09 June 2010
Because it was on TV: The Success and Failure of the Terminator Franchise and the Future of Blockbusters, Part I
Congratulations on the longest blog title ever.
This is something I've needed to address for a while. In the past couple months I've had the opportunity to watch every Terminator film over again (except T4, but the taste of shit is still pretty fresh in my mouth from last year) and during last week's spectacular line-up on TNT, which included both T2: Judgment Day (1991) and I Am Legend (2007), I began thinking about the blockbuster. The first Terminator (1984) is far from an tentpole although it did pretty well. It views more like an 80s horror or even a B-Movie (we also need to re-evaluate our standards for 80s films, outside of Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, the decade wasn't really filled with Big Budget Franchises like our Summers are today). T2, however, is not only one of the best blockbusters I've ever seen, it's probably one of the best films I've ever seen period. I want to ramble about this for a while, contrasting it to the later films in the Franchise and then talking about the lacking quality in our Contemporary Tentpole. Let's begin:
The Merits of T2
Why is this movie so awesome? It exudes awesome out of every possible pore. Almost every facet is close to perfect. It works largely because while it is an action and effects driven sequel, it also is intently character driven while simultaneously limiting the scope to four major characters (Sarah and John Connor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the T-1000). While implementing an initially similar plot as the first film, T2 quickly establishes itself as tonally distinct while progressing its characters into new interesting yet plausible states.
Characters are what makes a film last in memory. The Characters, for instance, were the glue that kept LOST grounded amongst the most ridiculous TV plotlines in history. Likewise, as complicated as the plot of the Terminator's franchise was (it was never that tough, I don't think), the characters kept viewers tuned in and interested. Let's start with really the only common thread between the first two films, Sarah Connor.
In four films we have three John Connors. Edward Furlong does the best job portraying this character although I give in that this could be only because we always picture his potential instead of witnessing it. That's actually a fine reason in itself - Nick Stahl and Christian Bale never really do much shit as the Saviour of Humanity to earn that title. Furlong is this punk kid who 1) continually outwits machines and deploys a knack for hacking and using them to his advantage, 2) is incredibly aggressive with all kinds of authority figures (hating foster parents and cops) and 3) cares deeply for humanity (preventing Arnie from killing innocents, preventing his mother from killing Dyson and expressing a love for friends and family). These are all the qualities a great leader against the machines needs. Let's evaluate Stahl and Bale.
Stahl is whiny. Furlong had this whiny streak but countered it with an equally aggressive streak. Stahl doesn't outwit any machines when he should be starting to become clever enough to do so. He's more passively antagonistic with authority figures, desiring fear of loss instead of drive to win. He also wishes to bone Claire Danes, but other than that never really shows compassion for humanity. His only explicit distaste for machines must be initiated by Arnold himself. Bale is even worse really. Although he does two cool things in the film, including taking out some machines in the beginning (losing a ton of men in the process) and grabbing a Robo-Cycle, he isn't really capable of anything great once inside the Skynet City. He's a bitch when dealing with the Human Submarine Council whatever, though he plays rogue a little bit and never really has enough emotional depth to express care for humanity. Bale is always too focused on being badass rather than selling the character's heart - which is of course what he's supposed to be fighting for. The thing about T4 is that it never gives John a chance to prove that there's a reason Humanity should follow him. That should have been the point. If this guy is so important that Skynet sends three Terminators to the past to take him out, which must require a huge amount of energy and Robo-Tax Dollars then he needed to prove that he was worth it. It just doesn't.
The major fault of T2 is actually that it's so iconic, filled with elements that are just so "perfect" that it's about impossible to ever duplicate. The T-1000 is a good example. This new Terminator is an exponentially worse threat than the already formidable Arnold from the first movie. I mean, this cat can hide in the floor! It's major power is deception and investigation, through disguises as authority figures and ruthless access to information. Add a modifiable weapon and tool arsenal (metal that can pierce a milk carton or open an elevator), as well as a basically invulnerable structure and the T-1000 is one of the most powerful villains of all time. Really, think of anything other than a tub of molten metal that could kill this thing. Ever. The Sun maybe? The only thing that could kill it or even trap it is if Arnold threw it into the Sun. The TX does not top this, she merely retreads old ideas and is never the threat that the Kilo is. Of course then, nothing in T4 comes close.
At the core of T2 is a tremendous plot shift that is simultaneously repetitive. The major villain from the first film is now the major hero, fulfilling the role of "Protector from the Future" that a human served in the first film. What's awesome is that not knowing about this plot shift going into the film offers a very unique experience. It's not until both Terminators stumble upon John Connor do we understand who was doing what. Some of the trailers hinted at this, although I don't believe the final one did:
Let's get back to the characters. Every single character in this movie has a genuine arc, even the robots. T2 becomes a great film not in its explosive chase scenes or effects wizardry (which still look great, as I'll talk about later, even I Am Legend looks shitty) but rather in its smaller moments. Moments like Sarah Conner with the swingset, the bonding between John and Arnie in the desert, and the repeated crying motif. That whole desert scene is one of the best, it's one of a bunch of moments when John Connor acts like a real kid who has the coolest toy on the planet. Sarah's monologue is the soul of the film - the machine that will never beat him or neglect him, never abandon him, the best father that John could have. The bond between man and machine that fosters an understanding in John that subsequently allows him to save Humanity. All of this going on in T2's subtext underneath a shiny veneer of cool explosions lifts it above its successors.
I think I've run out of room again. I'll next talk more in-depth concerning this film's relation to its own Franchise as well as the Blockbusters of our time. Stay tuned, dear readers.