Jun 5, 2009

The Complete... Terminator

The Terminator  [15]
Dir: James Cameron
2029.  Mankind has finally won its war against the machines, but as a last ditch attempt to take back the victory the machines have sent a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back through time to 1984, a cyborg killing machine with a mission to find and kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will become the Mother of the leader of the human resistance. To try and save the future humans are able to send a protector for Sarah back in time, its just a matter of whether Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) or the Terminator will reach Sarah first.

The chase movie has a long history, and The Terminator, despite its futuristic trappings and sometimes confusing time traveling story, is basically a very simple and often brutally effective example of the genre. There are really only three major characters, and a very simple conflict – two men, one must kill a woman, the other must save her.  This means that James Cameron and his co-writer Gale Anne Hurd don’t need to spend a great deal of time on exposition and instead use that screentime to give their characters a level of depth that was and remains uncommon in the genre.

It’s often forgotten, given the megabudget follow ups, that The Terminator began life as a down and dirty film costing just $4million.  It had no major stars, and its commercial prospects didn’t look especially blockbusting. This actually ends up benefiting the film, giving it the feeling of something where anything goes, where because you don’t know any of these characters, or the actors playing them, and because the villain of the piece is both so remorseless and so deadly, all bets are off as to who lives and dies. This gives the film a drive that makes it incredibly compelling, even in the quiet scenes between set pieces.

However you feel about James Cameron as a filmmaker you have to admit, the man knows how to stage an action sequence, and there are plenty of stunning examples in The Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deadly march through the Police station is a notably strong and scary sequence, showing just how utterly deadly the Terminator is.  The Tech-Noir sequence is another masterfully constructed suspense set piece, which turns into a terrific action sequence. Cameron also has an eye for a great image. The Terminator was born of a dream that Cameron had, in which he saw a robot rising out of fire. That image is in the film, and it is one of most memorable frames of 80’s cinema. It’s far from the sole iconic image in the film though – Schwarzenegger cutting his human eye out, a Terminator’s foot crushing a human skull and the images of the Terminator making his way through the Police station all stick in the mind long after they have gone by.

The film takes itself very seriously, and largely earns the right to do so. The script may be simple, but it’s never stupid, the dialogue is functional rather than truly characterful, but its given life by a largely solid cast. Schwarzenegger has just 16 lines, but he makes an impact with every one of them, more than that though his performance as the T800 is one that, 25 years later, still resonates. Nobody is ever going to accuse Schwarzenegger of being a great or indeed a versatile actor, but he’s perfect here. There’s the vacancy of his performance, the utter lack of emotion felt by the machine, but there’s also, even in this first entry in the franchise, a little humour behind the performance that makes the Terminator more than a blank space. Michael Biehn is the real standout of the film, his worn out but determined Reese is the film’s beating heart, he’s given little help by the dialogue in one key scene, in which Reese tells Sarah that he’s come through the time machine because he’s in love with her, based on a picture her son gave him, but Biehn’s sensitive performance wins out over the hackneyed scene (the same can’t be said for the silent, and laughable, sex scene).

The only downside as far as the cast is concerned is Linda Hamilton’s rather poor performance as Sarah Connor, some of her line readings – notably the final pay off of the movie, which she garbles – are weak and the growth of her character from the victim of the beginning to the warrior of the end is not terribly convincing. Though the action scenes are strong Cameron does sometimes let the pace lag, particularly in the middle part of the film, and the future war sequences add little to the movie aside from screentime. These rather minor gripes aside The Terminator is an extraordinarily enjoyable thriller, and one that holds up brilliantly after a quarter of a century.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day  [15]
Dir: James Cameron

10 years after skynet failed to kill John Connor (Edward Furlong), before he was even born, the machines are trying again, sending back a more advanced Terminator (Robert Patrick) to erase Connor as a child. Once again the resistance is able to send a protector back in time – the T-800 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that previously hunted Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in 1984.

