Saturday, May 30, 2009
More Useful Than Despair
“I feel the weight of the future bearing down on me. A future I don’t want.” A thought that I find myself identifying with sometimes, it’s something that Nick Stahl’s John Connor reveals in voiceover near the beginning of TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES a movie that I’ve recently been reminded of after seeing the latest in the series, TERMINATOR SALVATION. I get the feeling there’s suddenly a consensus out there that the third film was some kind of misfire, something this new one needed to correct and my first thought honestly was, did I miss a meeting? When did everybody jointly decide that it was a bad film? Weren’t people relatively entertained when it came out back in 2003? Sure, it’s not up to the first two classics directed by James Cameron (great films, but not necessarily beyond reproach) and there is a slight feel that it’s being made for the simple reason that a bunch of producers still own the rights as opposed to a need to further the story. But since somebody was going to make it, director Jonathan Mostow, helmer of BREAKDOWN and U-571, takes the absolute right approach. He seems fully aware that there was no way he could ever match the cultural impact that T2 had when it was released in ’91, no way that he could further the art of special effects like Cameron and his team did. It’s not an epic on the level of what we expect from that director and there’s nothing in it as iconic as numerous images from either of the first two films but in a variety of ways it succeeds at being, for me, a genuinely enjoyable science fiction-action film. It’s made by a craftsman with an intelligent approach to his story, as opposed to McG who doesn’t seem to have a single interesting idea, preferring to concentrate on shooting his film with expired Kodak stock to give it all a bleak, ‘cool’ look as opposed to focusing on the story which is pretty terrible (I’ll bow out on comparisons with THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES which I only saw a few episodes of before giving up due to boredom). TERMINATOR 3 takes the mythos, not without a number of holes to begin with, and attempts to continue the tale in interesting, unexpected ways. SALVATION is just a piece of hackwork with seemingly no reason for being beyond that somebody still owned the rights.
“You’re John Connor, aren’t you,” says Claire Danes’s Kate Brewster to Nick Stahl early on, a point where I knew that the film wasn't going to go in the direction I was expecting. The conceit of the story—that things are correcting themselves to what they were supposed to be anyway is something I only half buy. There is the issue that I can’t get over the fact that a little of it feels like somebody, not Cameron, desperately figuring out how to add to the story without seriously violating what’s come before. But the nature of there being some events that are truly, genuinely out of our control in this life that go beyond simply stating “No fate but what we make” does feel like a more mature way of looking at things that simply making every film lead a Luke Skywalker/Paul Atreides/Neo/James Kirk it-is-your-destiny-to-be-great icon. John Connor does have his fate, it’s just not what he wants. These ideas come together in a production that is obviously very expensive yet it still manages to feel like they shot it in various points all around the outskirts of Los Angeles where a lot of direct to video cheapies have shot over the years. The feel that Mostow never tried to do anything more than offer a continuation to what has come before does have its drawbacks because it feels like the film never strived to be any better than it is. On the other hand, maybe this kind of focus makes it a stronger story than it would have been in other hands, as opposed to just being a demonstration of all the cool shots the director can do. More importantly, it got me to still care about the whole TERMINATOR story, even if the timeline of the whole thing doesn’t make a lick of sense. It knows what we want from a TERMINATOR film—questions about the nature of our own destinies in a cool science fiction context while still giving us, yes, lots of action with robots and Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting each other.
That action, particularly the truck chase, is all extremely well-executed and, a rarity these days, we can even tell what’s going on throughout. It’s an extremely dark film if you really think about it—actually, you don’t even have to think about it very long—but, almost most importantly in this context, it still remembers to be an enjoyable summer popcorn movie. In my mind I’m continually thinking about bringing up a comparison to SALVATION in these regards but that movie really doesn’t deserve all that much attention. It’s a bad, pointless story directed by somebody with no particular talent beyond his own enthusiasm and just over a week after seeing it I’ve forgotten whole chunks of it already. I just can’t look at the future war as being anything other than tantalizing backstory and this wasn’t the movie to convince me otherwise. It definitely doesn’t seem worth having a few more movies made about it and frankly at this point I don’t care if that happens anyway. With very little fat, the narrative of RISE OF THE MACHINES occurs during an unexpectedly brief span of time, making me wonder if there could have been a few other narrative balls tossed in the air (somebody else might have done more with the plot point of all internet and TV being out) and it feels a little like it’s missing a big action setpiece, not that I have an idea of what or where this could be. Maybe this has as much to do with my own expectations that these things are always going to be two hours and change by now but this film, seeming intent on B-movie leanness, resists such bloat. It knows exactly the story it needs to tell and when to get off stage, an admirable quality in summer films these days.
Watching it, I can’t help but feel compelled to joke that Arnold was probably more interested in getting back to his trailer between takes to prepare for his run for Governor (supposedly he intervened to have the production moved from Canada back to L.A.—no way that wasn’t calculated) but he actually seems very much on his game here, maybe fully aware that this was the last time so he might as well dig in and make it count—when he tells Claire Danes “Don’t do that,” it’s his best moment in the film. He also gets plenty of the expected jokey dialogue with even one callback to COMMANDO for old times’ sake. As the T-X—screw it, let’s just call it the Terminatrix—Kristanna Loken is definitely striking. I don’t know if there’s much logic to her response to discovering the blood of John Connor early on but it does display a certain degree of frisson and she definitely seems to have the right attitude to making the role as cool and effective as it needs to be. Nick Stahl and Claire Danes, the two nominal leads, are both interesting casting due to how they don’t seem to be the type for this sort of film and their idiosyncratic nature together is ultimately very effective and might have been interesting to have seen them continue in other entries, not that anyone had any interest in doing so (Hey, good job in our movie! Now get the fuck outta here so we can recast the roles!).
It’s also a movie that’s clever enough to have just about the last line that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator has be a blatant STRANGELOVE reference and it gets points for that as well. TERMINATOR 3 didn’t need to be made, at least not for any reason other than to make money, but since it was it fortunately wound up in the right hands. The latest entry, on the other hand, probably also wasn’t made for any reason other than to make money and it wound up in the absolute wrong hands, something that seems to be happening these days more and more. I don’t want to hate movies that get released in the summertime, I’m just feeling more and more disconnected with them, a troubling thought when we haven’t even gotten to June yet (that makes me think of the future I don’t want). Since everyone already knew when TERMINATOR 3 came out that Schwarzenegger was clearly going to move onto other things (no comment) at least his last starring role was one that allowed us to remember why we enjoyed his movies in the first place. At least as far as Hollywood goes, he managed to go out on a high note.