(a) the last high point the franchise achieved?
(b) the moment the rot set in?
(c) both of the above?
Hands up if you answered (c).
Now, I’ve not watched ‘Rise of the Machines’ or ‘Terminator Salvation’ yet, so there may be some big surprises in store … but I kind of doubt it. These are works of cinema that have, after all, the respective talents of Jonathan Mostow and McG at their helm. ‘Judgement Day’ at least has James Cameron calling the shots and therefore preserves a continuity of vision. It also has Linda Hamilton taking the vulnerable but resilient Sarah Connor of the first movie and turning her into a hard-core bee-yatch, the spillage of whose pint is assuredly not recommended.
In the absence of Michael Biehn’s haunted personification of Kyle Reese (he appears briefly in a flashback/dream sequence), it is left to Linda Hamilton to give the movie a degree of substance and an emotional cachet beyond Cameron’s increasingly repetitive formula of high-speed-chase/gunplay/blow-shit-up. Muscular, terse, almost brutally pragmatic in her relationship with her son John (Edward Furlong), Hamilton gives us Sarah Connor Version 2.0. And a scarier prospect she’d present than even the old killing machine itself, the T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) … except that the T-101 is now good guy and there’s a new Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) on the block.
And here we come to the problem with ‘Judgement Day’. Well, one of the problems. Let’s start at the beginning. You know how I said having Cameron back in the director’s chair preserved a continuity of vision? That was kind of a backhanded compliment. What Cameron does is basically remake ‘The Terminator’ but on a bigger budget, running a nearly an hour longer and with John Connor as an actual character and not just the (literally) embryonic concept he is in the first film. Things kick off with a vision of Armageddon, a kiddies’ playground exploding under the nuclear blast, and a voiceover announces that, hey, you know how Skynet sent a Terminator back through time to try to kill John Connor before he was even born, well damned if the sneaky li’l sunnovabitch didn’t pull exactly the same shit thirteen years later.
Yup, what we have here is essentially ‘John Connnor: The Teenage Years’. ‘John Connor: The You’re Not My Real Mom and I Hate You Years’. ‘John Connor: The I’m-Working-Some-Personal-Shit-Out-By-Flipping-My-Adoptive-Parents-Off-And-Tearing-Around-On-a-Motorbike Years’. Or, as the film would have been titled in the Agitation-approved cut ‘John Connor: The FFS-Won’t-Somebody-Slap-the-Little-Prick-Upside-the-Head Years’.
So, yeah: we’ve got a squeaky-voiced future leader of the resistance trying to cut it as a juvenile delinquent only his shirts are too clean and his haircut too prissy. We’ve got his estranged mother locked up in a sanatorium. We’ve got the T-1000, all liquid alloy and fond of impersonating highway patrol officers (I swear to God I am not making this up). And we’ve got our old mate Arnie in scuffed leather jacket and shades ensemble, all gutturally monosyllabic but with (bad move) more dialogue. And this time he’s the good guy.
I may have already mentioned that this brings us to the single biggest problem with ‘Judgement Day’. How best to describe the paradox? Like watching ‘Halloween II’ only this time Michael Myers is the sensitive soul who’s doing his best to help Laurie through the aftermath and if that means getting in a final act smackdown with some totally new and random character who’s doing all the shit that Michael was doing in the first movie, right down to the hockey mask business, then so be it. Because Michael’s the good guy this time. He is. Honest.
If ‘Judgement Day’ itself represents a sop to the audiences who flocked to ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Aliens’ in droves but stayed away from ‘The Abyss’ in roughly the same numbers, then the re-imagining of Arnie’s protagonist is a sop to the mainstream popularity the actor come to enjoy and which would remain unquestioned by moviegoers until ‘Last Action Hero’. It’s almost as if a memo went round before a word of the script had been written or a frame of footage shot: Arnie’s the good guy this time; work with it.
All right, I’m 700 words into this polemic and I’d really like to post it on the blog before sundown, so I’ll skim over some of the other issues – chief among them, the decision to follow slavishly the formula of the first instalment (which was, after all, a chase movie) only to incorporate a Cyberdyne-heavy subplot two thirds of the way in which effectively keeps the T-1000 off the screen for a good 40 minutes (that’s right, it’s a chase film in which the guy doing the chasing suddenly disappears only to suddenly reappear for the finale without any indication of how he even got there) – and simply observe that ‘Judgement Day’ can best be summed up by its extended-to-the-point-of-interminable finale: it’s visually spectacular, blazingly action-packed and supremely well-executed, but – jeez – it doesn’t half go on!