Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Terminator Franchise

When it comes to sci-fi movies, there are a couple of concepts that need to be included within the story to keep my attention throughout. Because, let’s face it, the definition of a science fiction movie, for me anyway, is movies that include technology and conceptions that we haven’t achieved yet in our present. For me, time travel and cyborgs are a must. Whenever I watch a film that shows someone going from the past to the future, or vice versa, I’m intrigued. And if it is a story of someone going into a future or a past that includes cybernetic organisms, I’m there. The Terminator, James Cameron’s 1984 classic includes both and to great effect.

The film features Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of the cyborg assassin—the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 T-800 infiltrating Terminator, a role he’ll always be remembered for and he was perfect for the part. If you think about it, a man with a thick Austrian accent acting in an American movie should stick out like a sore thumb, and I admit he does in some of the movies he was featured in after making this film, but he doesn’t here. Why? Because he barely spoke any dialogue. Why should he? He was a robot sent from the future to kill a target. In that aspect, it’s very easy, as an audience, to get past the accent.

During a decade where we had so many cheesy sci-fi films and horror flicks, with only the dramatic pieces being taken seriously, here comes The Terminator to give us an intelligent and well-written science fiction movie that keeps the audience enthralled throughout. From the moment the film opens with a look into the dismal future and the narrative text telling us it’s the year 2029, we see how machines have taken over the world—a truly scary window we, as the audience, look into. In a time when America had a constant background fear of the Soviet Union sending over nuclear missiles to take us out, how we all were very conscious of the Cold War, seeing this film showed us what could happen as an aftermath. Not necessarily machines taking over, but how everything would be destroyed and not many people surviving.

Luckily, James Cameron only gave us a glimpse of that world and quickly brought the story back to the present where the majority of the film takes place.

Simply put, the film is about a cyborg that is sent back from the future to terminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). At the same time, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is sent back, as well, to protect her. At the beginning of this, Reese is trying to convince Sarah what is happening and, like most of us would do if we were in her place, she doesn’t believe him. The rest is a cat-and-mouse game of Sarah and Reese trying to get away from the machine, giving us exciting action sequences, until the electrifying climax of the film.

I’ll never forget the day my brother and I saw this movie. Like most movies we saw, our mother would drop us off at the theater and pick us up two hours later. One reason, and it’s a pretty sad reason, I’d never forgotten this day was an old man was hit and killed by a car that had ran a red light. It happened right in front of us and, after going over the obituaries for the next few days, we found out he was 81 years old. Crossing the street with his wife like they did day after day, I’m sure, and living on this earth for 81 years, he gets taken out by an idiot who ran a red light. Sad.

Sorry for the digression.

Now, we all associate Arnold Schwarzenegger as the kick-ass hero from all his movies, toting a huge machine gun and blowing shit up to save the day. But in this film, he wasn’t anything of the kind. In fact, he was the villainous killing machine murdering and executing anything that gets in his way while Michael Biehn was the hero. And that’s one thing about the beginning of this film, if you’ve never seen it. When Arnold shows up, especially when he takes out those punks to get himself some threads, you know he’s the bad guy. When Kyle Reese shows up, you’re not sure what to make of him. At first, he seems shady and might be after Sarah Connor as well. I remember thinking that both men were going after her at the same time, working together somehow. It blew me away when I found out that Arnold was a machine and Reese was there to protect Sarah from it. For its time, The Terminator is one of the best science fiction stories put to film.

Of course, any movie is victim to time and seeing that this flick was made in the mid-80s, you know there are going to be some flaws. But it was pre-CGI and practical effects were there all the way, all done by one of the masters of special effects: Stan Winston. With the replica Arnold head that was made to accomplish the eye removal scene and the fake arm to achieve the tendon repair part of the film, the stand-out is the Endoskeleton which we see in the final act. All other robot designs fail in comparison to Winston’s design of the terminator’s skeletal structure. From the glaring red eyes to the steel tendons and servomechanisms, it’s a masterpiece. With the exception of the stop-motion portions of the film, the final act was awesome and still has me on the edge of my seat when I watch it to this day.

The Terminator is the one that started it all.

