Tuesday, 30 June 2015

She's an anti-Terminator Terminator?

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
(2003)

(SPOILERS) A Terminator 3 was as inevitable as Arnold’s waning career. He was never going to stick to his pledge not to do a third without James Cameron (who had already made one too many, even if the second cemented his bankability and gave him a lavish box of effects tricks to play with).  The ‘90s saw a steady downward career trend, not reversed by a second of the decade’s collaborations with Cameron and being sent to da coola in the debacle that was Batman and Robin. By the time Rise of the Machines arrived, Arnie was barely scraping by on the strength of international receipts. He needed its success; it at least allowed him to go off governating with a modicum of credibility. Which is about the amount of credibility Rise of the Machines possesses.


If T2 isn’t all its reputation cracks it up to be, it’s a masterpiece next to its 12-years-later very belated sequel. Which is a shame, as T3 has a few good ideas going for it, ones that are significantly more daring than what was, for Cameron, becoming a laboured family action movie ethic (the cosy T2 unit coming after the cosy Aliens one) and a willingness to pull his punches and opt for a saveable future and a good guy cyborg.  T3 is credited to John Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian. Assembled credits include Tank Girl, The Game, The Net, Surrogates and (!) Catwoman, as well as Terminator Salvation.


Not the most auspicious of résumés, then. However, the last of those pictures is important as, whether or not you care for Ts 3 and 4 very much, it ‘s certainly the case that they are tentatively willing to grapple with the ramifications of all this meddling with timelines, and what must be going on with Skynet. Indeed, while the execution of T3 is frequently barely more than passable, some of the actual plot elements are rather good.


Sending a Terminator back with a mission to take out John Connor’s lieutenants if it can’t achieve the main target is pretty damn sensible, and shows the writers have at least tried to think about the nuts and bolts of this future scenario, aside from a shot of an old John giving orders in a broken landscape. Likewise, even if its stodgily delivered, pairing up John with someone involved in the US military, and therefore giving him connections with which to broker a resistance, combats the rather miraculous notion of him just rising from the ashes.


It’s also an interesting development, if one borne from the necessity of the 1997 judgement date passing by, to have the T2 timetable shifted; Cyberdyne are no longer the initiators of Judgement Day. And yet, it turns out to be inevitable. The scenes at the Air Force base provide a needed balance to the hows and whys, and the trap of the computer virus that causes the military to activate Skynet is quite nifty, even if the realisation doesn’t have the same power (existing on the Internet is a rather anticlimactic sign of desperation in the science fiction genre).


The fatalistic aspect (although how the Terminator knows this – “You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable” – is questionable, unless it has crunched some algorithms and come up with a probability) of the picture sees it veering towards another great franchise downer, and least on paper: Alien 3. Sarah Connor has died of leukaemia off screen, while John has become a waster/drifter. The Terminator that comes back to save him killed him in the future. Then whole thing ends with the nukes going off. It’s a blast!


And yet the entire exercise is all but still born. One is tempted to place this entirely at Jonathan Mostow’s feet (he brought in pals Ferris and Brancato to revise Sarafian’s script; he later directed their so-so Surrogates). Six years earlier Mostow delivered a first rate little B-thriller called Breakdown. Then he moved up a notch budget-wise to U-571. It was still in the thriller genre (a fairly middling one that attracted attention mainly for playing fast and loose with history), so the action was germane to what he knew. There was nothing that really announced him as the perfect guy to fill Cameron’s shoes. Perhaps he came cheap, even if the movie itself didn’t (Carolco’s Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna bought the rights for C2, which has since dissolved and been reborn as… Carolco?!) We’ve seen this sort of thing elsewhere, with unsuitable directors thrown at something just to get it moving (Die Hard 5).


Cinematographer Don Burgess has worked on a number of movies that look great (notably his pairings with Robert Zemeckis and the first Spider-Man), but the look of T3 reminds me more of the horribly lit later John Carpenter movies courtesy of Gary Kibbe. There’s no atmosphere in the visuals. Nor is there tension in the editing. It’s not as if Mostow is incompetent with his staging – the geography is all pretty clear – but everything is so slow and flat. There’s no energy, and Marco Beltrami’s score is barely even present.


The road chase early on is logistically crazier than anything in T2, with its crane truck, fire truck and assorted vehicular carnage, but it never becomes thrilling. Combined with design work that is on the cheesy side (the drone planes, the coffin Arnie carries on one shoulder, the “Terminatrix”’s hand/gun; basically the ray gun that was mocked in the first movie) and a raft of tone-deaf elements (the humour, the gore, the special effects), the only mesmerising aspect on show is how aesthetically challenged the picture is.


