Monday, August 23, 2010

Terminator 1 & 2: True Classics or Pure Nostalgia?

I've been holding a grudge against James Cameron for awhile now. It started when Titanic dominated the theaters. The movie looked completely uninteresting to me and I had no desire to see it, but it just wouldn't go away. I didn't think Leo was dreamy, I didn't care for romance stories, and that damn Celine Dion song was absolute misery to listen to. I eventually saw the beginning when in class on a slow day in high school. Someone had it on hand and we watched it until the bell rang. I have no desire to ever finish it.

Next was an evening sometime in my college years when a group of my friends and I sat down to watch Terminator 2. It was my very first viewing. By the end of it I must have been pretty drunk, because in the final ending scene a line of dialogue managed to eclipse enough logic that it sent me into a rant, a rant that pissed off everyone else in the room and had them yelling at me to just shut up about it. I left the whole thing thinking it was a terrible movie and I didn't understand what the big deal was that so many people loved it so much.

Fast forward quite a few years now to the present. I've been running through movies, trying to tick off "best of" lists and various classics to expand my movie horizons. The fact that I had seen T2 without ever seeing the original bugged me. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe, what with the role reversal of the T101, I would enjoy that one more than the second. Plus a lot of people who have similar tastes to me really like The Sarah Conner Chronicles, and it seems only right to see the original movie before trying to get into that. So this weekend that's what I finally did.

The Terminator - I'd say this movie is fairly standard action fare for the 1980s. That's not an insult. The sci-fi action genre of the 80s has given us some great films, Blade Runner and Total Recall springing to my mind immediately. While this isn't anywhere near as cerebral as either of those, it's still a fast moving action story with an awesome looking vision of a bleak future. The special effects look obviously fake, but they're still pretty impressive. The puppet/animatronic head they use once the terminator has been damaged was the sort of fascinating thing I couldn't look away from. It was so obviously not real, yet they did a good job making it work. By the ending when he's full robot, it was a little less convincing. I'm usually a fan of stop motion animation, but I didn't feel they really made it work. His movements were a little too unrealistic. He moved like a hunchback.

The dialogue is terrible. We're not talking gouge your ears out Attack of the Clones painful, but still pretty bad. Michael Biehn couldn't act worth a damn, which made it even worse. The scene where he admits his love for her, and she tries to comfort him.. I was wincing. And then that love scene... if it hurts that bad, dear, you may be doing it wrong! Stick to directing action scenes, James Cameron, please.. you've got a much better eye for those. Arnold, of course, was not a very strong actor at all at this point in his career either, but it works completely to his advantage. His hugely muscled form looks freakishly unnatural, and the few scant lines of dialogue sound perfectly robotic. He makes a great killing machine.

Another thing worth a mention is the soundtrack. I don't normally pay a huge amount of attention to this, but sometimes you can't help it. Watch it and you'll know this movie was made in the early 80s, because that's the only time in history when someone would have thought those goofy synth drum beats would be proper for suspenseful moments. It's just extremely dated to the point of being distracting.

I'd rate the movie somewhere in the average to good range, depending on how much tolerance you have for bad acting in your action movies.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Before I begin reviewing it, I feel like I should mention my other experiences with this movie. What I mean is, while on the internet it seems like the most loved movie of young boys of my generation was Batman (1989), in fact most of the boys I knew were in love with Terminator 2. My brother had a friend who would literally spend nearly every conversation describing, shot by shot, exactly what happened at key scenes in this movie. I think if his wealthy parents could have bought him his own T101, he would have been the happiest kid in the universe. He lived in a house that literally looked like a castle, so that tells me they simply weren't on the market. He was the most extreme version, but I remember lots of other boys raving about this movie as well.

