the T-1000 in particular was one of the scariest film villains ever, even surpassing the Arnie T-800. T2 lost a lot of its dark edge and replaced it with a more hopeful tale of the value of humanity achieving victory through their inner strength, and it was also the cementing of Schwarzenegger as a true Hollywood icon. But the real star was Cameron, the creator, writer, and director. He had raised his credibility with Aliens (as well as the tremendously underrated The Abyss) in between the two Terminator films, with a vision of exactly what he wanted his story to say. And he chose to end it with just T1 and 2, even shooting an alternate ending to T2 with an old Sarah Connor sitting in a park post-August 29th 1997 but opted instead for a black highway ending which was, looking back, a huge mistake.
Because of this ambiguous ending, talk of the third movie was always rumoured in the mid to late 90s. All of it was entirely hypothetical, as Cameron had, with the first two movies, melded an extremely tight and consistent storyline taking into account, as best he could, the paradoxes of time travel. The use of this device in any medium is bound to be confusing and often inevitably contained within an infinitely recurring loop (e.g. 12 Monkeys), especially in Terminator given that Kyle Reese was sent back to 1984 and is John Connor’s father, and that if there was no Judgment Day and no Terminators, he would never be sent back and therefore John could never exist. However the second T-800 sent back to protect him had succeeded in its mission, and then in destroying itself ensured that Judgment Day would never occur. Would John Connor just vanish at that moment? According to Cameron and without entering the realms of discussing alternate dimensions, no, and I agree with that. The infinite loop was broken, and that’s it, game over man, game over.
In T1 the T-800 was a cold, heartless killing machine. In T2, John Connor trained it to be “more human, and not such a dork all the time”. The same goes for Sarah Connor, a character who had evolved from a vulnerable girl who got stood up on Friday night dates to the completely unrecognisable and trained warrior in the gap between the two movies – a strong female personality which was quite rare in films at the time with traits borrowed heavily from the Ellen Ripley character in Cameron’s Aliens. By the end of T2, both these characters, the Terminator and Sarah, “had learnt the value of human life”, so what more was there to do to progress their arcs any further? The only thing that could have happened was that they would go backwards, and sure enough that’s what we got with T3.
So, fast forward to 2003 when the hypothetical third film became a brutal actuality with no James Cameron and, crucially, no Linda Hamilton. The studios had practically decided, “You know, forget about what Cameron thought, let’s add in some cool stuff and bring home the cash. No Sarah Connor? No Problem!”. But there were problems as to how they would go about coming up with a script for another sequel; so many of them. Judgment Day had already been averted. Cyberdyne Systems, and therefore Skynet, the Terminator AI, had been blown up. It was impossible for the Terminators to ever be created, and hence the “unknown future” Sarah Connor had spoken of would roll along and she and John would live their lives as any other ordinary mother and son. Not according to John Brancato and Michael Ferris though, two “writers” you can rely on if ever you want your favourite series to be completely ruined.
And ruin it they most definitely did. Judgment Day was inevitable, apparently. Destroying the Cyberdyne building only served to delay it, and Skynet was now a program run by the military. What? But wouldn’t the T-800 in T2, from the future, already know this? And if it was inevitable, why didn’t Arnie do what the Edward Furlong John Connor suggested and stay with the Connors until Judgment Day did eventually happen, still pretending to be “Uncle Bob”. What a waste! The biggest insults from T3 were, from least insulting to most:
3. It deemed the events of T2 as completely irrelevant. Completely.
2. The T-800 referred to itself as a T-101. WRONG. It is and always has been a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, T-800. You cannot simply merge the two nomenclatures and expect people not to notice, not least those people who grew up with the movies. Harsh, nerdy bastards like me. The least the screenwriters could do was get their facts right by, just as a suggestion, actually watching T1 and T2.