Cameron flirted with self-parodic moments in T2, but they’re nothing to what we get here. Arnie really isn’t much cop in this, although for a 55-year old he’s in fairly extraordinary shape. His line deliveries are frequently too emotive, and he seems willing to go for full send-up without understanding the line he’s crossing. 


The first 20 minutes seem more focussed on getting our Terminators outfits than advancing the plot. So Arnie visits a strip club and gets some silly shades. Kristanna Loken’s T-X meanwhile augments her breasts (but not her career). Arnie gets an occasional gem (“Your levity is good. It relieves tension and the fear of death”, “Relax!”) but mostly has to settle for desperate crap like “Talk to the hand”, “She’ll be back” and “I’m back”. 


What might have been a great scene – Arnie taken over by the T-X – is borderline risible as performed by Arnie trying to resist while throwing his targets about rather than snapping their spines.


I quite liked Earl Boen’s return as Dr Silverman, as by that point in the show it’s clear it’s never going to become a wild thrill ride. He drifts off into a reverie of how trauma can damage one’s memory before legging it when Arnie appears in his line of sight. It’s more down to Boen that it’s funny that the staging, however.


There’s nothing wrong with Loken per se, but she’s a female Terminator purely because they haven’t done that yet, and she’s part T-800 part T-1000 purely because they have no ideas at all about how to give the villain special new skills.  Apart from taking control of other machines, which is much better on paper than in practice. Also, it’s clear that the carefully conceived physicality of Patrick’s T-1000 has not been applied to this new model.


As noted, her initially going round killing teenagers is a decent enough idea, but it lacks any real tension or horror. Added to that, the CGI used to render the T-X is pretty lousy. There’s also some weird gore – I have no idea how her putting her arm through a cop’s chest from a back of the car gets a 12 certificate. The Terminator on Terminator fighting is far from enthralling, and occasionally funny for all the wrong reasons; Loken picking up Arnie by the crotch and hurling him about just looks silly, not dramatic.


What of Nick Stahl as John Connor? Stahl’s a good actor, as he showed in the too short-lived Carnivale at about the same time. But he’s all wrong as a future resistance leader; that future dream sequence (why have one Terminator when you can have 30?) isn’t fooling anyone. One thing Salvation did right was cast Christian Bale (until he started talking, at any rate). It needed someone who could be believably desperate and ruthless. And no, he can’t sell the “Terminatrix” line, but who could?


Danes fares little better, but I did find myself perversely entertained by her clichéd cluelessness in response to the sci-fi world revealed to her. The introduction of Kate Brewster to the mythology can get a free pass because the timeline has changed, but drawing attention to the coincidences doesn’t always make them any easier to swallow (John kissed her the day before he first met Arnie? He just happened to be in her vet’s on the night the T-X comes to kill her).  Her dialogue is frequently unintentionally funny too (“Die you bitch!”)


I hadn’t seen Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines since taking its cinema release, so to a certain extent it felt fairly fresh. Just not in a good way. This and Salvation took on something of the rod for their own backs of the original Planet of the Apes series, filling in the narrative gaps. Occasionally such an approach can work, but it tends to be struggling against rote joining the dots if there aren’t genuinely surprising or original individual story beats in the mix. The decimation of the final scene of T3 achieves that, but the rest of the picture is stillborn.




Monday, 29 June 2015

Uncle Bob, huh?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
- Director's Cut
(1991)

(SPOILERS) Is it really an “inviolable rule” that T2 is superior to the original? I well remember its feting when it was first released, as I was one of those blown away by it. And there’s no doubt that individual elements remain first rate. But aside from being bigger and more polished, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is inferior in almost every respect. 


Arnie has been turned into a good guy, which struck me then and still does as a cop-out. Worse, he effectively becomes John Connor’s pet dog (not so much the father figure). Revisiting the movie, though, what is most disappointing, in amongst the lumpy plotting (the Dyson storyline is never as compelling as it should be), is how slackly the picture frequently plays. Even the action sequences, as well composed as they are, lack the edge-of-the-seat charge of the first movie. With $100m to spend, Cameron was placed to indulge spectacle and effects at the ultimate expense of what made the first picture a classic: a portentous atmosphere and unrelenting tension.


