Monday, June 29, 2009

Terminator Salivation

Some of you may or may not be familiar with a little series of indy films called Terminator. It follows the wacky exploits of a man named John Connor all the way from fetus to Batman through four movies of varying quality. The latest of these films doesn't have a number because they're frowned upon by today's discerning movie-goers, and is instead called Terminator: Salvation. Frankly I'm happy they didn't just call it Terminator again, as is the zeitgeist.

Having recently watched the fourth installment (though admittedly I dozed off a few times between explosions, having been up late the night before, or at least I'll assume that's the reason), I will now give a very brief review and once-over for each individual film simply so as to collect together in my own mind the various fragmented elements of an iconic sci-fi series which has so amply explored the spectrum of quality. Yes there will be spoilers, and also you were adopted.

Let's start at the beginning. Or is it the end? It's all a bit muddled since Terminator's protagonist, Kyle Reese, shows up in the '80s on a mission that he won't be sent on 'till after the fourth movie. He's sent back so that he can protect (and knock up) Sarah Conner, who will one day be mother to the hero of the human resistance against machines in a post-apocalyptic future littered with an implausable abundance of human skulls. Wow. As movie concepts go, that's as mind-blowing as the first Matrix, and considerably more mind-blowing than Ghost Dad. By now it's all old hat, but can you imagine going into a theatre in 1984 without knowing anything about it ahead of time?

The film starts as a fairly ordinary thriller with Arnold Schwartzenegger killing off everyone in town named Sarah Connor for reasons that are at first unclear, and which are later explained by one of the most awesome backstories in movie history. Sure some of the effects are a bit outdated, and everyone already knows the story by now, but Terminator easily deserves a rental, and is still the optimal movie by which to be introduced to the franchise, particularly if you've been living under a rock and have no idea what the films are about.

Next is Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Awesome. I won't argue with the consensus that this is the best in the series as it showcases great action, an awesome villain, a dark yet compelling plot, and the perfect role for Arnold. However there are a number of things that begin to bug me at this point. Arnold's T800 allegedly has to be sent back in time buck-naked and without any weaponry because only organic matter can be sent through time (why?). "But hold on," you may ask yourself, "isn't the T800 a robot? Surely it's made of metal." Aha, but the T800 is living tissue over metal endoskeleton! (and don't call me Shirly) So they couldn't have given him a futuristic energy-blaster inside his forearm why?

And then we have the T1000, which is made of liquid metal and can take any form. I'm willing to believe that a blob of mercury can function as a living organism, and even that it can refract light to take on different appearances, but how can a blob of metal become living tissue in order to be sent back through time? Living tissue is fairly complex. If it can do that, then why can't it turn it's forearm into a futuristic energy-blaster? Or a nuclear warhead, just to be on the safe side? Luckily Sarah Connor is wiser and more jaded than in the previous film, and she has a T800 to protect her rather than a normal dude, so she is able to defeat the T1000 and escape SkyNet's wrath once again. Which makes me think... why didn't they send the T1000 back to deal with her in the first film? They could have sent him alongside the T800 they sent, and finished her off then. If SkyNet had the resources to send back exactly 3 Terminators (4 counting Summer Glau), why send them to different points in the timeline? And why not at least send your most advanced Terminator to the point when the enemy is at her weakest, and not to when you've already given her 11 years' warning?!

Alright, next we have Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and here is where the series begins to go downhill. There isn't anything particularly bad about T3, and personally I rather enjoyed it, it just doesn't really bring anything new to the table. In this installment, SkyNet sends back Bloodrayne to fill in for Silver Surfer, and she inexplicably has a futuristic energy-blaster inside her forearm?! It might make sense that SkyNet is figuring out new tricks with their Terminators except that they're all presumeably being sent from the same point in the future, not to mention this incarnation seems considerably less powerful than the T1000 (who easily could have survived getting smooshed a little). She's referred to as the T-X, which means she's either 80-times less advanced than the the T800, or SkyNet fell victim to the Hollywood formula for naming sequels.

Again, why wasn't this model sent back to help out the T800/1000? If SkyNet wanted to cast their net wider or something by sending the Terminators to different points in the timeline, why send your most primitive model to the point when you have the most chance of success? And if SkyNet sent back the T800 before it had developed the T1000, and then realized later that Arnie hadn't done his job, then why not send another Terminator to help him rather than sending it to a different point in the timeline, or at least split the difference and send the T-X back to help the T800 and the T1000 to some other point? I'm probably overanalyzing all this, but none of it compares to the intense tomfoolery displayed by SkyNet in...