Fun fact:

In the DVD and Blu-Ray, the extras include some deleted scenes. Most are fluff that was taken out to cut down the running time of the film, but two stand out in particular that should’ve been left in. One scene takes place after Sarah “terminates” the machine and police are securing the area. Two employees of the warehouse that the climax takes place in are talking when one finds an odd computer chip on the floor, hiding it in his shirt pocket before a cop walks by. The other scene takes place as Sarah is being taken away in an ambulance. As she’s being placed in the back of the vehicle, the shot widens out to show us the building’s company name as Cyberdyne. These two scenes show us that James Cameron always had a sequel in mind and I wish they would have placed these scenes back in the movie as a special edition.

Back before the internet, when we didn’t have so much information, I hadn’t heard about a sequel until I read about it in a TV Guide. “A TV Guide?” you ask? Yes...a TV Guide. I wasn’t into film magazines much, but I’m sure I would’ve picked up on the sequel news if I had. Nevertheless, the news floored me. It wasn’t too long later when I went to go see Arnold’s 1990 classic, Total Recall, that I was floored again. Before the movie started, a mysterious trailer began showing an Endoskeleton being scanned and placed in some steel pod, with a read-out showing that some sort of initiating sequence was beginning. As it opened up, there stood Arnold Schwarzenegger as the camera panned up his body to his face with his eyes closed. Suddenly, he opens his eyes and they’re glowing red. The trailer closes and you hear Arnie’s voice declaring, “I’ll be back.” In 1991, he was back…back as the T-800 once again in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Once again, James Cameron brought us something new and exciting, with a lot of action and great story-telling. He introduced us to a new type of special effects that changed the film industry on its head, giving us the love/hate relationship of CGI. Now, he used it in a movie before this one, in a little movie back in 1989 called The Abyss, but not as extensively as he uses it in this film. It’s hard to believe T2 (as it’s called in most media formats) is over twenty years old, but I still view it as a fresh work of art. Watching it today, you’d be hard-pressed to find many mistakes or flaws in this piece.

Although this film follows the basic premise of the first film, with a villain coming back in time to kill someone with another hero to come back as well, saving the someone from the villain. This time around, however, it’s a little more complex. The terminator that comes back to kill the person is a new advanced machine, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal that can imitate anyone and creates blades or stabbing weapons out of its hands. The hero, though, is the terminator model from the first film, the T-800 (once again, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), which was captured by the resistance of the future and reprogrammed to go back in time to save the person that needs saving. The person that needs saving isn’t Sarah Connor this time, but her son, John Connor (Edward Furlong), the one who becomes the leader of The Resistance and is responsible for sending the T-800 back. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) isn’t faring too well as she’s been incarcerated in a mental institution for what happened in the first film as well as other atrocities she’s perpetrated in order to stop Cyberdyne Systems from eventually creating Skynet, the computer network that ultimately leads to humanity’s demise.

First off, after getting through the fantastic idea of this sequel as well as the returning cast members from the first film, I’ve got to say that the casting directors did a fabulous job of finding Edward Furlong. Thirteen years old at the time, Furlong brought a youthful perspective to the movie in the beginning, having the young-and-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude of what he felt was abandonment by a crazy mother. The change he goes through as he finds out she was right all along and realizes he will become the leader of the resistance of the future was so transcending, you start to believe he has what it takes to lead.

Now, Arnie coming back as the T-800, in itself, is awesome. The opening scene for his appearance was pretty exciting the first time I saw it. How he went through the redneck bar to find himself some clothes and a motorcycle was classic. I guess what stuck in everybody’s minds after the first film was Schwarzenegger’s outfit of leather as he rode the motorcycle, so Cameron outdid it by putting him on Harley Davidson Fat Boy this time around. I have to admit, though, the George Thorogood cue of “Bad to the Bone” was a little cheesy, but I liked it. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Arnold was already 44 years old when he made this film, but he appeared to be in tip top shape.

Now, the entrance for Robert Patrick as the T-1000 was equally as impressive as he shows up and takes the persona of a police officer and gets to work, looking for John Connor. Unlike the T-800, this newer model is able to feign some personality here and there to be accepted more easily into society. But when it’s time for this terminator to become evil, he’s hands down ten times as evil as his predecessor. Being smaller and less bulky, the T-1000 is able to move swifter and faster, making him a force to be reckoned with.

