Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Movies I Like: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Before I get into Terminator 2 I want to talk about the first movie a little.

Back when the The Terminator was released I did not see it. It looked like it was going to be a dumb action movie, it had a nondescript title, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a celebrity body builder who had been in movies, but was no movie star. Everything about The Terminator screamed B-movie.

Then I saw the cover of Cinefex Magazine and on the cover was an intriguing image of a robot skeleton with a wall of fire behind it. I didn’t know what this image was, but I was hooked – I had to see this movie. The film was no longer out so I rented it on VHS and was blown away. The movie had no business being this good. It was clear that there was no budget and the effects were mediocre. There is a puppet head of Arnold that is almost laughably bad. But none of that mattered because the script was strong.

There were also sparks of genius in the film that communicated to me that this James Cameron guy was going to be around for a while. One thing that sticks with me is a scene that takes place in the devastated dystopian future. Reese, one of the main characters moves through a settlement of humans. These are people living in squalor. But Cameron does some brilliant work here. It is a piece of visual storytelling that put him ahead of the pack.

Reese moves past a mother and daughter huddled together gazing into a television. In this future full of the unfamiliar here is something we recognize – a mundane tableau of domestic life.

But then Cameron cuts around to see the view from the other side and we see that the mother and daughter are huddled around a fire built inside the shell of a television. This shot tells us so much about how our world is no more – there are only shadows of it left.

It’s nothing short of brilliant. Like all great visual storytelling it looks easy to do because it’s easy for an audience to understand. It isn’t. Cameron is a first-rate communicator. This ability, and sometimes willingness, to communicate with an audience is becoming a rare thing.

This brings me to Terminator 2. This film was highly anticipated and did not disappoint. These are just some of the reasons I think the film worked for so many. I can’t get into everything because it would be way too long of a post.

One thing that makes this piece work is its clear communication. Much of what I mean can be seen in the film’s first act. First acts are an endangered species in Hollywood and I think that is one of the reasons box office receipts keep falling. The first act gives a story context and lays the groundwork for the story’s emotional beats. Without it there is little for an audience to care about except shallow spectacle.

Here, the first act introduces us to Sarah Conner and does not assume that we have seen, or remember, the details of the prior film. We find Sarah Conner who, in the first film, was hunted down by and nearly killed by a Terminator, a machine from the future, in a mental hospital. It is clear she has been put in this hospital because her story of a “killer robot” is not believed.

The setting of a hospital allows Sarah Conner to relate her story to a doctor in order to clue us, the audience, in on what happened before. The film is so well set up that you can watch it with no knowledge of the first.

Cameron had used a similar technique in Aliens, his sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, where the main character Ripley is questioned about what happened to her and her crew in the first film. This allows her to tell the story directly to us so that we can understand the story to follow. It creates context and therefore emotion.

We learn in Act One of Terminator 2 how terrified Sarah is of this killer robot from the future. We also learn that the reason she is being pursued is because she gives birth to, and raises, the man who leads the resistance against the machines. The machines sent a robot back in time to kill her before she could give birth to her son. We learn now that Sarah has since had a son, and that if Sarah cannot stop the machines, that the fate of humanity is grim – a nuclear holocaust launchedby these killer machines.

We see Sarah has been working out in preparation for the fight with the machines that will surely come. She is a lean, mean, fighting machine.  In fact, that’s exactly what she is – a human Terminator. This is brilliant. When Sarah makes her escape we see just how efficient and effective she can be at hurting people to get what she needs. Everything she does has a cold, mechanical quality.

Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from the last film was inhuman, but in this film we see that he is more human than Sarah Conner. If you know the film you know how, but for this post it isn’t important. 

“Sarah as Terminator” is further driven home when she discovers the identity of the scientist whose work will unwittingly create a self-aware computer that launches the nuclear attack on humanity. What does Sarah do? She tracks down the man and attempts to kill him.

This is exactly what the Terminators did, and are doing, to Sarah. They are trying to kill her and her son for something they haven’t done yet.

Schwarzenegger’s Terminator (there is a non-Schwarzenegger Terminator in the film), along with Sarah’s son, saves the scientist from Sarah. Sarah has become a killing machine using cold logic to reach her goal, whereas the Terminator displays more humanity.

Making a film about a woman whose fear drives her to become the very thing she hates elevated the film to a place where it transcends its genre and its sequel status. It is true in life that we must take care not to become the things that we fear and/or hate. Instead of being a film designed only to make money, it’s a story that has a reason to be told.