James Cameron’s long gestating follow up to his 1984 hit wasn’t, in the manner of most sequels, a simple reheating of the first film with improved special effects.  Instead Terminator 2 is smarter, deeper, more involving, more spectacular, in short bigger and better than its predecessor in all departments. Part of the reason that this sequel took such a long time to reach the screen was that its budgetary demands were so high - it was the first film to cost over $100 million - but more importantly Cameron had to wait until filmmaking technology was ready to realise his vision (a problem that still dogs him, his forthcoming Avatar has been 20 years in the planning). T2 was largely worth both the money and the wait.

In the time since The Terminator, and largely on the back of that role, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become perhaps the world’s biggest movie star (and one of the most expensive, his salary was $15 million), and that changed his role. However it came about, service to Schwarzenegger’s star image or just through Cameron and William Wisher’s writing, the decision to have Arnie’s Terminator go from antagonist to protector was an inspired one.  That simple choice allows the movie to tell a significantly different story to that of the first film, to throw all its relationships into disarray, and Schwarzenegger to play a very different character. Perhaps surprisingly Arnie is more than up to the challenge, in fact he’s never been more effective in a film. He retains the established nature of the Terminator - the emotionless killing machine - but through the simple device of establishing that the machine can learn behaviour Cameron and Schwarzenegger introduce a new layer to the character, allowing Schwarzenegger to have some fun. This is never more true than in the scene where John attempts to teach the machine to smile, a perfectly judged moment which may be the funniest thing Arnie has ever done on screen.

Another much improved performance comes from Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. This is no longer the big haired damsel in distress that proved so frequently irritating in The Terminator; rather she’s the film’s third killing machine. Hamilton trained for a long time to acquire the physique for this movie, and it pays off, her sinewy body making her a convincing threat. She’s also a good deal more credible in the role this time out, spitting her lines and executing her action scenes with a fire missing from the original film. She’s especially good in the early scenes when Sarah is confined to a mental hospital; credibly insane but never overplaying. Cameron campaigned for her to get an Oscar nomination for her role, and it wouldn’t have been undeserved.  At just 11 Edward Furlong has a tough task with the role of John Connor and sometimes, to be fair to him, he handles it with aplomb, at other times though Furlong is shrill and unbelieveable. His best moment comes in a powerful scene that wasn’t included in the theatrical cut of the film, in which the Terminator’s CPU has been extracted, so the it can be switched to allow the machine to learn, Sarah wants to destroy the chip and John must show the first signs of his leadership to come. It’s a great scene, with fine performances from both Furlong and Hamilton, but you do long for some consistency in the young actor’s performance.

Among the rest of the cast Robert Patrick stands out in a near mute role as the sleek T-1000 (a Porsche next to Schwarzenegger’s tank, was how Cameron described the new cyborg). There’s a sly wit to his performance that makes it very distinct from either of Schwarzenegger’s takes on a Terminator. Patrick is especially effective in the action scenes, he gives this Terminator a smooth, flowing, purposeful movement that distinguishes him still further from Arnie’s slow, heavy, relentlessness.

Of course the major story behind T2 at the time was its major advancements in computer generated special effects, and not only does the technology used to realize the liquid metal form of the T-1000 still hold up, it’s used extremely well. The CG is actually surprisingly sparingly used, even some shots that you’d think were CG (and now would be), like the moment when she pieces of the shattered T-1000 begin to melt and flow back together, are realised practically, helping the rest of the effects to feel more real and have more weight. Some of the pure CG moments remain breathtaking though, particularly one of the T-1000 rising from a floor, with the tile pattern all over its body. Cameron’s strong use of effects is also felt in another truly iconic moment, one of the film’s finest, in which Schwarzenegger peels the skin off his forearm to show the metal endoskeleton beneath, another practical effect that works much better than the CGI that would be used today.

This time out Cameron manages to pace the film rather more evenly, once the T-800, Sarah and John are on the run the pace seldom lets up, and when it does it’s a welcome breathing space from the relentless action and excitement that Cameron throws at us. The set pieces are breathtaking; the Pescadero escape stands out, as do the invasion of Cyberdyne and the incredible highway chase that leads to the final showdown. Where Cameron really scores over the first film though is in making this one affecting. There’s an emotional content that was missing from The Terminator and the ending here, though you know it has to come, and that the character you are getting emotional about is a fictional robot, is still moving.