It might have been wise to ditch The Terminator’s unwieldy predestination paradox, but doing so creates problems all of its own (do you then argue for parallel timelines to explain why resistance John Connor doesn’t remember growing up with a best buddy T-800 for a spell, or – come Rise of the Machines – how judgement day was delayed? If not, you have the old Back to the Future issue and it’s a fudge). And with the whole Dyson subplot, Cameron is flirting with the same predestination paradox as previously (unsurprisingly, as it is ported over from a ditched scene from the first film).


T2’s mantra is “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves”, the future’s not set, and Cameron proceeds to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut in getting his point across; the Director’s Cut even more so. Yet the spectacular apocalypse of Sarah Connor’s nightmares is curiously antiseptic, and her overly didactic and leaden narration grows tiresome quite quickly. Even the upside of this – her essential unreliability as a guide, since she’s a complete psycho - isn’t sufficient to dispel the sense that we are being led by the nose for two and a half hours. Cameron at his preachiest is nothing if not irksomely patronising (see also Avatar). It’s nice to see Michael Biehn in the extended version dream, but Reese’s presence very much labours the way Cameron continually makes this an extended shout out to the original in ways both cute and clumsily earnest (“On your feet soldier!”)


The picture keeps with the fragile linearity of protagonists pursuing antagonists through time as Arnie is thrown into the past (just?) after the T-1000 is sent. It’s a conceit that is the backbone of the series, and there’s no real way to avoid it. How a T-1000 without any fleshy bits can go back in time is wisely unaddressed (a shame Dr Silverman didn’t have the opportunity to interrogate that point), while elsewhere the chronology is left similarly unscrutinised (it’s 1995 and John is 10, but there’s no mistaking Edward Furlong for being several years older than that).


In principal, re-characterising Sarah Connor as a crazed extremist is quite bold. Having John estranged, and her locked up, is very much a punch in the head to the melancholy, foreboding but hopeful, conclusion to the first film. But Cameron does what he does with all his female characters (see also Joss Whedon) and turns her into a kick-ass warrior. There’s always been something slightly embarrassing about his macho feminism. Even as Sarah rails against Dyson (Joe Morton) for not knowing what it is like to be really creative (give birth), Dyson’s wife sits beside her husband trembling.


The counterbalance is that John is constantly aware his mum has gone over the edge, but the push-pull is that Cameron the gun fetishist military commander is a little too on board with her fractured perception (when Sarah fetes the T-800/Uncle Bob as the perfect father, she’s both fruit loop and has a point, but Cameron is so averse to subtlety or subtext – he wont beat him etc., at least until the next movie – by the end of the picture Arnie really has assumed the position of martyred parent).


Likewise, the guards at the hospital aren’t just mean; they’re physically and sexually abusive. All the better to really give Sarah justification for beating the shit out of them. On the other hand, the first part of the scene where she attacks Dyson, up until she stops herself from pulling the trigger, is powerful stuff, more so because it’s her own dormant conscience that wins out.


John Connor has been played by how many actors now? Edward Furlong gets a fair bit of stick for his performance these days, but I think he’s probably about as good as someone of his tender years could have been. It isn’t his fault Cameron foists John with material perversely designed to get the audience’s backs up (at least any who have seen Terminator and resent the cyborg being turned into a performing seal). 


Like Sarah turning psycho, Cameron’s onto something with the saviour of the world being a juvenile delinquent. Unfortunately he can’t help himself from going too far. John’s special tech skillz don’t just mean he can rob ATMs; he can also bypass security at Cyberdyne. He sports a Public Enemy t-shirt for the same lazy teenage rebellion reason GNR is on the soundtrack (although the latter is mainly there as a tie-in hit).


Yet Furlong’s interaction with Hamilton is generally pretty sharp; Cameron’s asking a lot of his actor, and John’s attempts to mollify his mad mum are generally well modulated. It’s the interaction with Uncle Bob that really kills sympathy with the character, as it neuters the series’ prime asset.


This isn’t too bad at first; getting the T-800 to stand on one leg and not kill people means he merely maims them, which is still pretty violent. I mean, this comes after Cameron has announced his formerly unstoppable horror icon picking up his duds with the parodic use of Bad to the Bone on the soundtrack. If you’re going this route (and I maintain it was a bad idea for a number of reasons), if you really have to, then at least it delivers a few genuine yuks. One of my favourites comes when a guard wallops Arnie and his shades are dislodged; he gives her a look through his askew sunglasses.


