Friday, 7 October 2011

The Arnold Project, pt. III: The Indestructible Machine

Good old Arnold is already filming his comeback films. Yet it remains unknown whether the audiences will take the 64-year-old former Governor back with open arms. The State of California is on the verge of bankruptcy after him, and his affairs and subsequent divorce probably won't earn him any favors with Joe Movieticket either. What Arnold should do, is return to play villains. Every actor knows that it's a lot more fun, and everyone loves a good unexpected villain. Well, better than anyone unliked trying to portray himself heroic anyway. Here's hoping Arnold will be on antagonist duties in The Expendables 2. But as far as his former villain roles go, there was one awful, and one so exceptionally good, that it wrote his entire career for him.

Image from Groucho Reviews.

This post is about the latter. Now, let's take a look at Arnold's three Terminator movies from three different decades.

The Terminator (1984)
Director: James Cameron

The struggling writer-director James Cameron (of Piranha II: The Spawning fame) had a nightmare one night presumably from reading too many Harlan Ellison short stories. He would do a completely original film about a killer robot from the future that could easily disguise himself among other humans. The unrelenting machine would be sent here only to kill and it wouldn't rest until it had reached and liquidated its target. And it would be played by an everyman actor, such as Lance Henriksen or O.J. Simpson.

The main idea was, of course scrapped when on-the-rise star of Conan the Barbarian saw his chance in the role. Instead, the Terminator became physically intimidating, as a machine of perfect build and the elbow-grease to really pursue its target to the end of the world. Probably everyone reading this already knows the main idea. In the future, World is under the rule of the Machines... well, not entirely. There is a small group of guerrilla fighters that continues to resist against the legions of killer machines. With the help of a time machine, the machines send a robot to kill the leader of the Resistance before he is even born. But alongside the Terminator, also the guerrilla fighters manage to send one of them, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), back in time to the 80's. They both race to find Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a timid waitress, who is set to give birth to the future leader of the resistance. Reese's entire life has been a fight for survival, but in his protection, also Sarah's life goes through a turmoil.

Arnold actually has quite little screen-time, but his little-speaking machine certainly steals every scene he's in. It's no wonder even throwaway lines such as "I'll Be Back" became so popular. Arnold's deadpan delivery make them seem even more meaningful than they are. Because of the relatively small budget, this is really more of a thriller than an action film. But still there is plenty of violence, as the Terminator kills his way through an entire police station. Cameron directs with notable confidence (probably because this time around he didn't have Italian trash movie producers nullifying everything he did), and keeps the film's pace brisk. The audience has barely more time to catch their breath than the main characters.

Cameron creates a self-titled "Tech Noir" athmosphere. The film is dark, lit by red and blue neon lights. There's smoke and water everywhere. At the end, when Terminator is forced to shed off his human skin, the film suffers, as the cheap stop motion effects take over where Arnold left off. Worse, the skeletal robot's charisma isn't anywhere near Arnold's!


Cleaning man: Hey, buddy. You got a dead cat in there, or what?
The Terminator: Fuck you, asshole.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Director: James Cameron

Cameron, that modern David Lean, decided to raise the biggest budget the world has ever seen for his follow-up to the film that made him famous. He also waited for seven years to finalize his vision and for the technology to catch up with what he had in mind. Say what you say about him, but at least his films have always been part of developing and trying out new film techniques. But this time the reason they were used was also good – Cameron wanted to make an unforgettable sequel that would dwarf its predecessor with massive action scenes. He also had a good story about fighting for a better future. And he did manage to do one of the best big-budget sequels ever made.

While John Connor (Edward Furlong) has grown into a pre-teen, his mother Sarah is closed into a mental institution for his crazy stories about killer robots and the upcoming judgement day. Another of T-800, model 101's is sent back in time, alongside another robot, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). But this time the Arnold-model has been rebooted as a protection droid, that's supposed to save John Connor's life. T-1000, however, is sent to crush, kill and destroy, and as it has been made from liquid metals, he can also modify his body and survive injuries better.

But enough about the plot, you've probably seen the film, or at least watched the video above (in case you haven't seen T2, the video has massive SPOILERS). This time Arnold is a little sidelined, while the real star is Linda Hamilton's kick-ass freedom fighter. While being totally capable to fight and plan to fight, she also has motherly instincts, making her one of the most well-rounded female action heroes in Hollywood films. Robert Patrick is also great as he can carry a threatening aura with his near-silent performance. Unlike Arnold, the T-1000 can easily walk around unnoticed and pose as a human. And of course can also alter his looks. The real question is how the hell could he come through the time machine when one of its core functions is that only organic material (such as a Terminator coverded in real skin) can pass through it.

