Sunday, July 1, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #6: Terminator 2- Judgment Day

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.

Max's Grade: 96 (A)
Loren's Grade: A

Loren Greenblatt: If there’s one thing that Aliens proved, it’s that James Cameron knows how to do a sequel.

Max O’Connell: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Slightly obscure, but stay with us on this.

LG: Yes, Cameron’s obscure avant-garde film.

MO: Oh, wait, we’re thinking of something else. This thing made $500 million, cost around $100 million, and was the most expensive film ever made at the time until…the next James Cameron film.

LG: It is technically an independent film, since he self-financed it. So when you think of independent film, think Terminator 2.

MO: I always do.

LG: It’s one of three occasions where Cameron made the most expensive movie ever made.

MO: Ten years after the events of the first film, it’s 1994, and Sarah Connor has had her child, John Connor, the future savior of humanity. Sarah is in a mental institution, as she tried to blow up Cyberdyne Systems, which made Skynet and the terminators. Her son is a punk living with foster parents, and two future people are sent back. They’re both terminators, but the Arnold Schwarzenegger model from the first one has been reprogrammed to protect John as a young boy, which is a nice twist. They play with him being the bad guy for a little while, at least. The other one, played by Robert Patrick, is an advanced prototype, the T-1000, who can morph his body into stabbing objects and shapeshift.

LG: It should be noted that a lot has gone on between the two films. Sarah had John and has spent the last ten years training him to be a killer and military leader. This meant her shacking up with people in Nicaragua and teaching him guerrilla warfare tactics. Eventually they were found by the authorities, she’s in a mental institution, and he’s disassociated from society. There’s a reason he’s a punk. He’s a criminal, he’s a hacker, he steals money, he has a record as a juvenile delinquent…he doesn’t give a fuck. That’s why John is cooler at ten than either of us will ever be.

MO: And he has a reason to be pissed off at the world: his mother is right, but she’s also mentally unbalanced.

LG: The world has convinced him she’s insane. It’s really traumatic: the world has convinced him to deny his own mother. It’s now John’s story more than it’s Sarah’s story. The first twenty minutes of the film has them chasing him before we find out Arnold is good.

MO: Before we get into the heavy stuff, I’d like to note that this is probably Cameron’s funniest movie.

LG: There’s a lot more humor in this film than his other movies.

MO: The comedy is much more pronounced. It has that Schwarzenegger-movie  thing from the 80s where there’s some acknowledgement of how ridiculous everything is, but it’s done better than just about any of his other movies.

LG: Cameron and Schwarzenegger play with the fact that the first film is so iconic. The opening has a scene where Schwarzenegger has to get his clothes, which was a quick sequence in the first film, but here it’s a drawn-out black comedy number. He’s butt naked in a biker bar, some people are checking him out (hey, it’s Arnold!), and he demands a biker’s clothes, boots, and bike. It’s an inherently funny situation, but it gets even funnier when a man stops him as he marches out and George Thurgood’s “Bad to the Bone” plays.

MO: And he could destroy a guy, but he just takes the sunglasses from him.

LG: His costume isn’t complete without it.

MO: There’s some great moments having to do with teaching him to be more human. John’s anti-authority bits are great…it’s a very funny movie.

LG: But there are 180 tonal shifts like in The Abyss, but Cameron handles it much better here. The opening comedy gets really brutally violent before the atmosphere lightens again with “Bad to the Bone”. Every scene with Sarah Connor is pretty grim. She’s no longer the scared girl from the first film. She’s basically female-Rambo. She’s in a mental institution, she’s buff now, Dr. Silbermann from the first film returns.

MO: I love Earl Boen in this role. He’s every jackass authority figure you ever met.

LG: I love the joke about her stabbing him in the knee with a pen in the past.

MO: Or when she breaks his arm, he complains, and she notes: “There’s 206 bones in the human body ­— that’s 1!”