Once John announces Arnie as his only friend, though, things start to become entirely unpalatable. Cameron is wretched at the touchy-feely stuff, inducing queasiness as a result. It takes actors with the chops of Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to rise above such limitations, and Arnie and Edward don’t have those chops.


So Arnie’s T-800 is able to learn, he learns to smile, he learns to make jokes (“I need a vacation”), and deliver catchphrases (“Hasta la vista, baby”). He learns to express concern (“John, you gotta go now”). He even questions John on what is this human thing of crying (“What is wrong with your eyes?”). 


Most appalling of all is his death scene, where the Austrian Oak sounds like he’s telling a five-year-old that grandma has just died (“I’m sorry. I have to go away”). And see, he understands people now too; “I know now why you cry”. It’s gag-worthy stuff, but Cameron clearly thinks this is a beautiful moving moment (the thumbs up!) It’s the same downward spiral of inept melodrama that would eventually drag us to Titanic.


Arnie looks very cool, of course; this is perhaps his most iconic. It’s certainly his peak in terms of star power and as a box office draw. The cynic says this is why he was made a hero, but Cameron has it that he conceived a good T-800 as twist on expectations.


The real problem with the change is one of threat. T2 is a juggernaut, but it’s not an unstoppable juggernaut. The real genius of the first movie is that nowhere is safe. This murderous machine is relentless, just around any corner, and even a crowded place, even a police station, isn’t safe. Here, the human prey are constantly insulated by their former aggressor. It becomes a battle of giants, and the human fragility is lost. There’s never any real danger when Sarah has become an Amazonian warrior and John is protected by Uncle Bob.


Adding to this is that Cameron has wholly succumbed to bloat at this point. T2’s extended cut is two and a half hours, and it feels it. Most of the additions are reasonable ones, but where Aliens’ new scenes are frontloaded, so once the picture starts going crazy it still goes crazy, or where The Abyss’ ends the film with a whole other layer that adds nourishment to its themes, T2’s stop-start structure very nearly sinks it. The T-1000 is off-screen for a significant chunk of the second half, neatly getting out of the way so Cameron can get on with the Dyson plot. Sure, Arnie disappeared for a spell in the first film, but there was a constant tension there that he might show up at any moment. Here, we all but forget about the T-1000.


But not quite. He was, and is, T2’s greatest asset. Yes, some of the liquid effects are less than stellar. Some, on the other hand, remain definitive; most notably the patterned face appearing from a checked floor, and the (added) moments in the factory as he begins to fuse with materials due to heat stroke. The climactic moment, where Arnie shoots him in the chest, remains the miraculous CGI equivalent of Rob Bottin’s weird and unholy prosthetic effects in The Thing (although how the T-1000 has the wherewithal to reform once it has toppled into the furnace is beyond me). 


A huge amount of the liquid metal monster’s effectiveness is down to Robert Patrick. Lean and personable, with more than a touch of James Dean about him, Patrick has the physique of the rebels rather than the robotic muscle machines. An intentional off-footing (likewise, he’s chatty and polite when he speaks to humans, the antithesis of Arnie in the first movie). Patrick might be the original purveyor of Derek Zoolaner’s “Blue Steel”, in fact, as his machine exudes cool in a way Arnie doesn’t. A way that results from Patrick being a natural actor, and really knowing how to move (and not having a huge bulk to get in the way).


From his first acknowledgement of Arnie (“I wouldn’t worry about him”), you’re willing the T-1000 to show up and do more damage. That he doesn’t enough is not so much a case of expertly using the villain the way Spielberg uses his shark, as a sign of the longueurs Cameron sinks into. My favourite Patrick moment comes at the climax, as Sarah runs out ammo; the reproving T-1000 raises a wagging finger to indicate she’s out of time and luck (alas, then comes Arnie on a slo-mo conveyor belt, a spectacularly misjudged piece of cheesy hero-making).


The action in T2 is curious. I mean, Cameron is a master of this stuff. It’s as big and controlled in its mayhem as only a huge $94m/$102m budget can bring (getting on for $200m in today’s terms, which is kind of par for the course for a blockbuster now, but was stratospheric then), but it’s curiously unengaging. I think this goes back to the point above about threat. In the original and Aliens there’s real human danger at every turn. Here, the landscape is broader and the menace is buffered against.


