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Why Now? – Part 2

May 20th, 2009

whynow2

Last week I looked back at Terminators 1 through 3 and explored how each movie corresponded to a specific period of technological discourse.

Today I want to look at Terminator Salvation and try my best to understand why this movie is coming out now – because, as a pseudo-cultural historian, that is my absolute favourite question to ask.

Well, right off the bat, I suppose the simple answer is that we’re in the age of reboots. Dead franchises like Batman, James Bond, and Transformers are all proving that starting over from the beginning is a very profitable game. Even plain old sequels to forgotten series are making money (Indiana Jones 4, Die Hard 4, Rocky 6, Rambo 4, etc.) so I guess it’s just time for another Terminator.

But that’s a little too simple and pessimistic an answer for my tastes, so allow me to go further…

As I mentioned earlier, the Terminator franchise has always revolved around our conflicting fear and dependence on technology. And when I say technology, I’m talking everything from nuclear bombs to blackberries to the cotton gin. It’s a discussion about machines. And the first three movies, when viewed as a whole, walk a nice middle line, neither condemning nor praising a techno-society, but suggesting that we might want to keep our eyes open and think about what we’re doing before we go ahead and do it.

So where does Terminator Salvation fit into this equation?

Well, welcome to 2009.

Even in the scant six years between T3 and now, “technology” has advanced to the point where we need to update our discussion. To sum everything up in a nice cynical fashion… now dating is done through Facebook (not to mention the “sexting” craze), every fourth grader needs a cell phone, and “doctors” are seriously starting to believe that technology is making us stupider (though, as a proud member of this new stupid generation, that seems an awful lot like an obsolete generation’s failure to understand their successors – sort of like the generation of parents who hated the Beatles).

So enter Terminator Salvation, where we meet a group of people living on the edge, hoping to build bigger and louder machines in order to defeat the biggest and loudest machines. Guns, planes, cars, even PDAs ensure survival, but a failure to understand basic radio signals spells doom. And the key to winning it all? The one guy who’s half-man and half-machine – Marcus Wright.

To my eyes and ears, Terminator Salvation is a look at a society where an understanding of technology is absolutely necessary to belong. Much like the world I find myself in, if you can’t work with machines, if you don’t know them inside and out, you don’t have a job. (As a writer working on the Internet, I find this highly entertaining.) And the ideal human is the guy who can actually become a machine, but can still cry and feel pain and make heroic sacrifices and all that other mushy “human” stuff.

So I guess what I’m saying is, amidst the unbelievably cool action scenes (which I’ll be talking about tomorrow), Terminator Salvation might just be the most intelligent movie of the summer. McG absolutely nailed the allegory – the “discussion” about technology is over; the machines are here and they won. Now it’s about surviving and fitting in. And hey, it’s not such a bad thing after all. At the end of the day, we’re still people who can fall in love and be heroes and make tough choices, only now we’ve got craigslist.

So check back tomorrow for my review of Terminator Salvation and have an excellent opening day!

jakeb a little philosophy

The Unavoidable Topic of the Christian Bale Freakout…

May 12th, 2009

bale

So I’ve tried to postpone doing the requisite article about Christian Bale’s little temper tantrum on the set of Terminator Salvation, but as we head into opening week, I guarantee that every holier-than-thou film critic in the world will be cracking jokes about the hissy fit, so I figure I should share my thoughts now…

There are few things more painful than being disappointed in your heroes. And let’s be honest, that’s what Christian Bale is. At least to me. I could talk about how he’s singlehandedly reviving the action movie, or how inspiring his dedication to genre fiction is, or how legitimately impressive his acting is, or how everyone I know (male or female, gay or straight) seems to have just the littlest bit of a crush on him. But the simple fact is, he’s Batman. In the incredibly illuminating novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon argues that Batman, like other sidekick-toting heroes, is an eternal father figure to generations of lost kids. And something about that has always rung true to me.

And so, ever since I first saw Batman Begins, Christian Bale has been one of my favourite actors, ranking up there with other “cool guys” like Harrison Ford, Humphrey Bogart, and everyone from The Wire. Here was a seriously talented guy who actually wanted to do silly sci-fi flicks like Batman and Terminator. He seemed to legitimate my own fascination with silly sci-fi stuff. And for that reason, I always saw him as a pretty down to Earth kind of guy. Someone you might be able to grab a beer with.