LG: Cameron’s dialogue is perfectly delivered in this. He really nails the line between fun, goofy humor and dark cynicism. I’d love to talk about the political correctness in the humor as well: a lot of critics complained about the violence in the first film. Cameron gave a rebuke by having John order the Terminator to not kill anyone. He looks at the camera, does a Boy Scout hand-gesture, and says “I swear I will not kill anyone.” And he doesn’t…instead he shoots them in the kneecaps or spine.

MO: “HE’LL LIVE!”

LG: Which is probably cold comfort to the men he paralyzed. Now, Arnold was a great villain in the first film, where he symbolized 80s excess and technology coming to destroy society, but there’s an even better villain here. The T-1000 isn’t just a shapeshifter: he dons the guise of a police officer, which plays into Cameron’s pet themes of untrustworthy authority. In fact, all of the heroes are outlaws of sort.

MO: Perhaps a tie-in to Reach?

LG: No.

MO: I’m REACH-ing.

LG: I hate you. Anyway, John is exile from society- he wears a Public Enemy shirt, which is a reference not just to the band, but to his self-identification. Arnold is dressed as a biker outlaw and looks identical to the infamous villain from the first film (who the authorities are still looking for). His mother is a mental patient and a domestic terrorist, it doesn’t matter that she’s right. The Greek mythological Cassandra figure theme is easily quadrupled here. We get these terrible nightmares of her trying to warn people about a nuclear apocalypse but being unable to. Some terrifying sequences, some of the best Cameron ever did.

MO: And the cop can now blend into society. Robert Patrick looks much more normal and slender than Arnold, his line readings are less robotic, and he even seems friendly (in a creepy way) at times. Furthermore…this wasn’t intentional, but the film came shortly after the Rodney King incident, and that’s some nice timing there with a cop-villain.

LG: The film shot in the same area as the attack at around the same time, though that’s just a coincidence. Robert Patrick is fantastic here. He’s not another muscleman. He’s a very slight and birdlike man who doesn’t look like he could best Arnold in a fight, but that contrast makes him more menacing.

MO: Meanwhile, Arnold is very familiar to audiences at this point. He’s a very likable, goofy action star. Making him more likable and goofy here plays to his strengths. He’s always been a very gifted comedic presence, so giving him more to work with there is a nice contrast.

LG: He plays with his image a lot, but while he’s goofier, he’s not impotent. He’s still a dangerous machine. Cameron doesn’t go too far into making him silly the way the James Cameron-less Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did.

MO: And Hamilton is great in this role. She’s always been great in this role. This is the one role she’s really known for other than the 80s Beauty and the Beast show with her and Ron Perlman, but this has surpassed it. She’s more unhinged in this, though. She’s less human and more of a human terminator, almost out of necessity. She’s less feminine than Ripley was in Aliens. She almost rejects her motherhood because she has to.

LG: I disagree there. Almost every decision she’s made in her life since the first movie is based on her need to protect her son and prepare him for his destiny. She sacrificed her whole life to be a better mother. I understand the femininity point, but she’s possible the strongest mother character in Camerons oeuvre.

MO: I see what you mean. What I’m saying is that she’s actively trying to be less connected to humanity and to not care about other people because, in her words, “they’re already dead.” They’re all going to die, and they don’t matter. It’s a disconnect from humanity in order to save humanity. When she goes to kill Dyson, the man who’s about to design the terminators, she pushes herself to horrific degrees.

LG: It went from people telling her she was insane to her actually being insane. Society’s diagnosis of her is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a huge formula shift in the second half of the film: it’s no longer a “let’s outrun this other terminator and try to kill it”. It’s now a mission to alter the future itself, which is way beyond the scope of the first film. Aliens, the last sequel he did, changed things up but kept a lot of the formula intact from the original film. This is more of a debate between predetermination and self-determination. Sarah tries to save the future, but her methods almost sacrifice her soul to do that. John stops her by showing moral superiority to her by trying to save the future without killing anyone. She did a good job of raising him and teaching what’s right even when she forgets it.

