Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Q. Does ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ represent:

(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!


Drew said...

Nice piece! I too would have to answer (c) at your initial multiple choice question. I honestly haven't been able to stand the last two sequels in the franchise.

Have you read the David Foster Wallace piece on T2? I think you may dig it:

Neil Fulwood said...

I'd not read the David Foster Wallace piece before - thanks for the link. When Foster describes T2 as "financially canny and artistically dismal", it pretty much sums the film up in one incisive phrase.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Ive always loved this movie, and I dont think Ill ever stop loving it!

The directors cut is a great watch, giving us a glimpse at the Terminators skull and what makes a Terminator tick, that scene where they take out Arnies chip, and then reconnect him, awesome!

And that scene where we see an imaginary scene of Kyle Reese making out with LInda Hamilton, at least we got to see Kyle Reese again!

I see the points you are making about the whinny teenage John Connor, he does get annoying at times, completely agree. But I guess it was a smart move on Camerons part, pulling in the younger crowd by making the protagonist of the film a kid. And having Guns and Roses on the soundtrack. I mean, its just marketing.

Which speaks of Cameron's abilities not just as a filmmaker, but as a person who knows how to make a marketable film, a film for the masses, that razzles and dazzles.

Remember, before this movie, this kind of cgi effects had not been seen! I remember going to the theater to watch this movie on 4 or 5 ocassions, simply to see these amazing effects. This movie was defenetly an 'event movie', Cameron's speciality.

I do remember, the hardest thing to get adjusted to was Arny being the good guy, it was like, 'wait, hes the good guy on this one?' But every one quickly accepted it. People really didnt have a problem with it, specially since by this time Arnold was the hugest star on the planet, he didnt want people to see him as a villain, which is why he practically never played one...except for in The Terminator.

Parts III and IV had the problem of having to top part II which was just all kinds of ground breaking and entertaining. But I tell ya Neil, Part III is not as bad as some make ya think, it follows the mythology closely, and doesnt dissapoint on the action and destruction of private property.

Part IV, I was one of the few people who didnt hate part IV. Salvation was cool because it took place in the that apocaliptic future we only saw in flashbacks on all the other films. The action sequences are spectacular...but the ending, where they go into cyberdine was dissapointing. I envisioned Cyberdine in a much more epic way...but still, I was not dissapointed in many other ways, Salvation had a few glitches, but it wasnt a bad film in my book.

Im wondering what youll think of the last two films, looking forward to your reviews!

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comment, Francisco. I remember how big the movie was when it came out. I was 18 or 19 at the time and it was like nothing I'd seen before in terms of special effects, stunts and general spectacle of it. I remember seeing it twice on the big screen within a week of it opening.

I guess I've just got dulled and disaffected by the raft of big budget effects driven movies which came along in its wake, cannily riding the demographic that Cameron acutely tapped into. Or maybe my tastes in cinema have changed so that what used to excite and impress me doesn't so much any more. I remember as a teenager thinking that the extended finale which encompassed the police besieging Cyberdyne, the truck/helicopter chase and the final smackdown in the smelting plant as being awesome and full of momentum. Nowadays, when I see one of those interminable big fights at the end of an action flick ('Iron Man' is a good example, or 'District 9') I start getting bored if it taps out longer than 5 minutes.

It'll be on with 'Terminator 3' tonight and I've got no preconceptions about the movie. Look out for the review later.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Samething happens to me, I defenetly see certain films I use to enjoy as a kid a whole lot differently.

Also nowadays everything is a special effect in a movie! I guess we have becomed dulled in someway in terms of being amazed by them.

Bryce Wilson said...

You hit the nail on the head with the films problems. When you're actively rooting for the savior of the world to die your movie has a significant problem.

Still I think parts of the movie, including Robert Patrick with his creepy avian performance, work better then you give them credit for. And I don't think that Schwarzennegger in the role of the hero was too distracting, given that the audience was more then used to him as a hero at that point.

Neil Fulwood said...

I've just re-read my article and you're right, Bryce. I've said next to nothing about Robert Patrick.

For the record: his sinister and almost - almost - charming* performance as the T-1000 is a show-stopper. I really do think that the film suffers because of his extended absence during the second half.

*I use the word advisedly: if Hans Landa in 'Inglourious Basterds' were a cyborg, he'd be the T-1000.