Image from Gizmofusion.

The fact is that The Terminator was concieved during some dark times in the 80's, when it truly looked like the war-mongering of Ronald Reagan might lead the world into a nuclear holocaust. When the air had cleared in the early 90's, the resulting film was also softer in its subtext (don't kill, just maim) and has a hopeful message for peace at the end. Unfortunatelly, while the film's effects have stood the test of time fine, the film is filled with embarrasingly old slang and sayings that make it a lot more cringe-worthy than the hairs and shoulder-toppings in Terminator '84 could ever manage. The film's heart which is T-800 becoming a surrogate father to John, is actually pretty cringe-worthy, thumbs-up and all.

But the real meat, is of course the action and it is phenomenal. From the chase scene through L.A.'s dried water canals to the final showdown at a steel mill, the scenes are big, expensive, innovative, and have been written deeply into every moviegoers collective subconscious. There have been parodies and attempts to better the scenes for years, but very few have managed to top this in any way.


T-800: No problemo.

T2-3D: Battle Across Time (1996)
Directors: James Cameron, John Bruno, Stan Winston

Now, to be a completist I'll have to mention this amusement park ride, that got an impressive budget and Arnold, Edward Furlong, Linda Hamilton and Robert Patrick to reprise their roles. James Cameron probably jumped for joy for his first chance to get to work with 3D. He co-directed this short film with his trusted Special Effects supervisors Stan Winston and John Bruno. The "experience" fuses together live action actors, normal film sequences and 3D segments. I haven't seen it whole, but then again I'd have to go to the Universal Theme Park in Hollywood to do so. What I gather from the plot from these YouTube videos, it doesn't properly intertwist with the movies, but then again a proper story would be too much to ask from a simple amusement park video intended to showcase different special effects. Sometimes even the mightiest of big-budget directors need a chance to show off.

T-800: I said I'd be back.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Director: Jonathan Mostow

For years, Hollywood big shots begged James Cameron to do a third Terminator. The action auteur himself saw the story as complete and had his mind set on some bigger projects already. But judgement day is inevitable. How else would Kyle Reese have been able to father John Connor in the first place? Arnold promised to be back for an obscene amount of money. The movie itself was also obscenely expensive, but still couldn't really do any big action scene better than T2 before it. For die-hard fans of the first two films, the third one is a travesty. For us regular action movie watchers, it is a passable sci fi-action, that would benefit a great deal if it was just a Terminator rip off, not a part of the same story cycle. For one thing, the aged Arnold wouldn't have to fake to still be the same age as he was in 1984.

The film itself checks the same boxes that T2 did. Two robots arrive from the future, the other a T-800 and the other a new kind of Terminator set to kill John Connor (Nick Stahl), now in his 20's. Also the machine is popping off other future resistance leaders. So T-800 must protect Connor at all costs.

Because the international athmosphere had turned threatening again due to 9/11, all the hope for tomorrow that T2 gave has been washed away. Thus, as the name implies, the film takes place at the time the computer system Skynet (thought to have been destroyed in the previous one) becomes self-aware and destroys most of humanity with strategic nuclear weapons.  This newfound gloom and the inevitability of destruction doesn't really fit the story like it used to. There's also a blossoming romance, which feels equally forced and tacked-on. All of these things are just used as things that could be done to make another movie for the cash-spurring franchise. Director Jonathan Mostow doesn't have a lot of imagination or visions what to do with his newfound toys.

Another embarrasing thing is that the endearing 90's slang from the previous film was brought back. So this time, it is even more outdated and cringe-worthy. But really, altough it is a soulless Hollywood money-maker, there's plenty on offer here that would warrant a friday night viewing with friends. Kristianna Loken's T-X seems to be a downgrade from T-1000 with her phallic gun hands, but nevertheless she gives the aged Arnold a couple of good scraps. But the real corkers are the enormous truckfighting chase scene and the shootout at the cemetary. So, while they don't match T2's innovativeness, they are still quite good fun. And while Nick Stahl is a bit too whiny, he's still a billion times more relatable protagonist than the dipshit teenaged Furlong.

★★ 1/2

T-800: No, I am not shitting you. 

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