Friday, June 22, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #3: The Terminator

Max’s Grade: 94 (A)
Loren’s Grade: A-

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams, and we’ve got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable.

Loren Greenblatt: Some background (and we’re simplifying this): after Piranha II flopped, Cameron had a fever dream about a robot torso crawling towards him with kitchen knives, trying to kill him. Based on this dream, he ended up writing The Terminator, but he had some trouble getting it made because the producers didn’t think it was a good idea. It was a sci-fi film, but it wasn’t Star Wars sci-fi.

Max O’Connell: It was kind of bleak, like Blade Runner, which didn’t do very well.

LG: He eventually got a $6.5 million budget. A tiny amount of money for a futuristic sci-fi movie, but god love him, he makes it look like $100 million.

MO: Yeah, it really is a point of stretching the budget in the most effective way possible, where it’s still efficient and most of it looks terrific.

LG: Oh, the car chases are spectacular for such a low-budget movie, particularly the early ones.

MO: What is one of the first things that strikes you about The Terminator?

LG: What I love about it is how systematic Schwarzenegger’s T-800 is when he goes about his business, as opposed to Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese, who’s not very good at what he does. Or even if he is good, next to the Terminator, he can’t compare.

MO: It’s the difference between technology and humanity. Part of what makes us human is that we make grave errors and mistakes that lead to our doom, like, oh, I don’t know, creating a network of computers that are going to kill us.

MO: There’s a couple of influences you can see pretty clearly in this thing. It’s a bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark where it’s one of those movies that’s constantly building momentum, particularly in the action scenes.

LG: But like his other films there’s a bit of a deliberate pacing.

MO: There’s a deliberate pacing, and a lot of meticulous intricate detail like something Kubrick or Ridley Scott would have made, but at the same time there’s this sense of kineticism he gets from George Lucas and Spielberg and George Miller. The car chases are straight out of George Miller’s The Road Warrior.

LG: Well I think a lot of the kineticism comes from the script, where there’s a lot of things going on constantly. It’s a very complicated world, and the film could take a lot longer to set it up. But he’s able to continuously set multiple things up at the same time and have them pay off. One of the things I noticed was that, unlike other films, the plot doesn’t stop just because we’re in the middle of a car chase. When we finally learn what a Terminator is, it’s in the middle of a car chase. He uses the actions scenes as an excuse to deliver more exposition.

MO: It makes the fact that Linda Hamilton needs to know what’s going on all the more purposeful. It’s some of the best handling of exposition I’ve seen in an action film.

LG: The other thing that he does is that he gives us character moments throughout the film. Before we know who these people are, we learn a lot about them visually. The shot of Kyle Reese having to saw off that shotgun versus how the Terminator obtains his weapons is brilliant.

MO: Arnold in the gun shop is terrific. It’s him and Roger Corman regular Dick Miller as the worst gun shop owner ever. He lets Arnold try out the guns and put his hands all over everything. When Arnold loads the gun, he feebly says “You can’t do that” before Arnold says “WRONG” and shoots him. It’s the kind of thing that could come across as hopelessly stupid, because the guy is an idiot to let this happen, but Cameron directs the scene well enough so it’s an everyday guy who’s doing his everyday routine and doesn’t know what’s really up. It’s clear that this guy doesn’t know what he’s dealing with, and the Terminator is going to do whatever he has to do to get what he needs. If someone crosses him, there’s not a second thought as to whether or not to kill him.

LG: It very much reminds me of the scene in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly where Tuco goes into a gun shop and robs the owner. The action of the scene is very different, but the dynamic of the ordinary man vs. the ruthless killer is very similar.

MO: This scene is grim though, where the GBU scene was somewhat playful. But it's a pretty clever parallel from Cameron, one that mirrors one of the two major influences on all action films (the other being Howard Hawks).

LG: I also love that he asks for a plasma rifle, something that they could only have in the future. I’m not sure if he really thinks they’ll have it because his files are inaccurate, or if it’s a joke, because the Terminator honestly seems to have a sense of humor in these movies.

MO: I don’t know, because a similarity between both the Terminator and Reese is that they can’t relate to everyday people. It’s both from the time they come from and their nature: the Terminator is a killing machine, and Reese has had to cut off his humanity to survive.

LG: Yeah, even the terminology he uses is robotic. Reese says: “pain can be killed, you just cut it off.” Ironically, I think the Terminator does a little better than Reese does, but that’s because he’s programmed to.