Terminator 2 is a richer and better film than its predecessor, the high point of the series and, ultimately, one of the great blockbusters.

Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines  [12A]
Dir: Jonathan Mostow
2004. Judgment Day hasn’t come, but John Connor (Nick Stahl), now 22, still lives ‘off the grid’, fearing that the machines may one day find him. Undeterred, Skynet sends back their latest model; the T-X (Kristanna Loken) to hunt down Connor’s lieutenants, all teenagers in 2004. However the T-X soon locates Connor. Once again the resistance have sent a protector for John and for Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a young vet destined to become Connor’s wife, in the familiar form of the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who informs them that Judgment Day was not stopped, only delayed.

When considering Terminator 3 it is perhaps best to begin at the end. Okay, getting there takes some major work, and bends the time travel aspects of the franchise almost to breaking point, but the ending of this film is a hugely ballsy choice. A lot of summer blockbusters begin with the end of the world, but few have ever ended that way; with the destruction of everything the characters have been fighting for for three movies. To his credit, director Jonathan Mostow doesn’t overplay his hand in the moment, the shots of missiles shooting out of the ground, and of mushroom clouds exploding all over the earth are not sensational but lyrical and rather moving. There are several things wrong with T3, but that one choice; so unexpected, but so fitting for the franchise, a moment that still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, makes up for many of the film’s smaller sins.

One of the bigger of those sins is the choice by screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris to try and inject a little parody into the film, referencing the earlier movies with a sly wink. It falls flat almost every time they do it, from the awful moment which has Schwarzenegger, suited up as the Terminator after taking a male stripper’s clothes (itself a joke that outstays its very brief welcome), putting on a pair of shades that – ‘hilariously’ – are pink and star shaped to the Terminator’s mimicking of human speech patterns which has gone from classics like “Fuck you, asshole” and “Hasta la vista, baby” to “Talk to the hand”.

The only other disappointment is Kristanna Loken’s blank performance as the T-X, of course she’s playing a robot, but there was always, in both Schwarzenegger’s and Robert Patrick’s Terminators, some measure of personality, even if it had been programmed in to allow them to fit in, even if it was never really natural, it was there. Loken is a blank slate, she’s expressionless and emotionless, there’s a total vacancy to her performance, but it doesn’t feel robotic as much as it simply feels like a bad actress giving a bad performance.

These gripes aside though, Terminator 3 is an extremely successful blockbuster; smarter than the average film of its type, but also better acted and extremely exciting. The action scenes are always the big story of a Terminator film, and Mostow here creates a selection of action beats that can easily stand with the best that James Cameron crafted in the first two films. There’s a brutal hand to hand fight between Schwarzenegger and Loken and a graveyard based shootout that leads into an excellent car chase.  The real standout moment is an insane chase through a city centre, with Loken driving a huge crane, Schwarzenegger hanging on to the crane’s hook and Stahl and Danes attempting to escape in a van. The destruction in this scene is incredible to watch, it was threatened with being cut, but Schwarzenegger put up his own money to finish the scene and it’s a good thing he did, not only because it’s a great scene but because the film needs the action beat at that point. The real highpoint comes in amazing moment in which the T-800, hanging from the crane, is dragged through a building, crashing through pillar after pillar, the building collapsing behind him.

The action is strong, but that’s not the only thing to recommend the film. Schwarzenegger is, again, pretty good, and again brings a different tone to the Terminator, who is considerably harder as a character this time round, dismissive to and violent with Connor.  The scenes that don’t work aren’t his fault, they are that of the script – no actor could make the scene which ends with the T-800 beating up a car play. Stahl makes a good Connor, nailing both the character’s vulnerability and his determination, but for me the real standout is Claire Danes. Danes was cast late, replacing Sophia Bush, who was felt to be too young for the part, and though she’s a variable actress when she gets it right Danes can be very good indeed, and here she gets it right. She has a similar journey to that of Linda Hamilton’s character in The Terminator, in that she has to go from damsel in distress to warrior in just 90 minutes.  Danes pulls that journey off with greater aplomb than Hamilton ever did, but also finds time to inject a little emotion into Kate. To ask us to accept an entirely new main character in a franchise on its third installment is a hard sell, but Kate is someone you’ll be interested in seeing more of, because of the growing strength Danes gives her.

