Saturday, April 20, 2013

We Rank 'Em : Terminator Films

I had the utmost pleasure of recently viewing all four Terminator movies in the same week; it turns out it's the perfect balm after a long day of recording. For the purposes of reviewing and ranking these films, I also had the distinct advantage of never having seen any of them. I know this is weird for my age, but I must have missed the most-influential-movie-of-your-childhood cut-off date for Terminator 2: Judgment Day by just a couple of months. (And, sidebar: 1991 was a great year for movies: Beauty and the Beast, Hook, Silence of the Lambs, Addams Family, Hot Shots!, City Slickers -- well, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.)

I will say now that I understand my generation's infatuation with this series. Pre-BSG, pre-Matrix, and apropos-ly released in 1984, the first Terminator movie was an early film exploration of the dangers of technology and a warning of the inevitable robopocalypse we all know will come one day when the singularity comes.

But like most James Cameron productions, I think the philosophy and poetry of the series is generally half-baked -- and I dream of what these movies could have been if someone like Joss Wheden had been at the helm since the beginning. But most movie-goers don't want to think too hard anyway. The movies are charming. There are running gags and call-back lines in each of them, and I'm surprised how well this worked at turning me from a T-n00b to a Connorist.

Without further ado --

4. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
The crux of the whole series is that John Connor must make it to the future because he will lead the revolution against the machines.  I don't care how many hot Terminator ladies made of liquid metal you throw in, the twist at the end of the movie -- that the plot you were trying so hard to invest yourself in for the last 90 minutes despite Nick Stahl's lackluster performance was just a fated ruse to get John & Kate (Claire Danes) to a fall-out shelter to survive Skynet's nuclear attack on the humans -- is infuriating to see. I think that makes it a good twist, but it lacked poetry.

T3 comes in last because it is the series' awkward adolescence -- not sexy enough, not smart enough. Plus the T-X model keeps liquid-metal-shifting her arm into a SWORD. Puh-lease.

Plus -- and I never thought I'd say this -- there was too little Arnold. After his charming performance in T2, they put baby back in the corner. Or should I say Connor?!?! lolzzzz

3. Terminator Salvation (2009)
I liked this movie more than my friends did. The action was engaging, and Christian Bale was a much more believable version of John Connor -- moody and tough -- than the young adult Nick Stahl in T3. Sure, it's got some plot-holes, but who cares?

I was, again, furious by the end of it. I thought that this movie would finally show exactly what John would do that would make him the savior of all mankind. And I got it! A nuclear explosion at the Terminator factory. This was the crushing blow that allowed the humans too rise u--- No? The voiceover at the end said that this was just the beginning of the war? That John has yet to fulfill his fate?

Now I know: this was meant to be the first in a new trilogy, and then the Halcyon Company went bankrupt. Fun fact: When the rights went up for the first time, the only person to bid was The Hero of Canton himself, Mr. Joss Whedon, with an insulting $10,000 offer. The rights have since been sold and resold -- and we can all look forward to more Terminator in our lives.

This movie comes in not-last because Bryce Dallas Howard is pleasant as peaches as grown-up Kate, the time-travel drama of saving your own future-past father is always fun, and even though is totally absurd that Terminators throw people instead of just killing them, it's totally awesome to watch Terminators throw people. Plus, we get to meet the first Arnold-model, all naked and shiny like the first time we met him. Missed you, buddy!

2. The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator love story -- and a fairly convincing one at that, I think. Kyle and Sarah's one day whirlwind romance is, of course, when John is conceived. The sex scene was really uncomfortably intense for me; I prefer Wikipedia's clinical dissection of the motel scene: "Sarah reciprocates Kyle's feelings and they have sex."

I love the paradox of time-travel movies -- The Terminator was sent back to kill Sarah because she will conceive John Connor, but Sarah only conceived John because Kyle was sent back from the future to protect her from the Terminator that was sent back to kill her. Layer on this that we know future-John is the one who saves teenage Kyle in T4 and the one who ultimately makes the decision to send Kyle into the past to do his mom -- and poof, my mind just imploded from the joy of science fiction blowing my mind.

My one reservation about this movie is that the action reached a white-noise level -- it's so consistently loud and pounding that I found myself dozing during explosions.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Obviously! Even when the Terminator as a father figure line feels forced, and even when Sarah is so butch it's scary, this movie, man... this movie delivers.

Linda Hamilton is a boss. Sarah Connor's transformation from damsel to asskicker is drastic and compelling. Her journey to accept the Terminator, culminating in the Terminator's self-sacrifice, is a compelling struggle that doesn't get picked back up again until T4, when John meets Marcus. It's BSG's big question: do the Cylons have humanity?

Arnold surprised me -- though I don't think he's a particularly gifted actor, the BFT (Big Friendly Terminator) fit him well. I can't think of any right now, but isn't there some sort of early-90s trope of kids making friends with or finding a father figure in an unlikely and supernatural/science fiction character?

Eddie Furlong is the kid we all wanted to be in the late-80s and early-90s: streetsmart, snarky, overly brave, and heck yeah, camo army surplus does go with acid-washed denim.

The pacing of the movie is perfect, and it floats effortlessly through buddy comedy, roadtrip, action, redemption, training montage. Some call it the best action movie of all time. I don't know about that -- but I do think that, though heavy-handed at times, this movie has a lot of heart.

Bonus! Here's the drinking game we played while watching T2:
  • Anytime the Terminator acquires a vehicle
  • Anytime the film goes into Terminator Vision
  • Anytime the Terminator learns from John