MO: He’s programmed to be as human as possible, whereas Reese is this panicked, sweaty guy who can barely get his shit together.

LG: It’s difficult for us to really review the film freshly, because we know the Terminator. We barely even have to describe what it’s about because everyone knows it. Think about the impact if you went in cold, not knowing about this. If you see the first scene of Arnold appearing out of the Highlander lightning, walking towards the punks.

MO: Well, also, in the first act, we don’t know Reese’s deal.

LG: We know he’s better than Arnold because Arnold goes into the park and shoves his arm into Bill Paxton (as a Sid Vicious-style punk!) and pulls out his heart, but you’re watching this brutal violence and you have to think, “What the hell is going on?” There’s so many memorable, weird images in this thing where there are so many movies where you can’t remember anything about them afterwards.

MO: Well, why don’t we talk a little bit about Cameron’s style, and how it shows up here.

LG: Terminator continues a lot of the tropes we first saw in Xenogenesis. The interesting thing is that the Terminator can’t find the Sarah Connor because Skynet’s files aren’t complete. He just knows a year and a place, so he goes around and systematically kills everyone named Sarah Connor. When he kills the other Sarah Connor, it goes into slow motion like we saw in that earlier film.

MO: And he uses it to amp up the tension in a few other moments, like when Sarah’s roommate is killed, or when he takes his first shot at the real Sarah. Then there’s the Hunter-Killer robots, which show up here like they did in Xenogenesis…but without the nuclear tanning light, sadly. But also, something that Xenogenesis didn’t do very well was set up the story, because it threw out exposition to the point where I was completely confused. “Who is this? What is going on? What is the world of this film? What are the rules?” The Terminator throws us into the action and explains later, which is much more effective. Cameron’s abilities as a meat-and-potatoes storyteller really comes through.

LG: Well it’s a bit like what George Lucas did in the first Star Wars. He created a giant, vast world, gave us a little bit of exposition, and threw us into the action. Something that The Terminator does, though, is have a better description of an end goal. In Star Wars, you don’t find out that they need to blow up the Death Star until close to the end. In The Terminator, it’s very clear what the dynamic is pretty quickly.

MO: And both The Terminator and Star Wars gives us an effective audience surrogate. Someone we can relate to who’s normal, and likable, and someone who doesn’t know about all this weird stuff going on so we can get a little background later on. There it was Luke Skywalker, here it’s Sarah Connor.

LG: Sarah Connor is a waitress who’s not very good at her job, she’s very dotty, she has an annoying roommate, and the roommate has this boyfriend…oh, by the way, I love the boyfriend, he’s got a great character introduction. He calls their house, gets Sarah, and he thinks it’s the roommate and he describes what he wants to do to her. I love that when they cut to him, he’s a real meathead dude, the kind who wears bandanas over his other bandanas, but he’s wearing an Einstein wife-beater. Where do you get an Einstein wife-beater?

MO: Oh, don’t lie, you know you have one.

LG: No, I have a Carl Jung wife-beater. But even for the minor characters, the introductions are very strong, you get just enough to know about them.

MO: But here’s another thing about The Terminator that carries over to other Cameron films: the violence is brutal. When the meathead boyfriend and the roommate eventually get killed, there’s nothing funny about it. It’s nasty.

LG: I’d argue with you about it not being funny, but it certainly was violent. And there’s a scene where the Terminator has been damaged and has to cut out his own eyelid with an exactoknife.

MO: This movie got an R-rating, but I wouldn’t have been surprised had it been threatened with an X.

LG: It’s very violent. The Terminator is constantly breaking people hands, smashing them against windshields. Back to Sarah: she’s not what we’d call a modern feminist hero. She’s not very strong, she can’t pick up a gun and know what to do. It’s kind of her arc that she grows stronger, but she’s still not exactly who she’d be in Terminator 2.

MO: Well Cameron has a reputation for writing strong female characters. In this case it’s a very well written female character. She’s likable, she’s resilient when it comes down to it, but she also has a certain vulnerability when it comes down to it. It’s an everyday girl thing.

LG: That’s what I mean. By not making her girl-Rambo, so he gives us someone we can relate to the whole way through. You don’t feel this sudden fantasy disconnect where she’s suddenly girl-Rambo.

MO: Yeah, it’s not like, oh, say, Ridley Scott’s Legend, where there’s no one to relate to.

LG: Or just an everyday action movie like Elektra. Like…what’s a really bad action movie from around that time?