1. No Linda Hamilton after she refused to reprise her role as Sarah Connor, stating that the script was “soulless,” which is a nicer word than what I would call it. THE Sarah Connor, the legend. The most human character in a series about machines wiping out humanity, suddenly gone, killed off-screen and written out with one word: Leukaemia. The first two movies were never about the special effects, even if T2 was the first film to rely completely on its believability: it was about the human aspect and character development. It wasn’t about the one-liners either; “I’ll be back” and “Hasta La Vista, Baby” just naturally attained pop culture quotable status without ever trying, as in any memorable film. It wasn’t even about Schwarzenegger, whose career post-T2 never hit the same heights. It was all about Sarah Connor.
So what were we left with? A film resembling Terminator only in name and nothing else, not least personalities. Gone was the key character, along with Brad Fiedel’s theme music. John Connor was a pathetic nobody played by an equally pathetic Nick Stahl, spending his time getting high off Vet clinic drugs. The T-800 (hold on no, T-101) was a parody of the Terminator we had known, reduced to a ridiculous joke machine who somehow knew what style of sunglasses were “in” at the time. Instead of strong female leads, all we got were Clare Dane’s pointless Kate Brewster and Kristanna Loken’s female “Terminatrix” with inflatable breasts, a result of primary schoolchild imaginings and “Oh wow imagine if there was a chick Terminator!” nonsense turning into a 100 million dollar movie production.
In fact, it makes me sick just thinking about T3 and the guns in Sarah Connor’s coffin and the disgusting image of Arnie holding that coffin up on one arm with an assault rifle in the other and the “advanced” anti-Terminator Terminatrix that no one in the future ever knew about with an inbuilt hair-styling program that I’m just going to stop it here. As for the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show with another female “hot chick” cyborg who presumably helped teen John Connor pass his final exams and enter college even if it knew he was going to fail them anyway, just…no.
Terminator Salvation, aka Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins, aka Terminator 4
McG directing was not a good sign. In fact, given his resume, it was about on par with news that Uwe Boll was taking the helm. McG claimed to be a Terminator fan and wanted to right all that was wrong with T3, even if he was depending on a script penned again by Brancato and Ferris. Plus, after doing the Charlie’s Angels movies, his reputation was hardly sterling. But when Christian Bale signed on, it raised questions. Would Bale, now a bona fide “major actor”, agree to a rubbish film? Would he be doing it because it was, actually, seriously, good? Or was he just doing it for the money? When Linda Hamilton signed on late in post-production a few months before the film’s release, it raised the very same questions. She had turned down T3 but now, surely, Sarah Connor herself would make the right choice. The trailers looked great too and, maybe, just maybe, I could forget about the last movie and just go along with the fourth.
After seeing the film this past weekend, I now know the answers: They took the cash and ran.
30 minutes in, I was intrigued. Going in with the lowest possible expectations, already hating it and hoping it’d impress me on some minor and purely aesthetic degree, it actually had me for a little while. “Could this actually be good?” I wondered. Anton Yelchin’s portrayal of a young Kyle Reese was brilliant. Bale’s John Connor rising through the ranks, the story of how he became that “great military leader”, was quite promising. Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright had, again, great potential, although his character would have definitely benefited if it not for the fact that his real identity was openly proclaimed in all the trailers, ridding the film of any great suspense or shock (but to be fair, T2 was guilty of the same thing with the “good guy T-800”). But then came the moment. The moment that spelled the downfall: the stealth giant Terminator/Transformer people harvester that could sneak up behind you without a sound, stocked with motorcycle mini-Terminators in its legs whose sole purpose of existence in this film was so that Connor could ride one later. From then on it was all style with zero substance, zero heart. Cold and calculating, like a machine, with no clue as to what made the first two movies great. All the references were there: The human slaves supervised by machines that Michael Biehn‘s Kyle Reese made mention to in T1, the rubber skin T-600s, the creation of the superior T-800s, but not once did it feel at all like the dark and frightening vision of the future shown in glimpses in the first two films. The absence of Sarah Connor in this future of whom Kyle Reese in T1 spoke of as the legend who trained John Connor into the man he became, who in William Wisher’s novelisation of T2 lived until an old age before finally dying in battle, hurts this film immensely. How would Kyle ever know about Sarah Connor, and hence fall in love with her before volunteering to be sent back in time? Through hearsay? Through Bale’s muffled incoherent Batman voice shouting all his lines as if his life depended on it?