After my second viewing, it's really easy to see why. Superhero kid sidekicks exist because they function as an "in" for the young comic book reader. Someone to relate to. Even the X-men have included a team member much younger than the others since the very first team. Movies also do this, of course. The kids in Jurassic Park spring to mind. Edward Furlong as John Connor also fills this role perfectly. Sure, he's the essential part of the story so it makes sense for him to be there, but make no mistake that this is exactly what they were doing. What little boy wouldn't want to go on high speed car chases and have a killing machine that does whatever he tells it to do? And for the girls, well, I remember thinking he was pretty cute back then, and I know lots of others agreed with me. He's not a strong actor in this film by any means, but I do think he's immensely likable. He had a kind of real quality to him, even when he's dispensing out the once again cheesy dialogue.

Watching both movies back to back I was able to appreciate the similarities between the two films. For a movie that was made so long after the original, it was a nice attention to detail. It was also a good way to fool the audience, who I imagine originally going into the film had no idea that Schwarzenegger would be the good guy this time. I also couldn't help but notice how much more slimmed down he looked by comparison to the original. His acting skills were still pretty much on par, and there's no denying that he brings a lot of humor to the film. There's good reason those lines were quoted to death until we all got sick of them.

For some reason in my memory I thought Robert Patrick barely spoke as the T1000. He actually gets to talk quite a bit. I guess it's because whenever he's going after them directly, he doesn't say a word and just looks at them with that menacing stare. He's really quite good in this and deserved bigger roles than replacing Mulder on the X-files. Of course he's also Richard Patrick from Filter's older brother, so I have a soft spot for him. The CGI in the film still looks awesome even now. I never once got tired of watching him transform and bend. Every time they shot him though I was laughing at what basically looked like tinfoil pinned to his shirt.

The terminator as father figure angle in the movie is laid on far too thick. Especially when Sarah starts narrating the scene to us, as if watching the two of them fix a car together and then exchange high fives wasn't already incredibly obvious. Of course, had a better writer taken on the dialogue, it might not be quite as painful.

The story arc I was probably the most impressed with was Sarah's. She starts the first movie as a victim but becomes brave. By the beginning of the second movie she is a full blown warrior, and through it becomes dangerously close to being a terminator herself. She's pulled back from the madness and becomes a strong warrior once again. I dare say that's more character development than Ripley ever achieved.

I also think it's an interesting angle that as far as the time travel aspects are concerned, the people in the future pretty much create their pasts. If John Connor didn't send Kyle Reese back, he never would have been born. The ending of the second movie tries to change the game, but given that there's two more movies I get the feeling that doesn't happen. I guess I can't appropriately comment until I watch them, but I would imagine having a T101 show up in his past would be what would give him the idea to re-program one in the future.

So what line so horribly pissed me off that I hated this movie for almost a decade? "I cannot self terminate, you must lower me into the steel." You have to admit, it is quite stupid. If you're programmed to not kill yourself, than you shouldn't be able to jump on a chain suspended over molten metal and just stand there while someone lowers you into it. It's so obvious that they just wanted it to be an emotional moment, a slow exit with that goofy thumbs up at the end. Just like the T1000 took waaaaay too long to die so that it would be a more satisfying ending after watching him for 2 1/2 hours. I can forgive the latter far more than the former, mostly because the former had me laughing more than feeling any kind of emotion. I don't have to tell you how stupid the crying line was, right?

Essentially, Terminator 2 is the first movie turned up to 11. Bigger action sequences, better special effects, even more cheesy dialogue and pathetic attempts to portray emotion.. etc. it's also 45 minutes longer. There's some really good stuff, and there's some really bad lines. It probably could have been paired down into a stronger movie. I'd say "turn your brain off and enjoy the ride" but the problem is that the sci-fi and time travel elements really require you to keep your brain on.

As an action movie it gets a 4 out of 5, but as a sci-fi movie I'd only give it a 2.

Much like George Lucas, James Cameron really needs to learn to let someone else do the writing for him. Please do not give him any more of your money this weekend just for the sake of 9 extra minutes of pretty looking blandness in Avatar.

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