So the riverbed chase is technically phenomenal, but it’s a fait accompli. And the final vehicular pursuit lacks the imminent urgency of the similarly placed scene in the first film. The (stir and repeat) factory showdown also lacks any of the tension seen there. Arnie’s onside. This sequence also goes on for so long, one becomes distracted (like, why does the T-1000 need Sarah to call to John when he’s an excellent mimic; just kill her already).


On the other hand, the close-quarter scenes have something of the original’s mettle. Cameron never quite revisits the woozy nightmare of the first film’s entrances – this is too glossy for that – but the corridor arrival of Arnie with a box of roses and a shotgun, dealing blasts at the T1000 as John gets out of the way, or Sarah’s first horrified sight of him in the hospital and the resulting pursuit by Patrick’s lithe killer, are the reason this picture retains the cachet it does.


One can get blasé about the stunts (the truck going off the bypass never once looks like it survived the fall, whereas the bike helicopter jump is so perfect it almost makes one think it must have been done through trickery), but there’s a lot here that is great. So one inevitably focuses on the obvious Arnie stunt doubles or the ropey back projection during a driving scene.


The supporting cast are notable in some similar and some different ways to when I last gave it a look. When the picture came out I was probably reaching the end of my veneration of Cameron; in retrospect, this triggered that decline, but as an Aliens junkie I was pleased to see Jeanette Goldstein cameo as John’s foster mum (and that's Xander Berkley, since best known for 24, as his lactose-intolerant foster dad).


Likewise, as a reverer of Joe Dante, Dan and Don Stanton’s cheap but effective appearances as security guard and T-1000 still tickles (Hamilton’s sister also appears, both as T-1000 and dream double).  Dean Norris is the SWAT Team leader, looking much the same as in Breaking Bad 20 years later under all that clobber.


T2 was phenomenally successful. It needed to be at that price tag (Carolco wouldn’t go under until a few years later, but such aversion to frugality as this would be their downfall; notably, every financer of a Terminator movie has eventually gone under or dissolved, take note Skydance). It was the biggest movie of 1991 (half a billion worldwide, which would be near enough a billion in today’s money). The number of R rated pictures that do that kind of business is negligible (although it’s of note that, if it wasn’t for the language, there’s little here that would warrant more than a 12/PG-13). This is the kind of target anyone making a huge sequel to a adored cult classic wants to hit (although the multiplier wasn’t quite so good; it couldn’t possibly be).


Cameron originally had the idea of including an old Sarah Connor in a non-Skynetted future world, but settled on something less definite. One could debate whether that was a good idea; it would at least have drawn a line under any further sequels, if there were no Cyberdyne to bring about judgement day (although someone would inevitably have found a way). As to whether the director’s exit from the series was a bad thing. It may sound like sacrilege, but not really. 


The real question is whether T2 itself was warranted, and I’d argue not really. It gave Hamilton a juicy role to get her teeth into (and she’s very good, but more showy and not as nuanced as in the original), it further emblazoned Arnie as a mega-star bar none, and it confirmed Cameron as a box office titan after the expensive crash of The Abyss, but as a continuation of the story it feels surfeit to requirements. The real win-win here is the discovery of Robert Patrick and the innovative and Oscar winning special effects.


Oh, and it should probably be recognised that the blue wash of Adam Greenberg’s cinematography now stands as the harbinger of colour-corrected nightmare endemic in modern Hollywood, be it greens or blues or browns. Brad Fiedel’s score is as patchily discordant as ever (his pulling a few tricks like using the oppressive Terminator theme for Sarah and the triumphant anthem for Arnie are bruisingly blunt frankly, and therefore very Cameron).


For a series based on the wayward ramifications of time travel, there was lots of potential if only one had the balls or will to go there. Few have done it well (Back to the Future screwed the pooch in the final round, after going all out conceptually in the second). For better or worse, it’s undeniable that Cameron captured what he wanted here, however. The real problem with Rise of the Machines and Salvation was not being clear enough about what each instalment intended to achieve (the last ten minutes of Rise don’t justify the rest; Salvation just comes out as a mangled mess of second-guessing), and then settling on also-ran craftsmen who at least needed to be in the same ballpark as Cameron technically. 


Even when he’s guilty of bloat and narrative crudeness, as he always is today, Cameron knows how to put a movie together; unfortunately Terminator 2: Judgment Day was where he lost sight of the merits of succinctness. Since then he’s been forever indulged, which necessarily the best thing for a towering ego, a king of the world.