NetFlix Review #13: The Terminator 1-3

NetFlix Review #13: The Terminator Series

So I don't know if you've heard, but a new Terminator movie came out. I haven't seen it, and I doubt I'm going to. I enjoyed the original three, and I actually will support both Christian Bale and McG as people whose work I've largely enjoyed in the past. However, the new one just seems a dud, and everything I've heard about it confirms this. I'll use just about any excuse to get a group of people together and do a movie marathon, so when I found out that my friend Sean Ryan had never seen the first Terminator and only parts of Terminator 2, and that my fiancee had never seen a Terminator movie PERIOD, I figured it was time to throw a little viewing party. So I got the first and third movie off of NetFlix, I own the second, and a couple Sundays back we got together and had ourselves a time. So here we go, the first three Terminator movies, in order.

The Terminator, 1984

While I enjoy the first Terminator movie, the best thing about The Terminator is that it allowed Terminator 2 to be made. James Cameron's follow-up to "Pirranha Part Two: The Spawning," "The Terminator" is a decent little sci-fi action flick that came out at a time when sci-fi action flicks were permeating the culture the way comic book movies are nowadays. It centers around two beloved sci-fi tropes, time travel and cyborgs. It stars a hunky muscleman and a spunky chick with very 80s hair. In effect, it's a good, solid B movie. So why does this movie have the legs it has had? Three names: James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stan Winston.

Let's start with Cameron. I was talking with some friends a while back about directors who you THINK have a huge back catalog and have done a ton of work, but have actually only done a small number of films. Cameron is one of those directors. He's had such a huge influence over film and become such a big name, but until Avatar comes out later this year, the man will only have completed seven films. SEVEN! And that INCLUDES "Pirranha Part Two: The Spawning." The first thing about Cameron is that the guy was a production designer, so he's got a good eye towards building a world, but his vision never really gets in the way of what you're watching. He's a good production designer because he knows that you should never be paying attention to the production design. It's all about building a world, and he does so quite well. Another important element of Cameron's success is that, outside of a couple exceptions, he really knows how to keep a movie running. It's odd to think about all the stuff they don't get into in this movie. Time Travel, for instance. You don't really hear that much about the future war or how it happened. You only get little glimpses and a couple lines of dialogue from Reese. You also don't get much information on the Terminators either. There's a war in the future, it sucks, they've sent back a cybernetic organism to kill the leader of the revolution. Bing bang boom, it's all over except the screaming.

Now let's go back to talking about special effects, and mention Stan Winston. I've always been a huge Stan Winston fan. I'm amazed at people who reach the top of their field in a way someone like he has. Think about it, when someone gets a great horror script they've got a whole bevy of possible directors to go to, but when it came time to make the monster, you really only had three main guys, Rick Baker, Dick Smith or Stan Winston. Everyone else was playing catch-up. Although there are moments now that are ridiculous-looking, largely whenever Schwarzennegger's head is replaced by an obvious dummy, the effects still look pretty damn great. The scenes of The Terminator repairing himself are awesome, right up there with the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London or the head spin in The Exorcist as a turning point in modern film special effects.

And then there is, perhaps, the greatest special effect of all: Arnold Schwarzenegger. I may be going out on a weird limb here and risk a fair amount of credibility, but I think it's easy to underestimate how awesome Arnold Schwarzenegger is. He's not a good actor in the sense that Alec Guinness was a good actor or Jimmy Stewart was a good actor, but he is a phenomenal presence on film. It's not just the muscles, either. There are plenty of bulky dudes wandering around trying to break into action movies. Schwarzenegger truly understands film performance, especially the kind he's called upon to give. He does so much with small facial tics and slight body movements. He conveys menace and bad-assery without trying too hard. He knows exactly when and how to go for caricature and mugging the camera. He has an inherent talent for film that while not generally admitted is fairly undeniable. Consider this, one of the original casting choices to play the Terminator was O.J. Simpson, a man who had actually made a living knocking the holy crap out of people and may have, at some point later in life, actually been responsible for killing someone. And yet the producers didn't think the audience would buy him as a killer. I'm inclined to agree (not that he couldn't actually BE a killer, mind you, just that he couldn't project that on-screen). Think about the movie with O.J. Simpson as the Terminator, it just lacks that surreal, mechanical, futuristic menace that Schwarzenegger brougth to the role. Then think about every Schwarzenegger role and try and replace him with someone else. It's just not the same, and, frankly, more often than not it wouldn't be nearly as good. He's got definite cinematic skill, and this was the first movie where that skill was unleashed upon the general population.