MO: Cameron played a lot with the possibility of nuclear holocaust in his filmography- it’s in The Terminator, it’s in the margins of Aliens, it’s in The Abyss. This is his final word on the subject- it’s not his last film with nuclear elements, but True Lies takes it less seriously. It’s done much better here than he did it in his previous film, particularly in the material dealing with Sarah’s nightmares. It starts off with one of the greatest opening credit sequences of all time.

LG: There’s this wall of flame image that’s just one of many powerful, iconic images (Cameron practically makes every image iconic here, he didn’t just settle for one).

MO: And there’s a playground on fire: a merry-go-round, a swing, and horse on fire.

LG: There’s four horses on fire, which feels like a Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse thing.

MO: And the context comes later when Sarah’s dream sequence starts: she walks through a field and looks into a playground where she sees people playing with her children, including herself playing with a baby John. Mother Sarah is wearing the same waitress uniform she wore in the first film…

LG: …which is funny, considering that she was so bad at that waitress job that you’d assume she’s have been fired.
                                                                                                                                   
MO: Cameron uses Hamilton’s twin sister in that shot rather than using opticals or something else. Judgment Day starts, and everyone is overcome with nuclear fire and their bodies crumble into ash.

LG: It’s a very powerful scene, and I’ve read interviews with people who have been involved with nuclear testing, who attest to how accurate this depiction is. Let’s talk a little more about the T-1000: it’s a great use of early CGI technology. People complain that CGI has ruined blockbuster cinema. I’ve never gone that far: it’s not the technology, it’s lack of imagination. The T-1000 is one of the most imaginative creations of the cinema and could have only worked with CGI.

MO: Stop-motion wouldn’t have cut it, and bear in mind that I love stop-motion.

LG: It would have looked cheesy. Cameron uses it to help tell the story, and it’s an amazing character made more effective with technology. It’s not that T-1000 is an unstoppable killing machine, like Ah-nold model he too is governed by rules. When you shoot him, the bullet hole regenerates, and he’s fine. You’d think it’d be a futile enterprise to shoot him at all, but if you look closely, the T-1000 can’t operate if he’s been shot up too much, and if he does want to regenerate he has to stop whatever he’s doing. It’s not a stated rule, it’s something Cameron leaves the audience to realize themselves.

MO: Cameron has always been very good at showing how technology is limited, even at its most advanced. He does this well also by showing how bullets are limited. It’s best shown where Sarah is badly injured and is trying to shoot the T-1000 into the molten steel, where he’d melt…but she’s one bullet short.

LG: Cameron turns the bullet-thing into an excuse to keep other characters active. John is the protagonist, but he’s a kid, so how do you keep him active? Have him reload the guns! If this were a normal film where guns have unlimited bullets, John would be sitting there, cowering under the seat. Cameron uses limitations as a way to keep all of the characters active.

MO: This film is very action-packed, though. It’s basically the gold-standard for action movies in the 90s, alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark for the 80s and, say, The Dark Knight for the 2000s.

LG: There’s something like five major action sequences in the first twenty-five minutes of the film. It’s wall-to-wall action, but the plot never stops to get the action in. The climactic action scene is an assault of Cyberdyne Systems to prevent Skynet from being made. It’s a classic example of Cameron’s gimmicky action scenes. What I mean by gimmicks is this constant series of obstacles and challenges to keep the action more specific rather than generic and predictable. It’s very well thought-out. They have to get past the guard, get into the vault, find the key card, hack, blow through the wall. It’s like a heist film, but without all the planning. It’s very in the moment, and it keeps getting harder as Cameron finds more and more obstacles. They’re possibly in the clear, and then the police show up. How many police? All of them.

MO: It’s a nice that the police are all over the place in this one cause they kind of disappear in the first one.

