12 June 2010

Because it was on TV: The Success and Failure of the Terminator Franchise and the Future of Blockbusters, Part II

Welcome to Part II of Norwegian Morning Wood's longest ever titled post, examining the modern blockbuster with a special focus on the Terminator franchise. Bounce over to Part I for some initial ramblings on some of the genuine merits of one of the greatest action movie of all time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). After watching this on TNT last week, I started thinking about its role against more recent action films. One question I think we need to address is thus, Do we think T2 is so good because today's blockbusters are so bad?

So, What have we got?

I've been racking my brain to find another blockbuster as good as T2 from the past decade. There's not a lot even from the 1990s. Now what I mean, for the sake of argument, is let's say a big "event" tentpole film that grosses at least $120 million. Big action films that have some kind of artistic merit. Amongst all the shit that has come out this decade, I'll posit myself that the following action films have come close to replicating T2, although none I think are as well paced and structured as the 1991 Epic. After we run through this I'll mention a few close calls and some clear exceptions.

The Bourne Series (2002 - 2007): These are all pretty good while Identity (2002) barely covers my wide ranging appeal criteria, the subsequent films did in spades. Identity is by far my pick for the best in the franchise, though and its influence within both the spy and action genres in this decade is enormous.

Harry Potter (2001 - Present): While all of these are above average blockbuster films, the only really exceptional one is Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), which of course has the least gross.

Star Trek (2009): By all rounds this had the pacing and thrill to rival T2 but by far its complications, array of characters, lack of an iconic villain and "easy" ending bring it down for me. Remember how basic and simply driven T2 was from its four primary characters. In Trek we get to know the Spock/Kirk dynamic a bit but beyond that the crew are basically stock (except Simon Pegg).

Spider-Man 2 (2004): I have some problems with the first and third installments, but the second Spider-Man is about as close to a perfect superhero movie as you can get. In Summer 2004 no one thought this one would be topped.

X2: X-Men United (2003): Keeping with superheroes for a second, X2 shines far above the other X-Men films. Again, being on the top of the Comic Book pile isn't a great accomplishment.

Minority Report (2002): Underrated and one of both Spielberg and Tommy's best films of the past decade. It has a sense of classicism that should give it more credence amongst SciFi fans that it currently has.

That's about all I got. I'd also give Steve and Tommy War of the Worlds (2005) if they hadn't mucked up the ending so hard. I still contend that that film has some incredible moments, intense drama and is the type of film that is thoroughly more enjoyable in a big loud theater than on a TV screen at home. Speaking of movies that need to be seen in theaters, I'd actually rather not mention AVABAR (2009). AVABAR sucks. What you should immediately get from that list is pretty basic - none of them really even come close to how awesome T2 is. None of the above feature the combination of groundbreaking action, deep characters and legitimate thought-provocation that T2 elicits.

Now, I was watching I Am Legend (2007) last weekend, which inspired a lot of this post. As I'm watching this thing start I started remember how awesome this movie was. The opening empty streets of NYC, hunting deer with a canine buddy in a sports car, there's a good amount of iconography at work here and some great scenes...in the first half. The threat of the Anti-Sun Zombie Vampires is insane, there's such an unstoppable fear to them during those first slow scenes, building up the horror Will finds when he sees them huddled in a Breathing Corner in that abandoned building. It builds up really cool, Will does a great job on his own and there's this affection between man and dog that you can tell lasted the apocalypse.

Then (SPOILER) the mutt dies. It's powerful and sad shit, but after that the movie just becomes this big rolling piece of shit that won't stop. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, this ending would have saved it a bit (for some reason half of that video is in German, you'll get the just of it), giving the monsters a lot more depth as well as attributing new contemplative meaning to both the entire story as well as the title. Instead, we got normal Hollywood shit. Let's move on with our lives.

That Can't be it!

