Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
In 1984, The Terminator was a chilly, conniving, nihilist-humanist animal of a movie, and in 1991, T2 confronted the world as an operatic exercise in baroque fire-and-brimstone pyrotechnics. Both, in their day, were game-changers, and if the sequel’s charm has faded slightly, it still gets points for what it accomplished at the time. Even if the nebulous concept of “bigness” was the purpose for T2 – and a purpose director James Cameron has returned to time and time again to limited results – it was, when all was said and done, a purpose. Both films worked, ultimately, because they were masterminded by a man with something to prove. In 1984 it was his name as a filmmaker at all, and by 1991 merely the fact that he could humbly direct the de facto most technologically-savvy film of all time. Different hopes for different folks, as they say, but both set the man ablaze with passion to make a film. Continue reading
Because of that other Terminator film recently released, trying its best to soil the name of a once-mighty franchise.
James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not the film its predecessor, also directed by James Cameron, was. For largely the same reasons that James Cameron’s Aliens is not the film its predecessor, not directed by Cameron, was. 1984’s The Terminator is a more urgent film than 1979’s Alien, but they share a similar sensibility: relentless, unforgiving, nihilist, purposeless terror always lashing out at you, married to perfect filmmaking that traffics in both show-not-tell and not-showing-is-scarier-than-showing. Alien is an outright horror film masquerading as a sci-fi film, and although The Terminator is more comfortably an action film masquerading as a sci-fi film, it trades much closer to horror than you might expect. Continue reading
And now we’ll take a short look at Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven’s ’90s American pictures, for during the 1990s Verhoeven was one of the few mainstream directors consistently operating at heightened level of mania and adventure in the film world, ever-pursuing and challenging his particular brand of satire until it became almost indistinguishable from truly making the bad movies he was satirizing. Plus I just reviewed Robocop, so it seems like I might as well continue on from there…
Ultimately, Paul Verhoeven’s American films, especially his American action films (always the more sensible and less delirious of his offerings) live and die as much by the strength of their satire as by how well they ape what they are critiquing. Now, Total Recall, his adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, is a satire of sorts, but not a particularly wide-reaching one. It’s not marinated in quite the same joie de vivre to decimate aspects of the corporate cultural capital excess and disregard for human life prominent in Robocop, but nuggets pop through. The central idea is a joke at the expense of modern American society, largely that they would rather live an imagined reality than genuine affection, adventure, or meaning found in everyday reality. And at that, they would prefer not to find real pleasure but to purchase false ones through a company, to purchase “memories” of events through a corporation rather than to actually experience them, thus turning joy and memory into corporate products. This is heightened material for an action film, especially one in 1990, and if Verhoeven explores this theme less than he would explore his themes in his preceding and subsequent American films, it is admirable that he tackles it at all. Not to mention, as with Robocop, he made a pretty damn fine action film, satire or not, anyway.
Edited for Clarity
It is at this point, deep down within the most magical year of 1982, where the 1980s really began to “do” the 1980s, and things start to become much more symmetric with what those of us in the good ol’ 2010s might imagine when we pontificate about three decades past. For this reason, it felt wholly appropriate to cover a pair of films, one of them very much of the 1980s, and one rather shockingly not of this decade, but both of which would birth the two “biggest” (yes, this applies to both box office draw and muscle-mass) and most “1980s” stars of the day, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian should not work, and, honestly, it kind of doesn’t. It is just about the most hyperbolic, fetishistic-ally 1980s macho fantasy action film one could possibly imagine, the kind of product that sounds more like a modern person’s hindsight imagination of the 1980s than the real deal. The script, for one, is a non-entity from beginning to end, and its prurient, excessive, almost psychotic violence and tawdry childishness is about as straight-faced as it gets. It is totally and completely describable as “moronically and obsessively stupid”, and such a description doesn’t so much miss the point as ask us to consider what “stupid” even means. For Conan the Barbarian is so idiotically committed to being its chintzy self it creates its own special place where only it dares preside. This is an eccentric, weirdly watchable film, the kind of work that just defines guilty pleasure.
End of Watch
Try as he might, David Ayer’s glum aesthetic really isn’t going to win any new fans any time soon, nor is it going to approach thematic heft or filmmaking prowess. He likes making ugly films, which is fine, except for two reasons. Firstly, he has not a clue that ugliness is not synonymous with pointing a camera and shooting, and that a great many films have put much effort into carefully constructing their ugliness over time. End of Watch is not one of those films, and thus it seems all a bit more dulled than truly grimy or gritty. Continue reading
Update in late 2019 with the release of Dark Fate: The glum and more self-consciously morose later sequels track, recode, and needlessly convolute this film’s elegant, inescapable trudge toward oblivion, shading and sharding Cameron’s original vision in various ways, but they all completely miss the original’s brilliance: its sense of soul-death. Nominally an action film but far divorced from the self-amused tone of the Schwarzenegger pictures that were in the can as soon as this one made a fortune, The Terminator is as implacable and monosyllabic as its namesake: a blood-and-guts slasher film in a metallic overcoat, and one with significantly less Pavlovian satisfaction at the death it deals. Brutal simplicity at its finest, The Terminator essays a dystopic future that ultimately, tragically, realizes its far-flung visions of eventual catastrophe already came to pass in the present while it wasn’t looking. How far this franchise has fallen …
Those who’ve only seen the sequels to this truly distressing Reagan-era portrait of social aimlessness and blight, a film that typifies menace itself, may be forgiven for thinking this first film is something it has no interest in being. The later films focused on action, action, and more action (the first sequel being one of the greatest slam-bang thrill rides ever made, and with a touching human-machine relationship to boot), emphasizing escalating narrative stakes rather than deepening emotional texture, and have since run out of steam. While this lean-and-mean low-budget 1984 film starring a mostly unknown who couldn’t speak much English is plenty thrilling, it’s tempered with an overpoweringly grim sensibility, a magisterial sense of mounting dread and desperation that establishes a mood of forlorn malaise more than fist-pumping aplomb. Horror is as appropriate as action. Fortunately, it happens to be one of the grimiest, most caustic horror films to take over the public consciousness in that decade, and one of the best.