LG: And just when you think they’re out of that situation the T-1000 shows up and makes it that much more frightening, which leads to a thrilling helicopter-truck chase. What I love about the Terminator films, even the lesser ones, is that there’s never a Ferrari or something for the heroes to escape in. They get stuck with these ungainly, underpowered vehicles…

MO: The worst trucks in the world.

LG: And the villain gets a helicopter.

MO: I want to go back to the Cyberdyne thing. It’s maybe an even better depiction of untrustworthy authority: they know Sarah isn’t completely insane. They have the arm and the computer chip of the Terminator of the first film.

LG: The first film wasn’t left open for a sequel the way you might think, but Cameron does a great job of reverse-engineering it. There are scientists who have these materials and are working on creating the machines. They’re led by Miles Dyson, a computer scientist. First of all, I want to say “way to go!” to Cameron for having an upper-class black family in an early-90s action movie, since Miles and his family are black. Joe Morton is very good in this role, and when he realizes what he’s doing, he immediately tries to rectify it. Sadly, he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he’s very memorable. His facing this conundrum when he realizes what these things he’s been working on really are is one of the more interesting segments of the film.

MO: It’s interesting, since the Terminator films are, to some extent, technophobic, but they’re not blaming the guys who created it for everything. Cyberdyne is a conglomerate with heavy control like Weyland-Yutani in Aliens. After all, they covered up the chip and arm thing. But Dyson is some really intelligent guy they hired, and when he realizes what he’s doing, he doesn’t hesitate. He immediately says “I’m not going to do this anymore.” He’s a very decent man who wanted the best for his family, and in the end he’s still that. Now Cameron has always been a big Spielberg and Lucas fan- he has the same sense of kineticism- and you can still see the George Miller influences in the car chases, but I’ve always seen this film as a “fuck you” to Die Hard. That movie was wall-to-wall action combined with great characters and a fun plot, but it was deemed the ultimate summer action movie. With this, it’s like James Cameron watched Die Hard and said “I’ll fucking show you!”.

LG: Well the Cyberdyne assault is sort of a Die Hard sequence.

MO: And these action sequences are as tactile and bloody as Cameron ever did them. Aliens is my favorite Cameron film because it’s his densest and most thematically rich, but this has his best action sequences.

LG: And this was made in the early-90s, when PG-13 was still new and it was still possible to make an expensive R-rated movie and have it be a hit. In fact, the film was the biggest hit of 1991. It happens every now and then these days, but it’s mostly unheard of for an R film to be really successful. It’s not that T2 is better because it’s R-rated, it’s just that the rating suits the material better. This is dark, apocalyptic material, and it’s actually trying to say something, and pulling punches in terms of content would be a disservice to the film.

MO: And you get that a lot with Terminator Salvation, which WAS PG-13 and was terrible, and you can tell it was engineered to be PG-13 and appeal to the widest audience possible.

LG: That film has moment’s where it could have been weighty, but they wanted to sell toys. It wouldn’t be off-topic to talk about where the franchise went after Cameron left. Cameron toyed with the idea of making Terminator 3 for years before deciding to do other things. The actual Terminator 3 came out in 2003 and basically turned out to be a lackluster version of Terminator 2. It follows the formula very closely but didn’t find a villain that was as iconic as the Terminator or the T-1000. The villain in the first film is an outlaw, the second film has a cop. Cameron was picking archetypes that we weren’t comfortable with in society in their respective times. The villain in the third film didn’t really do anything.

MO: She looks like a model.

LG: Maybe it’s mining men’s discomfort with women?

MO: It doesn’t really do that.

LG: No, not really. It’s basically a lazy version of Terminator 2.

MO: And it really hits the wrong balance with the jokiness. It’s way too broad.

LG: Terminator Salvation is like the fanboy version, everyone wanted to see the future war stuff. But it essentially turned into the story of how John Connor got that scar that one time.

MO: The third one, by itself, is a perfectly passable summer blockbuster.