The film is also quite visually inventive, especially in the way that, towards the end of the film, it begins showing us early Terminator designs (a room full of T-1’s) and early iterations of hunter killers. It’s this sort of intelligent retrofitting of what we know from the other movies about the future, rather than the parodic homages, that really play for franchise fans. It’s also nice to see, still, quite heavy use of practical machines, which continue to demonstrate just how much this franchise owes the work of the late Stan Winston, both in the design and the implementation of its effects.

What really makes Rise Of The Machines work for me though is that you always feel how high the stakes are for the characters, what they are trying to prevent is the literal, and imminent, end of civilization – it really doesn’t get more serious, and that gives what is, again, basically a long chase movie, that extra charge, ensuring that you’re always perched on the edge of your seat. Terminator 3 certainly has weak points, but so do its predecessors, and this is a truly unfairly maligned entry in an unusually consistent franchise.

Terminator: Salvation  [12A]
Dir: McG
2018. Judgment day has been and gone.  The war against Skynet and the Terminators is in full swing. The human resistance sees an opportunity to win the war in a signal that appears to shut down Skynet controlled machines. John Connor (Bale) is the leader of group of soldiers, but not among the high command of the resistance. Connor discovers that Skynet is taking human prisoners, among them the teenage Kyle Reese (Yelchin), who will become Connor’s father when, in 2029, Connor sends him back in time to 1984. With the help of the mysterious Marcus Wright Connor must save the prisoners, to protect his future and, hopefully, destroy Skynet.

When is a Terminator movie not a Terminator movie? There are certain things, even leaving aside MIA star Arnold Schwarzenegger, that you expect from a Terminator movie. It’s going to involve time travel, it’s going to be a chase, and it’s going to involve two Terminators; one hunting John Connor, the other his protector. None of these things is really true of Terminator: Salvation. It feels less like a genuine Terminator movie than it does an expensively mounted knock off that has simply elected to use the title.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is the fact that John Connor, around whom the franchise has always revolved, even when the character was not yet born, has become a supporting character, and not even a very important one at that, in what is supposed to be his own story. Christian Bale was apparently reluctant to take part in this film, not wanting to sign up to what would be the fourth best Terminator film, and going on record saying that nobody thinks Terminator 3 was the best of those films, so why make another?  Fair point Christian. There’s certainly no answer to that self-imposed question in Bale’s performance, in his perhaps 40 minutes of screen time (in a 115 minute film) Bale has exactly two styles of speaking; growly and shouty and exactly one expression; a mildly pained grimace. Bale has often been acclaimed as the most gifted actor of his generation, and at his best I can buy that.  Recently though there’s been something of an emperors new clothes syndrome at work and this performance marks a miserable, lazy, new low for Bale.

The actual main character is Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright, whose true nature the film wants to spring on us as a big mid-film twist. There are two problems with that. First the dreadful opening sequence heavily signposts the revelation.  Second, even if you’re dumb enough not to be able to guess it from that opening, Marcus’ role in proceedings has been thoroughly spoiled in both full length trailers and TV spots, so all the intrigue is sucked out of the character. Australian actor Sam Worthington works hard, but his accent is inconsistent (and, really, why can’t he have an Aussie accent?) and the character is so ill defined that despite his hard work Worthington struggles to make a real impression.

The best performance in the film is from Anton Yelchin, excellent as the younger version of Michael Biehn’s character from the first film. As with his version of Chekov in the recent Star Trek he doesn’t impersonate the previous actor, but simply captures a flavour of them, especially here with Reese’s famous line “Come with me if you want to live”. The problem, as with many of the characters, is the fact that he’s afforded so little screen time (little more than half an hour) that he doesn’t really get to do much of great import - his role in the ending set piece of the film being largely sitting in a cell and yelling.

