Sunday, July 12, 2015

Terminator Marathon

In anticipation of going to see the new Terminator movie in theaters (since I'd heard good things about it from a close friend), I decided to go back and rewatch the first two Terminator movies, as well as the third and the fourth that I had never seen before. Here are my thoughts on each of the movies:

The Terminator (1984)

It's easy to write The Terminator off as a brainless Hollywood blockbuster (mainly due to the success and reputation of its sequel, which often - and unfairly in my opinion - eclipses its predecessor), but I view it as one of the pinnacle examples of a brilliant sci-fi premise executed flawlessly. A cyborg assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger, perfectly cast in a role that facilitated his transformation from an award-winning bodybuilder to a movie star) is sent from a future ravaged by nuclear war, where (much like in the Matrix), machines have enslaved and all but exterminated mankind. The Terminator's single-minded goal is to assassinate the leader of the human resistance - before he is ever born, by targeting his mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).

And so, without any concern for propriety or maintaining a low profile, the Terminator begins its rampage through Los Angeles, like an indestructible bulldozer, recklessly killing anyone and destroying anything that gets between him and his target. Sarah Connor's only protection is a human resistance fighter sent back from the future like the Terminator - a man named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, who, along with Lance Henriksen who plays a small role in this movie, also appears in director James Cameron's sequel to Alien), whose journey to the past initiates one of the great mindfucks of a time paradox in cinematic history - predating Back To The Future by a year! The Terminator's relentless pursuit of his target is thrilling to watch, and builds to a terrifying climax when the killing machine's true form is revealed. I unhesitatingly rate it one of the masterpieces of the science fiction genre.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The Terminator was a pretty neatly-wrapped narrative (as time loops tend to be), but whenever the unavoidably inconsistent logic of time travel is involved, there is always room for retconning. So Terminator 2 starts by introducing a second Terminator sent back in time, this time to target John Connor himself (Edward Furlong) before the war (dubbed "Judgment Day"), while he was still a child. Linda Hamilton returns as the boy's mother, Sarah Connor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role as the Terminator - with a significant twist: this time, he's been programmed to protect John Connor, against an even more powerful killing machine: Robert Patrick's T-1000.

This movie is a lot more self-conscious than The Terminator was (for better or worse, depending on your perspective). Arnold's entrance is no less badass, but this time it conspicuously strives to be "cool", whereas the first one was just terrifying. And while it's a clever way to put a twist on the story, I just don't like turning the unstoppable killer from the first movie into one of the good guys. Here, you have the Terminator learning to smile and crack jokes (and minimize human casualties); and while I'm sure having one as your personal bodyguard fulfills every 13 year old boy's fantasy, the Terminator is just not as awesome when it's reduced to fulfilling the role of a pet, or a toy.

On the other side of the ring, you have this new villain who I think works out better in theory than in practice. Robert Patrick is sinister-looking enough, but he doesn't make as intimidating a villain as Mr. Olympia (Arnold) did. The idea of liquid metal is undoubtedly cool, but the effects just don't impress me as much as a cyborg with a creepy-looking robotic endoskeleton. In summary, The Terminator was a desperate struggle to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, whereas Terminator 2 is a face-off between two juggernauts - and the movie feels different as a result. Personally, I prefer the tension and the despair of the former to the action and spectacle of the latter.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

With James Cameron no longer at the helm, and over a decade since the last entry, Terminator 3 is bound to feel like a departure from the previous titles in the series. Nevertheless, it picks up right where Terminator 2 left off, and utilizes a similar formula (arguably rendering it obsolete - especially considering that it's not as good - except for the fact that it retcons T2's resolution, making another sequel about the war-torn future possible). Although, like the original, T2's ending was pretty conclusive - Sarah and John Connor trashed Cyberdyne Systems' headquarters (the company that produced the AI that precipitated Judgment Day), thereby changing the future and averting the apocalypse - in T3, a young adult John Connor (Nick Stahl) is living in constant fear that fate will, sooner or later, find another way to manifest itself. And sure enough, it does.

Enter the new T-X (Kristanna Loken) - a female Terminatrix. She's a highly advanced model, taking on the best of the first two Terminators - a robotic endoskeleton underneath a layer of liquid metal - with added firepower and the ability to control other machines. This all sounds awesome, but I think it's gotten to the level of being a little ridiculous. (On that note, explosions are cool because fire, but I don't really need to see an entire city block demolished for no good reason - that's not entertainment for me). I don't want to be sexist - because women can be legitimately terrifying - but Kristanna Loken just isn't as intimidating as an award-winning bodybuilder can be. I feel like both she and Robert Patrick in T2 were trying too hard to imitate Arnold's emotionless, deadpan expressions that were so genuine in the original. It's a shame that they insisted on turning Arnold's Terminator into a sympathetic good guy - they should have just kept him as the villain.

Speaking of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he returns in this movie in a role very similar to the last. His entrance is even more humorous this time, when he enters a ladies' bar and steals the clothes off of a male stripper (I am not joking). No explanation is given as to how the Terminators make it to the past, two movies after we were told that the time travel device had been busted after Kyle Reese and the first Terminator went through. Plot consistency is tricky to begin with where time travel is involved, but the more they tack on to the story, the messier it gets. If repeated time travel is an option (via a repaired or second machine, for example), then questions arise, such as, why send the T-X (or even the T-1000) to kill an informed John Connor rather than an inexperienced Sarah Connor, as was the target the first time? And why not send a bunch of Terminators instead of just one? You can tell the series has gone from "I have a great story to tell!" to "what kind of story can we tell to keep this franchise going?"

Terminator Salvation (2009)

You could be forgiven for thinking that, twenty-five years after the first film, there wouldn't be any new ground left to tread in a Terminator movie, but you would be wrong. Apart from a few glimpses into the memories of Kyle Reese (played in this movie by Anton Yelchin), the story of the future resistance hadn't really been told. And I'm not sure that it could have been told until we'd seen the experiences (that span the second and third movies) that make up John Connor (Christian Bale, this time around)'s youth, and inform his prescient knowledge of the key to winning the war. That, and we also had to develop the special effects necessary to tell the story first.

An interesting thing about the Terminator movies, if you examine them, is that, despite it being a story involving time travel, that spans the years 1984 to 2029, each one takes place predominantly in chronological order. From before John Connor's birth, to his childhood, to the moments preceding Judgment Day, and now finally we move forward into the future to explore man's resistance against the machines. Terminator Salvation ditches the stale formula the series had latched onto, which is probably for the best. It is, therefore, an unpredictable movie, that doesn't feel like a classic Terminator - although it has lots of respect for the movies that preceded it - and it is a good movie nonetheless.

It is, however, a bleak and visually desaturated movie. But I like that it tries to do its own thing, instead of struggling to capture lightning in a bottle all over again. Arnold Schwarzenegger's absence isn't even that painful, since the Terminators have little need to disguise themselves as humans in the future - and they look as terrifying as ever here! Also, this movie provides an intriguing and far more effective example of a sympathetic rogue Terminator (portrayed by Sam Worthington) than we've ever seen before. It builds to a shockingly clever and exciting climax, that respectfully pays homage to its predecessors, with all new, updated special effects. As a total package, it's not as brilliant or flawless as the original Terminator, but I think I liked it better than the fan-favored Terminator 2.

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