What I like about this installment is that it gets a little deeper into Skynet and how it will come to be the threat it will be in the future. Unlike the first film where Skynet is just some unknown computer threat with no background to it, T2 introduces the reasoning behind it and the human basis that made it what it was. It made us, the audience, divided and made us think what we would do in the protagonists’ position. Would we kill a man who, in a sense, creates Skynet to prevent the future war of humans against machines? Would we simply take out a human being whose only crime is trying to advance technology to help the human race, not knowing the end result is a network that turns on us?

It’s funny how Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, this time, becomes the hero of this flick, playing the evil character that, only a mere seven years prior, was killing whoever got in his way. Even in this one, the T-800 has no problem trying to terminate someone who gets in his way. But the writers played it smart and made John Connor responsible for everything the machine does because it has been programmed to follow John’s orders. So when John tells him he can’t kill anyone—albeit after asking “why?” a few times—the T-800 complies.

I hate to say it, seeing and hearing how much of a douche bag James Cameron turned out to be in later years, but he nailed it in this movie and really closed out the story perfectly. He’s been quoted—when he was asked to direct a potential sequel to this one—that he felt the story was finished with this one and that there was nowhere to go with it. But a money-making franchise always has somewhere to go, especially when you have intelligent writers and an adequate director to helm a worthy sequel, and that’s they did a long twelve years later.

Fun fact:

On most of the media versions of the film, you have a choice to watch either the theatrical version of the film or the long version of the film.  More than that, you can enter the code 8-29-97 in order for an extra-long version of the film.  Both include a cool part where the T-800 informs John and Sarah that the microchip has a learning processor function that's left off.  But if switched on, he can learn and take on more information to help him act more human.  The scene proceeds with John and Sarah opening the port to the chip to switch on the function.  It's a pretty critical scene from the film that explains why the terminator starts acting more human towards the end of the film.  Other scenes are forgettable, especially the part where the T-800 tries to smile.

2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is far from a classic, but a well-intentioned sequel nonetheless, giving us more of the same with a little twist towards the end. But what else can you do to re-establish a franchise that looked like it ended twelve years prior? Well, you just add a line about how Judgment Day was postponed, that’s all. Then you just start the story all over again.

As a side note, between the late 1980s and into the late 1990s, I read quite a few comic book titles. One series I had picked up a few years after T2 was a simple memory was a “Terminator” title that I forget, but it had me intrigued. The story picked up right after T2 finished, with Sarah and John back on the run, still paranoid about terminators coming for them and thinking the war will still happen. I enjoyed how the police showed up to search the steel mill and found the T-800’s arm stuck in the gears—the same arm that Arnold’s character breaks off and leaves behind to go find the T-1000. It also turned out that the government backed up all of Miles Dyson’s files so the destruction of Cyberdyne was all for nothing. So, with that story in my head, I thought T3 would go that direction and I was excited about that because there was so much that the writers of the comic book got into, it blew my mind.

But, alas, the movie was nowhere as exciting as that comic book storyline. Don’t get me wrong…the movie was very good and it was interesting in the route it took, but I had my sights lined up in a totally different direction.

So, the narrative opens up, with the adult John Conner (Nick Stahl) explaining where’s he’s been and what he’s been doing since we’ve last seen him, which is basically laying low and staying off any radars. He gets into an accident and needs medication and breaks into a veterinarian clinic to find some. Meanwhile, the newest terminator, the T-X (Kristanna Loken)—a female terminator with an Endoskeleton covered in mimicking liquid metal—shows up to look for and terminate John Connor’s Resistance lieutenants. Also, the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back as well, showing up at a country-western bar during ladies night to look for some threads. As John is found out by the manager of the vet clinic, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), both terminators arrive shortly—one to terminate, one to save.

Above all else, I’ve got to say that 56-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger looked damned good in this film. Everyone involved with the movie claimed that there were no CGI touch-ups during the scene where Arnie shows up in the buff, so if that’s true, I’m damned impressed. I definitely have to give a guttural growl for Kristanna Loken as the T-X, as she shows up in the buff as well. But both entrances of the terminators were great, except for the cheesy comedic lines during Arnie’s time at the country-western bar.