Looking back over what I've written, I now feel like I've underplayed the movie a bit too much. While I do earnestly feel like it isn't a singularly truly exceptional piece of filmmaking, it is exceptionally solid, which there's something to be said for. Look at the bloated, unwieldy, nonsensical and unengaging sci-fi action flicks we've been getting lately. What a great boon it would be to get a flick like The Terminator in the theaters right now.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991

Now here's the good stuff. Linda Hamilton in iconic, ass-whooping mode. Schwarzenegger as not only a good guy, but a good guy who promises not to kill anyone. Robert Patrick blowing everybody's minds open. Special effects that are unsurpassed. Here's the gold standard.

The greatest glory of Terminator 2 is that it obeys that seminal rule of the sequel: Everything good about the first movie, except bigger and better. This is why I say the greatest thing about The Terminator is Terminator 2. Part of the success here is that The Terminator is a good flick, but it's small enough and just good enough that you can really, truly top it with a balls-to-the-wall sequel, which is just what Cameron did. It's not just that the bangs and pows got bigger and better, either, although they certainly did. This is a case of someone going back and really studying what came before, what works and what didn't, and deepening and strengthening the themes. Cameron is at the top of his game here, basically giving himself a lifetime pass for awesomeness. He is a man completely in control of his talents here, knowing exactly what he wants and how to get it.

For my money, what makes Terminator 2 so great is that Cameron took note of one of the things that really made the first one click - the claustrophobia and paranoia. While the first movie used the technology of the future as a jumping off point to terror (ROBOTS FROM THE FUTURE GET SMART AND THEN THEY SHOOT US!) the second movie begins looking at how the roots of that technology are growing all around us. Technology had come a long way since 1984, and not just movie technology. Computers were common in people's houses, those wacky nuts over at CERN were starting to talk about this crazy world wide web thing, Silicon Valley was in the early stages of really heating up, and the Gulf War was giving us "Smart Bombs" and bandying around soldierless warfare. Suddenly all that stuff that seemed like science fiction was starting to look a lot more like science fact. That paranoia of "where is this all leading to?" can be felt throughout Terminator 2. It gives it a drive and propulsion that the first one doesn't have, as well as a mature weariness. You can see how Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor feels like the weight of the world is resting on her taut, muscular shoulders.

It's a shame Hamilton's career never really went much of anywhere after this. Her performance here is kind of stellar. She balances the out-of-her-damn-mind paranoia one would expect from a person who had a robot sent from the future to kill her with fierce mothering instincts and a definite vulnerability. One of the other elements that really deepens this film is that John Connor is not just a hypothetical anymore, he's real, and his mother has to protect him. The movie works as a wild hyperbolization of mother's relationships with teenage sons. They know the sons are going to get into trouble, and that they'll have to face a harsh world, but they want to make it as safe for them as possible for as long as they can. Sarah's struggle early in the film to work her way out of the insane asylum to see her son, and her admonition upon her rescue that John should have given her up for his safety, is thrilling, exciting, tense stuff to watch, but also, if you allow it to be, is pretty heartbreaking. It's a class act and an acting class, all in one. If it were a just world, she would have gotten a nomination for it. Just because I can, I looked up who was nominated that year. Jodie Foster won for Silence of the Lambs, and the rest of the noms were rounded out by Bette Midler for "For the Boys," Laura Dern for "Rambling Rose," and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon both for "Thelma & Louise." Foster was pretty undeniable in SotL, but, as much as I enjoy those other ladies, come on. Let's throw some love at Linda Hamilton. She sinks her teeth into that role with a wild abandon, really goes for broke, and delivers.

We should also take a moment to talk about Robert Patrick, because I kind of adore him. He's a fantastic presence every time he shows up, but you've got to give the man some serious props for his creation of the T-1000. It's a brilliant performance, taking something from Schwarzenegger's work on the previous film and managing to create something entirely new and different from it that still feels completely grounded within the same world. Of course, there's also the special effects work that made the T-1000 such a world-shattering thing to see on-screen, but those special effects would not have been nearly as staggering if they hadn't been in service of a performance that was already fascinating and chillingly terrifying.

Those effects, though. BOY are they good. While I was watching these movies I talked with my friend Sean about how I feel like this movie and Jurassic Park, and perhaps Forrest Gump, were the last huge leaps in film Special Effects. I can't think of anything, with the possible exception of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films, that has quite blown me away and really changed the paradigm of film like those movies did. Any thoughts from the peanut gallery? Am I underplaying the awesome technical innovations of The Matrix just because I don't like it? Regardless, when I think of movie SFX where I thought "Holy crap, movies aren't going to be the same after that," my mind returns to the early 90s. Perhaps that's just me. Whatever you may think about what has happened since, check out those T2 effects! Holy moly! They are still thrilling to watch today. I will never be able to watch the T-1000 get frozen, break himself into pieces still trying to destroy Sarah Connor, shatter, melt and then reform, without completely geeking out. Stan Winston was a king.