LG: It’s not bad…

MO: It’s just thoroughly generic, and it’s too jokey, and there’s too much fan service. And while Nick Stahl isn’t a bad actor (and we’re glad to hear that, after he went missing recently, he’s OK and in rehab) he’s not John Connor. Edward Furlong might actually be a less talented actor than Stahl, but Cameron got a really strong performance out of him, and he was right for the part. There aren’t really any other interesting characters either. Claire Danes is a terrific actress, but she’s kind of a bore there.

LG: And the fourth installment really threw into focus how not-terrible the third one was…

MO: …because it IS terrible…

LG: Absolutely. It went the other way, where it had no humor and no fun, and it tried to be very grim in a PG-13 film, but it didn’t earn any of the grimness it was going for.

MO: Having Christian Bale play up the glum factor brought it down even more…plus you’ve got Sam Worthington, who I’m sure we’ll get into come Avatar…

LG: We will talk about the strange career of Sam Worthington and why we’re worried about him.

MO: He needs some sleep, man. Back to Cameron: he’s had plenty of influences throughout his career from Spielberg to Lucas to Kubrick, but I always felt that his most pronounced influence, even though there’s great differences between them, is Ridley Scott.

LG: I can see that.

MO: Terminator 2 is, in a way, his Blade Runner, because he’s asking what makes us human. That brings us to the humanizing elements.

LG: Arnold comes back to protect John, but he can’t blend in. He’s a Terminator, for god’s sake. John sets about turning him into a more human, socially acceptable person. It brings in this empathy that was important in the first film. But it’s not just blending in. There’s great scene where he teaches the Terminator how to swear and do high fives and thumbs up, and he gives him this great line, “Hasta la vista, baby”, which became more or less the catch-phrase for Arnold, even more than “I’ll Be Back”. We still say that.

MO: I still say that.

LG: Me too, but people look at me funny because it’s been twenty-one years (this film can now drink!). Oh, brief note: I love that the film continues the hard-edged blue look Cameron had in The Abyss.

MO: That is great. Now, we chose to watch the theatrical version, which I think is stronger, but there’s one absolutely crucial scene in the Special Edition that should have been included.

LG: It’s crucial to the humanizing element, and it’s crucial towards John’s journey towards adulthood. They need to reset his chip to make him more human, since he’s in “read only” mode, and in order to do it they need to shut him down. While this happens, Sarah tries to destroy the chip and kill him. There’s an argument, and eventually John wins. He overcomes his domineering mother and he starts becoming the leader he needs to be. It’s very important, it shows his empathy, and it’s a pivot the movie turns on. For some reason it was streamlined in a much less memorable scene in the theatrical cut.

MO: Why don’t we talk about a few other changes in the Special Edition, some of which you like better than I do. We both agree that Michael Biehn’s appearance in Sarah’s dream is terrible.

LG: The chip sequence is why I usually prefer the other version, but Biehn’s cameo is cheesy and it feels like bad fan-fiction.

MO: It’s not as bad as the thankfully discarded ending (which doesn’t show up in either version) where, years later, Sarah shows up in the worst old-woman make-up I’ve ever seen and basically says “Judgment Day was averted!”.

LG: It would have been worse than the ending of The Abyss. But we instead get a much more effective ending, where we get this highway image that ties together what these movies are all about and closes out the series well. Which is why, even if Cameron had stayed on, the series should have ended here. They’re very self-contained and the second film ends the journey well.

MO: The third one makes everything that happened in the second film totally unnecessary.

LG: Well yes. The whole thematic arc of the second film is that the future is not predetermined and we can change.

MO: The third one is more or less “nope!”

LG: If we have no control over our lives, Judgment Day is inevitable, we’re all just sheep. It’s a very sad and depressing philosophy that the third film has. As dark as Cameron can be, he introduces optimism in the form of humanity’s ability to overcome obstacles and change the world for the better. It’s a theme we’ll see throughout his work, even in the much-maligned Avatar, which is about a technological force being overcome by a humanistic force. He’s pessimistic about technology, but less so about humanity.