MO: Around that time? Anything Chuck Norris starred in, like The Delta Force or Invasion U.S.A., where there’s no one relatable. Arnold in this thing, is a perfect killing machine, but there’s a purpose to it, not just “he’s a dude who kills people” like in something Norris starred in.

LG: Even Kyle Reese is a bit of an audience surrogate. He’s from the future and he understands all of this stuff, but he’s not an expert, and he makes a lot of mistakes, and he only knows just enough to give information to the audience so we’re not killed by technobabble.

MO: He’s very harried. He’s being pulled at all corners, and he’s got almost no chance to survive. He acknowledges that with the weapons he has, they might not survive. What’s great about The Terminator is Cameron’s interest not just in technology, but it’s limitations. Our guns can’t save us.

LG: Yes, the guns can’t save us, and human society is completely ill equipped to handle what it will eventually bring. The Terminator is in a way, an updated version of the Cassandra myth, the woman doomed to know the future but have no one believer her. You see that more in the second one, but it’s present here with Reese and Sarah. Our technology will destroy us. It will be our end. Cameron uses a lot of visual shorthand for this. There’s this wonderful scene in the future where children look like they’re watching TV, but you go to a reverse shot, and they’re huddling around a fire inside a broken TV.  It’s a wonderful representation of how the world has ended, and how technology has subverted modern society and reduced it to a far more primitive order.

MO: It’s the first film of his that highlights his concern with the possibility of nuclear holocaust. It’s only mentioned briefly, but there’s a sense of nuclear terror. There was a nuclear war, the entire future L.A. is utterly destroyed, and this is near the tail end of the Cold War at a point where we’re really terrified of the Russians. Cameron sees how that fear could destroy us. He’s really tapped into what’s going on in the world.

LG: It’s a very gloomy film, and I think it’s interesting that Cameron is, in some ways, a cynical director when it comes to the future, even if there is a little hope mixed in there. 

MO: There are literally references to a human Holocaust, and work camps, and bodies being piled up, and Reese was banded with a bar code.

LG: Which obviously references what the Nazi’s did during the Holocaust. Plus there’s a lot of apocalyptic imagery, there’s skulls that kind of recall the Killing Fields with Pol Pot and all that. Mountains of skulls crushed by the gigantic HKs. To quote a terrible film, Battlefield Earth, man is an endangered species.

MO: Nice. It’s Cameron’s first film dealing with his interest in the military as well. Our military is reduced to a guerrilla fighting force in the future that’s desperate, makes major mistakes, and has almost no chance to survive.

LG: They’re like a worse equipped version of the Viet Cong. Do you think we can draw those parallels, with that and the Cambodian Genocide imagery?

MO: I hadn’t considered that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He might have also been tapped into what was going on in a lot of Central and South American countries like El Salvador, but yeah, it’s an interesting parallel.

LG: But this goes to show how dense the film is. We would not talk about a Chuck Norris film like this.

MO: Cameron’s also interested in untrustworthy authority figures, and in this case it’s less that they’re untrustworthy as it is that they’re hopelessly outmatched and have no chance.

LG: Well also they’re so clueless and unwilling to believe Sarah and Kyle, which is understandable, since it’s a crazy damned story. In a lot of films like this, there’d be temptation to have a scene where the heroes are vindicated. There’s a sequence when they’ve been arrested and Kyle’s explaining the futuristic war, and they don’t believe him. There could be a point where the cops finally see some proof and believe them, but Cameron sidesteps this issue by just having them all killed in a terrific raid sequence.

MO: Yeah, it’s absolute carnage with no hope at all. It’s worth noting that Paul Winfield and Lance Henrikson are very good here in their cop roles. They’re good, sympathetic men trying to keep Sarah alive, but they just have no chance. And then there’s that wonderfully awful psychiatrist played by Earl Boen who just wants in on the freakshow.

LG: Oh, yeah, he’s great, and he’s an even better presence in the second film. It’s one of the best performances in the film. He’s this very cynical jerk as Dr. Silberman, maybe my favorite performance in the franchise. Speaking of performances… there are a lot of people who like to knock Arnold as an actor.

MO: But not us!

LG: Not us. We think Arnold is an underrated actor. We admit he has a range, but within that range, very few people can be as effective. It’s not easy to do the flat, emotionless thing as well as he does here.