I like that they went with the military taking over the Skynet system and needing to put it online as a worldwide computer virus begins. But it didn’t seem to explain much, like how they went on with Dyson’s work with the advanced computer microchip. I guess it’s assumed that they took it over or was watching his work from afar, but I would’ve liked to hear or see that chronicling of events. Also, without spoiling the ending twist, I don’t understand how the primitive machines at the end of this film would be able to create the more advanced machines we see in the next sequel.

So, without those items I had just mentioned, the film is basically a reboot of the previous film.

The good parts of the film—and there are some here and there—are, of course the entrance of Arnie and Kristanna as the T-800 and T-X, respectively. The chase scene was exciting, as it seemed like they destroyed many city blocks. The fight scene between the two terminators was pretty kick-ass and with the advancement of special effects meshed with CGI helped it out a lot. The return of Dr. Silberman was done well, humorously showing that he’s still trying to make sense of the events he had witnessed in the previous film.

I do enjoy this film, don’t be mistaken…I just had really high hopes for this outing and it didn’t live up to my imagination.

Fun fact:

In one of the extras on the Blu-Ray or DVD, there is an omitted scene that shows General Brewster watching a video featuring a Sergeant Candy (Schwarzenegger) talking about Cyberdyne and the robotic work they do.  The funny thing about this scene is that his voice is dubbed with some over-the-top southern accent.  It's a pretty cool scene to watch and I'm kind of glad they left it out because it's just too comical and dorky the way Arnold's portrayed here.

So, the last entry in the franchise—so far—is the McG directed, 2009 film, Terminator Salvation, starring Christian Bale as John Connor and Sam Worthington as the mysterious Marcus Wright. As a side note, I did review this film back on May 18th, 2009, shortly after its release. If you go back, you’ll notice I drooled all over this film, mainly for the reason that I grew tired of james Cameron’s ego at the time. But since its release onto Blu-Ray and a few viewings, as well as getting over my hatred of Cameron, I put more thought into it, so here it is. So, get ready for some nitpicking because I’m going to have a few things to say about this one.

Before getting into the likes and don’t-likes of the movie, let me summarize it as best as I can to break it down a bit. The film opens in 2003, with Marcus Wright waiting on death row, when a Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up to try and have Marcus sign his body away for science after his death. The film then opens to the future with John Connor and resistance soldiers invading a machine-controlled area to rescue human prisoners, but is destroyed before they can, leaving Connor as the only survivor. After getting away from a damaged T-600 terminator, Marcus appears—obviously from the underground bunker prisoners were being held—and makes his way to make sense of what is happening, not knowing he’s now in the year 2018. Along the way, he meets up with a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and his friend, Star (Jadagrace Berry), as they make their way to find Connor and The Resistance. I won’t say too much more because my nitpicking will just make it redundant.

First and foremost, the situation with Marcus Wright in jail with Dr. Kogan was weird, even when I first viewed it in the theater. I know they were trying to convey that the character of Kogan was dying of cancer, but they didn’t do their homework when they wanted to find a way to show that in her character. A woman who goes through chemotherapy will lose her hair, correct, but I don’t think her eyebrows will be immune to that fact. I know, it’s trivial and I can get past that, but the ludicrousness of having her wear a scarf on her head only to cover half of her head so we can see that the rest of it is bald is absurd. Anyway, the whole gist of this scene shows that Cyberdyne (as we see the paperwork Marcus signs has the company’s header on top) had plans from the get-go to make a cybernetic organism. So, let me get this straight…Cyberdyne knew they’d need to do this in 2003 to have Marcus infiltrate The Resistance in 2018? Even if it were just an experiment, why did Cyberdyne revert to such primitive terminators like the T-600? If they had the technology to make a terminator Endoskeleton that fit in a normal-sized human being, why did they make monstrosities like those rubber-skinned machines afterwards? I guess I can buy that Cyberdyne was just trying to collect bodies to put on ice to do research on incorporating machine and electronics to humans, but the film implies this has been a plan from the outset.