But then there was that pesky little tape of him berating a crewmember, and my faith was shaken, and it was a little difficult to continue viewing him as the common man. At one point or another we’ve all worked customer service jobs, or assistant jobs, or any minimum wage job, so I don’t need to explain how frustrating and off-putting this kind of behavior is. Not cool, Batman. Not cool.

And I’ve tried to defend his actions every possible way I can: The crewmember repeatedly broke one of the cardinal rules of working on a set; Bale is a method actor and he was still in character; It was a hot day and everyone was tired and he had a momentary lapse of judgment that happened to be caught on camera; He apologized sincerely and apparently everything’s back to normal. But that’s not the way it works. There’s the wildly unrealistic superhero image of Christian Bale that I have in my head, and then there’s the mere mortal Christian Bale, and unfortunately they had to meet (just like that episode of Seinfeld with the two Georges).

But at the end of the day, I still love The Dark Knight. And I still really want to see Terminator Salvation. And chances are I’ll still get excited for every other movie Christian Bale will make over his career. So what does this say about me? Am I throwing away my principles just to see a summer blockbuster? Because if I walked into a store and saw the owner treating one of his employees that way, I’d probably never go back. Am I anti-Semitic because I still think Braveheart is a wicked movie? Because, you know, ditto. Or, as a jaded film student, do I just expect this stuff from celebrities and I’ve stopped caring altogether?

I don’t really have the answer. All I know is that I love movies enough to forgive certain flaws in filmmakers that I might not forgive in someone else. I also know from my study of Hollywood history that Christian Bale is just plain nice in comparison to some of his colleagues. Truth is, if you want to hold every filmmaker (or writer or painter or sculptor etc., etc., etc.) to such high standards, you won’t have very many people left (as a particularly poignant example, look up any one of the millions of biographies on Walt Disney). 

So, I guess what I’m saying is, Batman gets a pass in my books. Am I disappointed? Heck yeah. Would I ever approach Christian Bale in a bar? Depends how many drinks I’ve had. Am I still clawing at the walls in anticipation of a third Batman movie? You better believe it.

So my advice is to just expect this stuff, enjoy it for the entertainment value, and yeah, maybe forgive the guy. You’ll sleep better.

jakeb a little philosophy

In Defense of Time Travel

May 6th, 2009

timetravel

I love time travel stories.

I don’t really know why, but ever since Marty McFly first jumped that DeLorean back to 1955, I’ve been obsessed with issues of time travel. I’ll even watch movies that I know will be terrible as long as they’ve got some temporal-bending content (A Kid in King Arthur’s Court anyone?)

Time travel is – dare I say it? – my favourite kind of science fiction.

It’s that weird mixture of nostalgia and futurism that seems to appeal to every aspect of childhood dreams. It allows for the possibility of being a cowboy and a spaceship captain and a knight in shining armor and to have a robot/alien sidekick. And seeing as I still have the maturity of an eight-year-old, I crave that pure escapist fun.

And what people often seem to forget is that Terminator is one of the best time travel movies of all time.

Sure, to the average man on the street, Terminator is a series of “robot” movies, and nothing more. But behind the discussions of cybernetic organisms sits one of the coolest time travel paradoxes ever written. After I first saw T2 I spent a good solid week trying to wrap my mind around the complex contradictions presented by Arnie’s jumps through time. Somewhere in my grade ten math notebook is a flowchart that explains everything nicely.

For the uninitiated, allow me to lay out the central premise for you:

  • In 2018, man and machines are at war
  • In 2029, John Connor is about to lead the humans to certain victory
  • Using the “Great Man” theory of history, Skynet sends a terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to John, thereby preventing him from winning the war in 2029
  • In response, the Resistance sends Kyle Reese from 2029 back to 1984 to defend Sarah
  • In 1984, Reese impregnates Sarah who subsequently destroys the terminator
  • Cyberdyne Systems then discovers the remnants of the terminator sent to kill Sarah, and they reverse engineer its technology, leading to the invention of Skynet

Okay, so let’s think this one through… By trying to kill John Connor, Skynet inadvertently causes his birth. And by trying to defend himself, John Connor inadvertently creates Skynet. Whoa. But how could any of this be possible if the present events are dependant on future events that haven’t happened yet. Like, if Kyle Reese didn’t go back through time, then John wouldn’t be born, so Skynet wouldn’t have sent a terminator back to 1984, but then Skynet never would have been invented!!