MO: No, you could do it and sound boring. Arnold makes it interesting. Arnold has a gift for comedic timing that he never gets credit for, which is more present in the second film, but it comes out a few times here. The “fuck you, asshole” answer to a landlord is pretty great. He’s showed wider range in other movies, Total Recall being the one we like to point out…

LG: Also Stay Hungry, which is a really underrated film.

MO: One I still have to check out. But The Terminator movies use his limited range better than just about any other movies. Those flat, emotionless lines make it sound like someone who can kind of relate to humanity, but not quite. He can’t totally understand how they work. Everyone remembers the “I’ll be back” scene as a great badass scene, but the way he walks in and tries to finesse his way in without quite getting in, and how he surveys the scene is a really effective piece of minimalistic acting.

LG: Well I always loved his looking around the room to test the structure and see how it’ll hold up when he drives a car through it. And Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor is great. She’s got a strong character arc that she executes very well. The transition from a frightened little rabbit character who doesn’t have herself together to someone who can fight back is great.

MO: And by the end, she’s not female Rambo, but she’s been pushed to the point where it’s do or die, and she’s a survivor in the end. Now…Kyle Reese, played by Michael Biehn. We disagree about this performance.

LG: I have grown to appreciate it a little more over the years. It’s a very risky performance. It’s very close to being over-the-top, it’s not naturalistic, and I always thought he was too big.

MO: No, I think this is a character suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. You can overplay that, but I don’t think he does. Whenever he’s big, it’s very in the moment. The quieter moments, he has a dreamier feel to him that carries over to Aliens. I don’t think it’s Biehn’s best performance in any of Cameron’s films, I think he’s stronger in Aliens and The Abyss, but I still like him here.

LG: At any rate, I will admit he’s very risky here. I’ll applaud a risky performance that doesn’t quite work for me than a by-the-book one that does.

MO: I want to talk a little more about the violence. There’s a sense of grit and tactile pain to everything that happens. The Terminator is damaged to the point where he has to cut open his own arm to get it working again, and his skin is torn away later on. Even some of the stop-motion in that eye-cutting scene where you can tell it’s not really Arnold is great because it gets a sense of how the machine works. There’s a great sense of how everything works in this film, which is something Cameron always does well.

LG: I really love the way that the destruction of the Terminator is a battle of attrition. They go through so much just to kind of hurt him a little bit. By the end, he’s just kind of limping, but there’s a sense that this thing is hard to kill. It’s a slog to kill it. I can think of a lot of movies that establish something as the big bad and then kill it in two minutes. Iron Man 2 does this with Mickey Rourke’s character.

MO: The Krakken in Clash of the Titans is another example.

LG: That’s effective storytelling on Cameron’s part. It makes the limitations and the difficulty part of the story. You can run out of bullets in this film, and it affects the plot. No one is invulnerable, no one’s an ultimate killing machine- even the Terminator.

MO: There’s real weight to everything, and Cameron does that really well.

LG: His films also show how well thought out everything is. Time travel is very difficult to do effectively. It trips people up because of all the contradictions inherent to it. He handles it really deftly. Not every aspect is totally explained, but he has thought it through really well. Nothing dead can be sent through the time machine, which explains why Kyle doesn’t bring weapons to prove he’s from the future. It makes the technology feel more real because it has more limitations. It causes a problem, because the Terminator got through, but he has human skin so it works. Plus it makes the Terminator more terrifying because it’s partially living in some way (like we learn when the landlord knocks on Arnold’s door because of the smell of his rotting flesh). It really shows the sense of world building, imagination, and technical know-how he has.

MO: I want to talk a little bit about Cameron’s other influences. I mentioned George Miller, but Walter Hill’s meat-and-potatoes style filmmaking really carries through as well, particularly The Driver, which has this great low-lit L.A. thing going for it along with the great car chases.

LG: The Terminator’s also a little bit like Lord Humongous in The Road Warrior, in that he’s an unstoppable force. I want to talk a little bit about a film that was influenced heavily by The Terminator – No Country for Old Men.

MO: Um, go on…

LG: I feel that, in a way, No Country for Old Men is the Coens’ version of Terminator. You’ve got Anton Chigurh as the unstoppable killing machine who marches through a stark landscape, working through his target without any remorse. That line Reese has about not being able to bargain with the Terminator can easily be said about Chigurh.

MO: It makes a little more sense after you explained it. Other influences, though: you mentioned that every modern action movie is influenced in some way by Sergio Leone. Want to talk a little about that?

LG: Well, there’s those tight close-ups you see all the time, the gun shop scene, there’s also that shot of Reese in a long coat coming through the mist. Also, the brutality that the Dollars films have. Mainstream films weren’t that violent in the 60s, and Leone changed that. There’s a level of brutality, and hardness, and cynicism present here that carries over.

MO: Good point. The other person who I think influences all modern action directors, directly or indirectly, is Howard Hawks. Like a lot of Hawks films, this has a “man on a mission” plot with both the Terminator and Reese. There’s also the influence of Rio Bravo, where the cops try to keep the big bad out of the station, only in this case they don’t do so hot. Speaking of that: another big influence we both noticed on this film is John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 is in effect a remake of Rio Bravo plus modern brutality and cynicism. Plus there’s Halloween, which provides a lot of the structure for the “boogeyman coming to get you” plot of this film, in that he’s unstoppable and systematic, and the cops are inept and unhelpful.

LG: Speaking of Carpenter and other slasher movies, the ending has that great fakeout where the villain is dead…but not really.

MO: It’s very much like something out of Halloween, where it looks like he’s dead, the heroes embrace, and then it just gets up and goes after them again.

LG: Which kind of leads us into the ending of the film. It’s interesting that they’re running from a technological threat into a technological space of a factory.

MO: Well the biggest influence on Cameron, not just here but in other films, is Ridley Scott. His films are more deliberately paced, but there’s a club here that’s called Tech Noir, which more or less reflects what Blade Runner was. I can see Blade Runner being a big influence on this thing, what with the technological horrors meeting a noir structure (or moody noir lighting, at least).

LG: It’s a great explanation of what kind of film this is. There’s a lot of crime influences here, and it’s a great description.

MO: Other similarities: There’s the hellish L.A. setting, without even counting the futuristic L.A. There’s the hero in the trenchcoat. There’s the heavy bright lights and neon to contrast heavy fog, smoke, and shadows. There’s a lot of blue light, though no one loves blue light and mist as much as Ridley Scott. The Terminator is also a reverse version of Blade Runner, where the machine is very humanlike, but in this case it’s chasing us instead of us chasing it.

LG: In Blade Runner, the machines were more childlike, where you’d never make the mistake here. It’s a difference of how machines are treated in both films. But there are loads of similarities. It’s worth noting that there’s an “acknowledgement” of Harlan Ellison at the end of the film. Harlan Ellison was a sci-fi writer who wrote a number of major Outer Limits episodes and the beloved City on the Edge of Forever episode of Star Trek, and Cameron, a well-known devourer of paperback sci-fi, was accused of stealing from some stories of Ellison’s. It’s likely he knew about them, but what he did with these stories, I’d imagine, is much more than what Ellison conceived. This happens a lot, though, where a sci-fi writer sues a filmmaker for coming up with something similar to what he had envisioned, like what happened with the Wachaowskis for The Matrix.

MO: Or Satyajit Ray complaining that Spielberg stole from a script of his for E.T.

LG: I’d like to read these works, but I’d be willing to give Cameron some credit here.

MO: One of the main things I’d like to highlight in Cameron’s filmography is a concern with what makes us human, and here it’s that Reese and the Terminator are both machinelike in their own ways. But what makes us human in the end is not only that we can feel pain, but that we can love, however corny that sounds. It’s why I’ve argued that the sex scene near the end is one of the four or five greatest sex scenes in any movie ever. It’s not just that it’s passionate and sweaty, but it’s desperate. These two have been thrown together in absurd circumstances, and this is the only chance they have to feel anything.

LG: Human sentiment and love does come into play. Here, it’s between two people. In the second film, it’s a bond between mother and son. Love is a very important part of the franchise. Maybe the most important part. It’s a major step up from Piranha II. It sounds absurd to point out, because it’s so obvious, but it’s true. It’s not the ultimate Cameron film, as good as it is. It has dated a little bit. It’s very 80s in a not fun charming way…

MO: I love it. I don’t care. I love it.

LG: Max loves it, it annoys me a little bit. It keeps it from being top-tier Cameron, which is why I give it an A-. But it’s still an outrageously strong film, a very dense, very deep film, and iconic for great reasons. It’s iconic because it gets under your skin and into your brain and has something to say when it gets there.

MO: And Cameron constructs a tight film with a lot going on and is more visually engaged where his previous was loose, rambling, and visually dull. It’s a great simple story meeting a great, intricately worked out world, and I give it an A.

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