The film is massively overstuffed with pointless characters, and serves none of them well. There’s Resse’s mute, cute, 9 year old black sidekick named Star (Jadagrace). There’s Moon Bloodgood (great name, terrible actress) as resistance pilot Blair Williams, who shows up just long enough to perform her plot function before being promptly forgotten about. There’s Common, who stands around holding a gun while modeling an admittedly cool, but frankly rather too tidy for someone living in a post apocalyptic world, beard and says about two lines as Connor’s ‘right hand man’ Barnes. There’s Bryce Dallas Howard (who is in no way convincing as a 14 years older version of Claire Danes, largely because she’s two years younger), whose role is to simper and be pregnant in the background. Jane Alexander and a hilariously miscast Helena Bonham-Carter each get a couple of minutes of nothing to do, as does the always excellent Michael Ironside (who would have been a great old John Connor). It’s depressing to watch the way this movie wastes talent.

The major annoyance of all this is that it’s easy to see how the character count could be reduced, and the film better in consequence. It seems pretty obvious that Blair is a character spun off from Kate Connor (whose ability to fly a plane was established at the end of T3). Having Kate in that role would not only make her closer to the tough girl she was at the end of T3, it would also raise the stakes of a pivotal moment in the film by making a key betrayal infinitely worse.  Salvation doesn’t have that kind of bravery, instead it contents itself being perfunctory and loud.

Rather than handing the reins of the franchise back to Jonathan Mostow, who did such a fine job on T3, or to any of the innumerable action auteurs out there to choose from, the producers have plumped for one Joseph McGinty Nichol, or McG. Now I’m not going to mock McG for his name, because that’s rather like using a flamethrower to toast a marshmallow, and besides, he made Charlie’s Angels and that’s far more shameful than having a stupid name. To be entirely fair to McG Terminator: Salvation is nothing like as terrible as the apocalyptically awful Charlie’s Angels, but it doesn’t demonstrate much of an advance as a filmmaker either. He clearly has no idea of story as an overarching thing, not only does Salvation fit only very awkwardly into the franchise as whole, but it fits together only very loosely as a film. It’s less a coherent story than a series of bits (many overly reminiscent of other films), each floating almost independent of the other. There’s enough material here for an entire trilogy, given that overabundance of characters, but none of those movies would feel like a Terminator movie.

The action scenes and special effects are executed with a degree of unfussy competence, but what’s missing isn’t spectacle, it’s a reason to care. Even though John Connor’s very existence is nominally at stake, and with it humanity’s future, there’s never any sense of high stakes. There’s no urgency to this film, particularly when you compare it with the loudly ticking clock that is the last hour of T3. At the end of the day this means that, rather than being sucked irresistibly in to the experience of the action scenes as you were in the first three films, you simply watch them. It’s as impersonal and uninvolving as seeing a rolling demo of a computer game. There’s also an inconsistency in the threat level of the enemy. Sometimes the Terminators seem extremely easy to fight, at others (nearer the end of the film) they are all but unstoppable. The only things McG manages to show any mastery of here are shooting and things going boom, and that can be fun, but with nothing behind it it just becomes a collection of loud noises.

The nods to the fans are as hit and miss as they were in T3 (which was penned by the same duo of Brancato and Ferris, though here they have an uncredited assist from Jonathan Nolan, whose appointment was apparently a condition of Bale’s participation). Come with me if you want to live works, as does Linda Hamilton’s vocal cameo, in which she gives the most genuinely emotional performance in the film, and shows just how missed she was in T3.  However, Bale's “I’ll be back” feels perfunctory and drew a groan. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cameo works well technically, the de-aging applied to his face making him look exactly, eerily, like he did in the first film.  Unfortunately McG muffs the execution with a very silly reveal where the T-800 is shown stepping, naked, from behind a door, modesty covered by a very convenient bit of mist. Well executed though it is it feels token, especially given that it’s a mute role (really, would it have killed them to take a line from the soundtrack of The Terminator?)

It’s a real shame that Terminator: Salvation is as bad as it is, because it wouldn’t be tough to fix, but make no mistake this is an almost complete failure, with only strong effects and Shane Hurlburt’s excellent photography to really recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment