Sunday, January 16, 2011
Days 156-157: The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day
Years: 1984 and 1991
Rankings on IMDb Top 250: #157 and #41
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton
Let's get one thing straight: All the shit that James Cameron takes for being an egotist, an asshole, overrated, and whatever else is completely justified. But he couldn't have gotten to a point where anyone was even taking notice of him if he didn't start somewhere, and that somewhere was the first two installments of the Terminator series. Don't let anyone tell you that they aren't completely fucking awesome. They explore a sci-fi concept that, while a little bit standard (in the future, robots are our masters), doesn't feel the least bit contrived through their clever use of time travel and deft direction of action scenes. And while Cameron's boasting about the way that Avatar changed the cinematic landscape forever was annoying as hell and probably ill-founded, the special effects, makeup, and CGI in these two films – especially T2 – still hold up as extremely impressive even today.
It's tough to talk about these movies individually when you've just watched them back-to-back, but I'm gonna try. The Terminator introduces the series with twenty minutes of merciless killing by a then-anonymous character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, we're granted a look into the remarkably average life of diner waitress Sarah Connor. Only when it's revealed that two of the day's murder victims share her name does the plot start to piece itself together. For a while, it unfolds much like a slasher flick, with scared young people walking through dark hallways as a silent murderer dispatches them one by one. Then it becomes an action film, with intense chase scenes and all manner of big, badass weapons ruling the day. Finally, it settles on being the sci-fi movie that it is, while refusing to shed the elements of the other genres it passed through along the way. The thrilling climax recalls A Nightmare on Elm Street as much as it does Blade Runner, and the brilliant conclusion, paired with what might be the series' best one-liner ("You're terminated, fucker") made me unbelievably glad that I had Netflix send me T2 at the same time.
There's a huge gap between #157 and #41 on the IMDb Top 250, but that's the consensus on how much better T2 is than its prequel. I can't say I totally agree. While the second installment is definitely the better movie, the difference in their rankings makes it seem like there's a huge difference in the quality of the first two films, which just isn't the case. They're both masterpieces of the sci-fi action genre, and they both deserve to be on this list. If they met in the middle and were both ranked around 75th, I'd have a hard time arguing with that. But anyway, onto some analysis of T2: Wow. So much happening that was ahead of its time. The special effects are brilliant, highlighted by a character (Robert Patrick's T-1000) whose corporeal being shifts between computer animation and live action seamlessly enough to be believable, and in a 20-year-old movie, no less. From a plot standpoint, it does a couple of things far more innovative than one would expect from a sci-fi sequel. First of all, Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role as a T-500 Terminator, but instead of being a merciless, evil villain like he was in the first film, he's been reprogrammed in the future by John Connor and sent to the past to protect him. How many sequels include a character from the first film who, a) was killed in that movie and b) becomes a hero when he was a villain, or visa versa? Not many, and it's one of T2's biggest strengths. Additionally, it understands that Sarah Connor's revelations from the first film about the robot-conquered future did not exist in a vacuum and would lead the police and psychiatrists to commit her – which is exactly what happened. As much of the movie is dedicated to terminators running around terminating things as it is to the few enlightened humans trying to convince the rest that terminators actually exist. It's a smart approach, and it allows the sometimes heady plot to breathe as the audience comes to terms with what's happening just as the characters do.
So yes, even though these movies will likely never be discussed in Criterion Collection board meetings or screen at art theaters, they're both wildly entertaining, action-packed, and to reiterate something I said before, masterpieces of their genre. I can't defend James Cameron's public persona. Hell, I can't even defend most of his movies. But these two movies are exactly what blockbusters should be, and they're well worth whatever latter-day Cameron masturbation we have to suffer through.
The Good: The underrated hotness of Linda Hamilton. Also, any scenes of robotic feet and tank treads crushing human skulls. God, that's awesome. (They're also great movies with lots of other strengths, but come on, they're pure entertainment, let me talk about what entertains me.)
The Bad: Schwarzenegger's accent doesn't come off as robotic so much as it comes off as "immigrant." The casting was still great, but if he could have talked a little bit more like, say, Billy Crudup in the later scenes of Watchmen, it would have been just that much better.
The Skinny: As I said, I wish the movies were a little closer to each other on the list, but I'm glad both of them are, and I'm glad T2 is higher.