This cyborg saga so symbolic of pop culture’s decay begins with a perfect ’80s sci-fi action movie and ends with a soulless blockbuster so terrible the movie-star lead viciously cussed out the cinematographer on-set. In between is a perfect sequel and a winking Part 3 so self-aware of its cash-grab status it goes ahead and ends with the nuclear destruction of the whole world.
“Terminator 3” is at least willing to be a good movie as it’s cash grabbing. It has a pulpy, fun title: “Rise of the Machines.” As opposed to “Salvation’s” single buzzy word. “Salvation.” The other titles options were “Redemption,” “Description,” “Placenta,”and “Ellipse.”
We’ll come back to Part 4, in which killer robots are too lazy to kill.
First, James Cameron. He is, said Ari Gold, “the biggest director in the game,” the mad captain who helmed the top two money makers ever: “Titanic” and “Avatar.”
Back in 1984, however, he was 30 and unknown. He had a vision (says IMDB.com): “James Cameron got the idea for Terminator (1984) while shooting another film in Europe. His vision was of a metal endoskeleton emerging from flames and most of the script was written backwards from there.”
Can you image a purer motive for making a movie?
Haunted by an amazing visual, Cameron brought it to life. This is typical of Cameron’s ambition. Ever since “Terminator,” he has been a director who thinks of something huge and insane and then executes it. Think about the end of “Aliens,” when, after commandos have been guerrilla battling monsters for several scenes, the alien queen fights Ripley, in a robot suit, one-on-one. This go-for-broke ethos would ultimately evolve into dinosaurs fighting robots for the last hour of “Avatar.”
The big misconception of modern blockbuster is they’re all action, but so many are really just tons of talking, with lots of special effects and a few brief obligatory action scenes. “Star Wars Episodes I–III,” anyone? “Spider-Man”?
“Terminator” launched this awesome line of Cameron movies, and it’s a classic for so many reasons including an economy of storytelling. That’s another secret to his success: He keeps it simple. A robot assassin is trying to kill Sarah Connor; a man is trying to save her. That’s the conflict. The movie’s over when the robot is finally dead.
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James Cameron remade “Terminator” with better terminators. And this time they save the world. “T2” had a fun acting gig for super-partner Arnold Schwarzenegger: Do the same great cyborg stuff from the original, with even more weapons, but be a hero this time. Arnold’s terminator rightly made the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list of both heroes and villains. He’s the only character on both lists, which makes him better than Atticus Finch.
Linda Hamilton gets in on the fun, and it’s no wonder she married Cameron. Sarah Connor was a happy, bright-eyed American babe in “Terminator,” but in “T2” she’s a ripped amazon weapons master whose sadness over losing Kyle Reese in the fight to kill original Terminator has hardened into joyless determination. She knows the world is gonna end, and she knows she can stop it. “Terminator” was about getting out alive. “Terminator 2” is about preventing nuclear war. She’s become a warrior.
The chases and fights in “T2” are glorious. Arnold rides an enormous Harley after 10-year-old, Public-Enemy-T-shirt-clad John Connor on a moped. Liquid metal T-1000 is racing after them in a giant semi truck. Arnold and T-1000 shoot each other countless times with shotguns and grenades. At one point Terminator unloads what has to be more than 100 rounds from a machine gun into T-1000 at point-blank range.
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Cameron said he was done with “Terminator” movies after “T2,” that he’d told the story he wanted to tell, but the studio wasn’t done. “Terminator 3” is a joke, but a good one. It’s Cameron’s same terminator story over again, with Arnold fighting a powerful evil robot (this time, she can shape shift like T-1000, but also make her hands into laser guns) (oh, and she’s a she).
Consider the first Arnold scene in each flick. In the first “Terminator,” he threatens and kills street thugs like Jason in “Friday the 13th,” horror-style. In “T2,” he busts into a biker bar, kicks a bunch of Harley riders’ asses, and vrooms away on a chopper wearing leather and cool sunglasses while the soundtrack plays “Bad to the Bone.” In “T3,” he busts into a strip club on ladies’ night and takes the dancer’s clothes. This is how he looks before he rides off:
“Rise of the Machines” also has Clare Danes, who’s great. It’s always nice to see Claire Danes.
And while “T2’s” most serious moment is an ultra-realistic nuclear explosion wiping out all of Los Angeles including a park full of kids, “Machines” has a powerfully important scene that totally echoes 21st-Century U.S. foreign policy. There is much talk about the danger of handing war power over to machines, and I wonder whether Obama had the same qualms when he ordered his first drone strike as General Robert Brewster exhibits when he gives the order to turn Skynet on-line. Bet not.
James Cameron did not direct “Terminator: Salvation,” either. He had nothing to do with it. McG, veteran of N’Sync videos, was the director. McG.
Cameron’s terminators were such deadly villains you simply couldn’t get near one. The chases were intense because terminators arm up and know their weapons. Or, like T-1000, can instantly create deadly (Ahnold voice:) “knives, and stabbing weapons.” “Terminator” ends with Sarah Connor just out of terminator’s reach, because if he gets his hand on her she’s dead. If T-1000 got within five feet of John Connor, Connor would be slashed through in a second.
“Salvation” is full of Terminators who are not especially interested in terminating. Arnold didn’t act in “Salvation,” but they digitally added his face over a terminator body. He must have been pissed, because the terminator with his face was pathetic. It repeatedly grabs Connor and throws him into a wall. It never kills him. There’s even a moment during the ridiculous “Climactic Battle” where a terminator is holding Connor up off the ground by the neck. They just stay that way until Connor gets saved. A Cameron terminator would crush his throat the instant it got a grip.
There are motorcycle terminators. Why—the—f*ck would Skynet create terminators which can be overridden and then literally ridden by their enemies the humans?
We’ve not even begun to dig into what makes “Salvation” so lousy. No sense of humor. The machines’ plan to kill Connor is ridiculously convoluted, the opposite of the simple spirit of Cameron’s classics. Kate Brewster went from Claire Dane’s brave heroine to Bryce Dallas Howard’s dead-eyed dullard. A major role is played (dullard-like) by Moon Bloodgood, which I believe is a euphemism for when a woman’s on her period.
Let’s put “Salvation” out of our minds and focus on “Terminator,” “Judgement Day” and “Rise of the Machines.” The first two are classics for all time, and together they constitute a legendary franchise.
There is a new “Terminator” movie in the works, with Arnold coming back. The ingredients are there to make something amazing. Just don’t overthink it. And don’t hire McG.