But the worst thing about T4? Even worse than the dialogue (memorably, a foiled rapist saying the words “killing me won’t win this war”)? The logic. The logic that Skynet would capture Kyle Reese knowing he is “important” but not kill him the moment they got him is just ludicrous. As is a special computer terminal made specifically for Marcus Wright to conveniently wander into on his way back to “Skynet City” (which was Skynet’s plan all along, taking into account Marcus happening to run into and befriending Kyle Reese and also meeting John Connor and getting rescued by a resistance woman who falls in love with him who helps him escape from capture so that he could return to Skynet with all of this knowledge) and finding out the truth of his existence via an awful drawn-out exposition scene with a computerised Helena Bonham Carter; would a computer be so dumb as to give away its sinister intentions before the mission had been completed and therefore sway the opinion and motives of their most advanced creation? Are we still in the old ages of filmmaking where bad-guy characters have long moustaches they can twirl and accompany with an evil laugh and all-revealing monologue; when a Bond villain captures James Bond and tells him his plans when he should be busy getting to the point and killing Bond. And since when (when?!) was a Terminator immune to the melting effects of molten lava?
Plenty of style with plenty of references and quotes from the core storyline but they were all for show, as if to say “yes, we are hardcore fans ourselves because we’ve got that same Guns’N’Roses track and ‘I’ll be back’ and we’ve got a CGI Schwarzenegger and we also show you how John Connor got that scar we saw in T2”, whilst managing to completely miss the point. With Sarah Connor now long gone, there still remained the chance to turn a fledgling John Connor character into the great leader he was destined to become, but in the end he was only promoted to that position because the existing resistance bigwigs got wiped out. As for the ending? If they were going for the same emotional “I know now why you cry” response as at the end of T2, then they failed spectacularly: having a woman fall in love with Marcus and kiss him, along with a mute little girl whose only reason for being in the film was to hold his metal hand at the end, does not equal emotion. In other words, if you give a child an assignment to write about a giraffe, the kid will make mention of a long neck. If you give a child the Terminator license, they will come up with T3 and T4. If a true prequel to T1 was going to be made and set in the future (yes, time travel is confusing), then that film should end with the 1984 T-800 being sent back in time followed shortly after by an adult Kyle Reese who has mulled for years over that photo of Sarah Connor and “memorised every line, every curve”. But no, if we want to see that film then we’ll have to wait until Terminator 5 comes out, which in all likelihood will be made in a couple of years. For fuck’s sake.
I was really hoping Terminator Salvation would be a personal salvation, restoring my hope in Hollywood and in the series, but then again I was never going to be satisfied: the irreversible damage had already been done with T3. It’s a shame because there was some potential here for T4 to act as a solid prequel to T1, but ultimately it tried to be too many things at once. It tried to be faithful to hardcore fans, fix the horrible errors of T3, as well as appeal to the mainstream audience, ultimately ending up with none of those: the final result a mere special effects-filled turn-off-your-brain “summer movie” under the presumption that the first two films were successful only because of the action. The action was brilliant yes – and much of the current opinion surrounding Salvation is that it works as an entertaining action movie, but the key point of the Terminator series was that it was the story of a diner waitress-turned-warrior single-mother and her knowledge of the truth, and of a young boy overwhelmed by his destiny: human aspects that appealed to fans on many different levels. Terminator was always about the path of humans discovering themselves, their innate and unrealised potential, and how machines could never quite emulate nor understand that spirit which brought the resistance their victory in the end. Terminator was all James Cameron and Sarah Connor and without the both of them, along with there being no substitute for a human connection in parts 3 and 4, this series has been well and truly Terminated (sorry).