Another thing that bothers me every time I watch this is how Skynet has Kyle Reese on its kill-list. How does Skynet know about Reese? It shouldn’t. Even if it obtained police files from 1984, it should only know about how he helped Sarah Connor get away from the original terminator. It shouldn’t know about him fathering John Connor, unless there were illegal surveillance cameras in the motel room when Sarah and Kyle were making love. Even if Skynet had that information, why wouldn’t it have Kyle Reese terminated when he was captured and placed in its prison camp? Why does it keep him in a cell to lure in John Connor? This makes no sense.

Although the terminators are pretty awesome in their appearance, with great special effects to make them move and animate, why is it that they only throw people around when they don’t have weapons? In the opening future scene, the damaged T-600 only throws John Connor around. It could easily break his neck or punch a hole through him, but it only resorts to throwing him against the helicopter or across the terrain. Even the climactic scene in Skynet’s factory, the T-800 (more on that later) only throws John around as well.

Finally, the fact that most of the fighting and combat is done in the middle of the day ruins it a bit for me. In the first two films, when we’re shown the flashes of the future war, we see that most of the battles take place at night. I know it’s more logical for them to do combat with the machines during the day because the machines’ night vision or infrared wouldn’t be as useful during the day, but those scenes of the future were so awesome to me and I was looking forward to seeing them in this one. Overall, it didn’t seem like Skynet was much of a threat the way that The Resistance was able to fly around in choppers and jets, not to mention being able to have a base in plain sight.

Okay, now for the good parts of Terminator Salvation.

Above all else, the special effects are phenomenal. The fact that they had Stan Winston on board for this film helped out a bit. Some of the newer machines were great, like the Harvester that put Michael Bay’s Transformer robots to shame, or the MotoTerminators that detached from its legs—those things were so cool! The HydroBots were pretty remarkable as well, showing us that there were no hiding places you can go that didn’t have a threat. Of course, the advancement of CGI and motion capture technology get them the ability to show us some cool terminators like the T-600 that Reese mentions in the first film, which were giant human-like machines with rubber masks for face that can fool you from afar, but not when you’re close to them. Last, but not least, the climactic scene with the T-800 was magnificent! If there’s any saving grace to the idiosyncrasies I have with this film is the final battle scenes between John Connor, Marcus Wright and the T-800. This is a spoiler, but you have to see this to believe it. In the beginning of the film, Connor comes across a computer where the prisoners are being held that shows Skynet’s plans of finally going forward with a new terminator series: the T-800. In the culminating scene at the end of the film, we see it unveiled for the first time. Although risky and a little rough, it worked perfectly to show us Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800. After looking into this, I’d discovered that they were able to digitally map Arnold’s face from the first film to the face of the body builder who acted in this film. Oddly enough, the man in this role, who we never see his face, is Roland Kickinger. I say oddly because for one, the man was born in Austria, just like Schwarzenegger. Also, he looks a little like Arnie, even has the same accent. Lastly, he played the young version of Arnold in the TV movie, See Arnold Run.

So, generally, Terminator Salvation has a lot of plot holes, especially if you’re a big fan of the franchise like myself, and have followed it all the way through, but the special effects keep you entertained and the story is somewhat interesting as it shows John Connor moving up in the ranks to become the leader of The Resistance. Here and there, some nice touches were placed to pay homage to some of what we’ve seen in previous entries, like the explanation of John Connor’s scar that we see in the beginning of T2, the return of Guns’N’Roses’ “You Could Be Mine” and how Reese was taught to tie a cord from his shotgun to his shoulder.

It’s a shame that they couldn’t go forth from here and if Hollywood studios keep up with the only trend they seem to be green lighting these days is that if we do get a Terminator 5, it’ll be a reboot or remake. But I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope they don’t do something stupid like that.

Anyway, my final “bit” on the Terminator franchise?

The first two films are hands down the best, giving us some great entertainment and story throughout. The third entry, although a retread of the second, is engaging as well and sets it up nicely for the fourth installment. Sadly, they went with a mediocre director like McG and didn’t do their homework before getting into this. However, all films are enjoyable throughout and it’s perfect for a nice eight-hour movie marathon.

Thanks for reading!

You can reach me on Twitter: @CinemaBits.

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