Terminator: Salvation (seriously, spoilers). Now here's where I think the whole franchise runs off the rails. It's not that this is a bad film, and the craft is definitely there. The problems only really start to emerge in the last act. In this film we have Batma- er, John Connor heroicially leading the remnants of mankind by shooting stuff and getting injured, and we have Kyle Reese as his extremely young father, which is slightly unsettling. We also have Marcus Feni- er, Marcus Wright as a sort of half-terminator who thinks he's human and has been sent to lure John into a trap. This trap involves having Kyle captured and brought to SkyNet HQ, and then having Marcus disable the defenses so that John can go in and be murdered by UNARMED-NAKED-CG-ARNOLD! As evil supervillain plans go, that's pretty retarded.

What's more, after Marcus has done his part, he is filled in on the plan by SkyNet's representative, Helena Bonham Carter (who I actually quite enjoyed in this film, and who I think could have totally pulled off the Borg Queen). After realizing he's been a pawn this whole time (which should have been bleedingly obvious due to the fact that he's half-terminator), Marcus predictably yet stupidly rips the control-circuit from out of his head, and runs off to save John Connor. A sign of a bad movie is when there are plotpoints which are both blatantly nonsensical and also painfully predictable, and this film has these in abundance. A better list of plotholes can be found here, but allow me to go into a few of the reasons why T:S makes no freaking sense.

Now it makes sense that the SkyNet in 2018 knows that John Connor is apparently vitally important in the future since I'm assuming emails can be sent back in time if living tissues can (or they could send back a post-it note made of skin), and I'm even willing to accept that they know Kyle Reese is important, but considering the fact that they can mimic human voices, why not simply kill Kyle Reese and pretend you have him held hostage? If he never gets sent back in time, then logically John Connor shouldn't exist at all. (In fact, John Connor shouldn't exist at all since Kyle never would have gone back in time if it wasn't for John, but that's another issue.) And if you're going to go to all this trouble to lure John into an elaborite trap 15 years in the making, couldn't you at least give CG-Arnold a gun? Or, like, a switchblade? Or a pointy stick? You're not sending him back in time this time people! By this point, the only rationalization I have for these movies is that SkyNet's AI chip was severely damaged somewhere along the way, and it just happened that the bit that researches time machines was the only part left unscathed.

Now all the perimeter defenses have been shut down because of Marcus, but if this was part of the plan, then couldn't you just pretend they're shut down until John walks in. I'm not a programmer by any means, but this sounds like something I could code up, and we already see that the machines are capable of playing dead because they do so in response to a magical signal that the resistance is testing out to see if it will disable them. A perfectly sensible plan would have been to have Marcus think he's deactivated the base's defenses, and then when John walks in turn everything back on and blow the crap out of him. An even better plan would have been to outfit Marcus with some of those nuclear power cells (which SkyNet conveniently leaves out on tables in the middle of their headquarters), and have him detonate as soon as he meets John Connor. In fact if Terminators have explosives inside them and can detonate Predator-style, then why not do this in the previous films?:

"Hey kid, c'mere a minute." Boom!

I guess the answer to that last one is obvious: because then we wouldn't have a franchise. These movies are best enjoyed by turning off that voice in your head and just going with it. Sure the whole thing begins to unravel if you look at it too hard, but that can be said about a lot of films (like The Matrix), but the point is to enjoy the high concept, and half of that comes from making fun of it. I just wish they had been willing to explore the ideas more fully. Like so many Sci-Fi franchises before it, all the interesting ideas are presented in the first film, and the rest just start to feel like cash-ins. There are so many interesting ways you could take a story that involves time travel and the apocalypse. There were numerous rumours floating around the internet about how the fourth film was going to end, and each of them was far more interesting than the way it was actually handled.

In the actual ending, John Connor is injured by getting thrown around a lot, but is saved by a heart transplant. I'm not even going to go into how stupid that is. Once again money triumphs over artistic merit, and another potentially interesting series is lost to the unwashed masses, or at least to the Hollywood producers' vision of them. But me, I have a little more faith in humanity. I feel that as long as you have an acceptable quota of explosions and giant robots, you can still tell a proper story.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to some proper Sci-Fi. Doon's calling, and the demonic martian sandworms are running amuck in the spice reserves again.


  1. ahh, how I fondly remember Terminator before hollywood bent it over and took it to town for all its worth...

    Oh well, alls fair in love and war and all that philosophical shit.

    Good article/rant.

  2. Thanks :)
    Many an idea's been ruined by producer with dollar-signs in their eyes methinks.