There's two big franchises I've left out here. The first is every movie in the Lord of the Rings series, all of which are peak film experiences. They approach the unspeakably good level, and unlike its comparative trilogy from last generation, they don't sell themselves out as they go along.

Then we've got Nolanverse Batman. Like I said, when Spider-Man 2 emerged, no one thought superhero films could get better. A year later they did. On IMDB, Batman Begins (2005) is the #107 movie of all time, The Dark Knight (2008) is #10. Ridiculous internet voting aside, these are two fantastic movies, and I hate them for it. I hate them because they buck the trend. For the next couple years whenever anyone complains that no good film makes a lot of money at the box office, or that superhero movies are really pretty shitty, anyone can always pull out The Dark Knight as a counterpoint. It sucks. It's almost like Godwin's Law. The more we talk about shitty blockbusters, the closer we'll be to talking about The Dark Knight. I'll be the first to admit that it is a fantastically well-made film. I don't believe it deserved a Best Picture nomination (C'mon - Gran Torino [2008] should have won...) and it certainly has its own problems, but in the end it is a film that elevates itself above the competition of the past twenty years and ends up (along with any Lord of the Rings) as the only film that can stand against T2.

Wasn't there some Terminator Sequel recently that was supposed to rule?

Okay, so we've found that there are a handful of pretty good blockbusters, but it's admittedly rare. Now, pretend it's Spring 2009 and you see this trailer:

Holy Shit! McG didn't screw this up! This is one of the most incredible trailers to come out in recent memory, every part of it is fucking fantastic - you're promised a great actor, Christian Bale in the lead role (to be fair, Bale's been the most boring part of his last four films), grisly Worthington supporting, terror on the face of Katherine Brewster. Katherine Brewster is fucking shitpantsed, look at that face. She shit her pants from awesome. This is inspirational in every way a Terminator trailor needs to be - humanity facing a fruitless war against cold machines but fuck it - we have a strength that CANNOT BE MEASURED. Not to mention that if we stay the course, WE ARE ALL DEAD! Then the drums come in, how can you not get pumped at that thudding. The trailer evokes every great part of the glimpses of the future we saw in the first three films and promises more.

Then it just kind of stumbled and fucked up. Apparently, McG could screw up this franchise. He could screw it up pretty bad. I mean, watch Charlie's Angels (2000), this shit makes no sense. I mean, we can have all the fun in the world adding another movie to Common's filmography where his character is completely unnecessary, but this is getting ridiculous. Every cool part that could or should have been developed (Connor's baby, all of what Sam Worthington's means) wasn't, and the thing ends with this dependability on Arnold, which is below the franchise at this point. It was always Connor's story, that's the catch more than that fucking Austrian. This really pisses me off here.

I'll even support T3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Granted that couldn't live up to the enormous standard set by its predecessors and reads more as a generic action movie, it's got its great moments (Elton John glasses, truck chase (from dawn to morning better than T2 and the graveyard are all pretty top-notch). It stumbles with the mythology, but whatever, it's probably the best we could have expected. With an "I'll be back" or an "Hasta la vista" line it could have sealed the deal on cultural ubiquity. There just wasn't enough in this movie that felt like it deserved that Terminator mantle.

But no, T4 managed to take what is ultimately an okay film in T3 and kick it in the balls so hard the franchise got cumstains on its tongue. T3 sure did lower standards, but this is fucking terrible. How did this happen? I cry at night in bed after watching both these movies and struggle every day believing they're in the same franchise.

So what now?

There's hope yet. 2009 had a slew of good, cheap films like District 9 and Inglourious Basterds to its credit, along with the aforementioned Star Trek. Throw in The Hangover and Moon and we had one hell of a summer last year. This year so far hasn't seen anything that could possibly come close and unless The Expendables (2010) delivers what it's meant to, we might as well hold our blue balls hoping Thor (2011) kicks Holy Ass next year.

Where art thou, Superior Action Film? Where art thou?

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