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Boy did people hate this movie, and boy were they wrong. I think, first of all, we all need to gather around, huddle up, and quietly admit to ourselves that no Terminator movie is going to be as awesome and bad-ass as Terminator 2. The question then becomes do you just kill the franchise, or do you allow it to keep growing in new and different ways? There's are many dangers inherent in letting franchises go on too long, but one that people seem particularly dead-set against is having the movies become too self-referential. The first movie is about being its own thing, the second movie takes the things that made the first one great and builds on and deepens them, then the third one comes along and... well... frequently just sort of works off the first two. You can be offended by that, or you can enjoy it. I seem to be much more flexible with this sin than others. I wasn't mortified by the new Indiana Jones movie, which commits this sin all over the place. In fact, I found it really fun. I also loved the hell out of Spider-Man 3. And I get a huge kick out of Terminator 3.

The movie is a rollercoaster ride, with all sorts of wacky set pieces and humor, which you can be offended by, but I will cough quietly and remind you that there was some pretty doofy humor in T2 as well. And what's wrong with a little tongue in cheek? I'd much rather have a bizarre, fun explode-a-thon like T3 than a ponderous, dull action dirge like T4 seems to be. And maybe it's just me, but I find a lot of the bits in T3 really funny. That movie makes me laugh. Maybe that's what turned people off? Maybe people don't want to laugh during a Terminator movie? Well, they certainly got their wish with Terminator: Salvation. It reminds me of all those horror movies that fail nowadays because they combine horror and humor. Why do people turn out in droves to see humorless gorefests like the Saw movies and yet stay away like the plague from movies like Slither and Drag Me To Hell because they're funny? Something has happened where we now equate humor with stupidity. Many times I've sat in a movie, especially a horror movie, and when the film earns an awesome laugh I'll hear someone behind me giggle, and then say "That's so stupid." NO. No, it isn't. It's funny. They worked hard to make that funny, and trust me, funny is hard. Wit and humor used to be a sign of intelligence. It's so much harder to make people laugh, show them something earnestly funny, especially in the middle of a horror film, than to go for cheap drama or pathos. Oh well, it's their loss.

They're also missing a film that, in its own way, is pretty ballsy. I said it's a rollercoaster of a movie, and as everyone knows, the best and most important part of a rollercoaster is the final drop, and boy does this one have a doozy. I love the end of this movie. In its own way, it's darker than T2. It's a brilliant, dark and beautiful. The movie also begins well, too. I love the idea of John Connor thinking he and his mother have averted the apocolypse, but then going into a wandering depression because he was once going to be a savior, but is now just a kid with nothing going. It's a solid place to work from, and I think everyone involved does a good job. I've really enjoyed a lot of the work Nick Stahl has done, and I think he's great here as a lost, depressed John Connor. He's still got the spunk and silliness of the young T2 John Connor that can come out at moments, but that John has definitely grown older. I also like Claire Danes here, she's fun, adorable and fiesty. She's a treat to watch.

You know who else is a treat to watch? Kristinna Loken. She got a lot of garbage thrown her way as people just dismissed her as being a cheap ploy to get more teenage boys in the seats by giving them a hot lady terminator. Sure, that was probably the intention in putting that character in, but let's allow the woman to do her thing, and she does it so, so well. Just like Robert Patrick she works within the world, but does something entirely her own. And it isn't just "act like a sexy robot." The way she moves her arms and legs, the way she twists her body and cocks her head, it is all a great study in physical performance. Much like Robert Patrick, her special effects would not work so well if she wasn't laying the groundwork. One of her money scenes, when Schwarzenegger has her in a hold from behind and then all of her limbs and head reverse themselves so suddenly she's got Schwarzenegger in the hold, is fun, exciting to watch, but also is completely in keeping with the way Loken has been moving throughout the movie. Every movement is calculated. She does such a great job of isolating each movement, and just like Schwarzenegger she knows exactly how to manipulate the screen. Her performance is certainly hot, but she's also elegant, thoughtful and at times really, really funny.

I find the movie a hell of a good time, and it makes me sad that its box office failure has led us to Terminator: Salvation. But perhaps we should follow through on one of the central premises of each Terminator film, and hold out some hope for the future.