MO: Which ties into how the Terminator is humanized. He grows a more self-aware sense of humor (his smirks to John are great). As the film progresses, he goes from not understanding what crying is to protecting John not just because it’s his mission, but because he has genuine concern over John. He’s about as heartbroken as a killing machine can be.

LG: He even learns to smile in a Special Edition scene that I like and you don’t.

MO: Oh no, I like the “smile” sequence, I just think it’s too broad. It’s a great deleted scene.

LG: One of the reasons True Lies doesn’t work as well is because Terminator 2 is such a culmination of everything Cameron was working on that he really needed to refill his batteries. That’s what True Lies is. He’s not working as hard. He’s less ambitious.

MO: Well, that’s not my problem with True Lies. We’ll get into that.

LG: There’s also a sequence I like in the Special Edition about the T-1000 malfunctioning in the climax after he was frozen. There’s a few tiny beats that show his body blending into the surroundings as he can’t control his shapeshifting anymore. It goes a bit far, but it shows that their effort to dent this thing is finally working.

MO: Here’s the reason I think it doesn’t work: it’s all building to the moment where he turns into Sarah Connor in a very impressive shot that uses Hamilton’s twin as a double again. Sarah is badly wounded and she calls John, he goes to meet her, and the other one comes around and yells “get out of the way John”, and we realize the weakened Sarah was really the T-1000. It’s a great moment. In the Special Edition, there’s an extra shot where John looks at T-1000/Sarah’s feet, which have melded into the metal grate. The reason I don’t like this shot is because it’s a stronger choice to have him trust what his mother is like to make a decision rather than rely on a technological fuck-up.

LG: That iteration doesn’t work, I agree, but the initial one where his hand fuses with a hand-rail is great.

MO: It works well, but without it building to anything it ultimately wouldn’t work, so it’s better without it.

LG: It’s too much.

MO: I like the idea, I agree, but it doesn’t work.

LG: He overplays it.

MO: You could also argue that Cameron overplays an earlier scene where two kids playing with toy guns yell “I got you!” to each other, and they comment on how it’s human nature to destroy ourselves. It doesn’t bother me so much.

LG: It threatens to be too preachy.

MO: It’s a little heavy-handed, but it’s not so terrible.

LG: It’s an extremely strong film no matter which version you see. Having watched the theatrical cut, I’m willing to give that, yes, chip scene aside, it’s the stronger version. But you really can’t go wrong. This is one of the greatest, deepest action movies you’ll ever see. It’s kinetic, it’s never boring, and it’s cool. No matter how dark it gets, it’s really a lot of fun. Theatrical cut gets an A from me…I guess the extended gets a slight A-, though there’s very good reasons to watch it.

MO: Agreed on both counts. It’s like Aliens, where my ideal cut doesn’t exist, but it’s one of his two best films, and it’s absolutely essential any which way you have it. And apologies to Aliens, my favorite Cameron film, to The Abyss, which sees him exploring more emotional heights, and to Titanic, the ladies’ favorite: Terminator 2 features the single most emotional moment in any of Cameron’s films. SPOILERS AHEAD: They melt the T-1000 in molten steel along with the old Terminator’s arm and chip, and they note that Judgment Day has been averted. But the now torn-up, battered Arnold says “No, there’s one more chip, and it must be destroyed”.

LG: And he’s right! As difficult as the moment is, he’s right. It’s a moment a lesser director would not have though of.

MO: This is Cameron’s version of the “Tears in the rain” scene in Blade Runner, where he realizes the value of humanity and cares too much to let them die.

LG: It’s also a bit of an Old Yeller moment. But if Old Yeller was your dad/big brother… so it’s 100 times worse.

MO: It’s so heartbreaking. If anyone ever asks me what the most emotional scene in an action movie is, I’m just going to give them a thumbs up.


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