If you’re not a sixteen-year-old boy, I’ve probably lost you by this point, but what I’m trying to get at is that I’m heavily invested in this mythology, which is interesting because there’s no deeper message or hidden symbolism to any of it. As a pretentious film student, I’ve been trained to look for metaphors and allegories and serious people stuff in even the most populist of movies, but the time travel story in Terminator is just plain old science fictiony goodness. Sure, there are issues of paternity and predestination and blind ambition, but all I really care about is how I could use that machine to go visit my past self and warn him about what happens at that frat party I attend on April 4th, 2005. And maybe warn Sam Raimi about Spider-Man 3. And win the lottery. And marry Megan Fox before she gets all famous and too good for me.

The point is, it’s been a good long while since I’ve been this excited by a summer blockbuster time travel movie. A few year’s back we had Timeline, which I was insanely psyched for as it was based on an amazing novel by Michael Crichton and directed by the guy who did Lethal Weapon. But alas, Timeline kinda dropped the ball and left me disappointed.

But now we’ve got another Terminator to look forward to. Could this reignite the hopes of one disillusioned time traveler as he jumps around on his quest for quality science fiction? Here’s hoping.

jakeb a little philosophy

techno-ambivalence

April 28th, 2009

techno

There’s nothing particularly original about the “technology will doom us all!” narrative. In fact, as I suggested earlier, that old tale has been kicking around since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or, if you want to push it, I guess you could say it’s been around since Prometheus decided to be so generous with his fire. Countless writers have taken it upon themselves to warn us that we’re digging our own grave, what with our cell phones and MySpace and iPods, but that hasn’t seemed to stop us from plugging ahead anyway.

Terminator 1 follows strongly in this cautionary tradition. The message is clear and forceful: computers are bad. Get outside and play with your human friends and try to remember what life was like before toaster ovens.

But what I’ve always loved about the Terminator franchise is that this message gets a whole lot murkier as the series progresses.

See, by the time Terminator 2 rolls around, the robots might be the bad guys, but they’re also the good guys. Sure, the T-1000 wants to kill John Connor, but the T-800 is here to protect him. Machines are killing humans, humans are killing machines, and machines are killing machines. It’s all over the map, and any preachy lesson about the perils of a technology-driven society goes out the window. Sort of…

You could also argue that the message of Terminator gets deeper as the robot allegiances grow more complicated. Instead of a blanket message about technology being bad, Terminator argues that technology is just a tool, and it’s how you use it that’s important. It puts the focus back on us. At the end of the day, it’s the guy who builds and launches the nuclear bomb that’s responsible, not the malfunctioning computer he put in charge. As someone who makes his living on a computer, I like this message. It allows for all the positive aspects of technological developments, and the good liberal artist in me can’t help but smirk at the potshot taken at the military industrial complex (which of course conflicts with the smirk I get when Schwarzenegger blows stuff up with a rocket launcher, but that’s a psychological contradiction to explore at a later date).  

But more importantly than any political or philosophical message, it just makes for better storytelling. The “robots are bad because they’re bad” thing gets tired fast, but conflicted, ambiguous characters are at the heart of good drama. Terminator 2 isn’t the best entry in the series just because it has the biggest explosions and the best fights (don’t get me wrong, that’s a big part of it), but it’s the best because the characters have depth and they have the chance to grow and change.

So what does this have to do with Terminator Salvation?

Well I really, really hope that they continue this tradition. Now that the war is finally in full swing, it might be tempting to revert back to a simple good/bad distinction between humans and machines. But of course this time we have Marcus Wright, who if anything looks more conflicted than any of the terminators that came before him. Also, considering the screenwriters behind this movie, I’d be shocked if we didn’t get some of the most complex characters of the summer (in an action movie about robots…)

Just one more reason why I’m jumping out of my skin in anticipation.

jakeb a little philosophy