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Why Now? – Part 1

May 11th, 2009

whynow

The Terminator franchise has been spread out over a fairly long period of time – Salvation will mark four movies over twenty-five years.

And the question that’s been on my mind is, why another entry now? Terminator 1, 2, and 3 all correspond to specific moments in history, and those moments are clearly reflected in the films. So what’s the deal with Salvation?

Allow me to backtrack…

Terminator 1 came out at a pretty perfect time. 1984 was the year of hating technology. On the one hand, you had personal computers and cell phones and all other sorts of futuristic doodads making their ways into homes and offices, and tech-geeks were telling everyone that they had to adapt or else face obsolescence. And then there was the small issue of the Doomsday clock reaching its highest point since the 50s, basically telling people that nuclear destruction was imminent. So a movie about why we should hate advanced machines armed with nuclear weapons was more than welcome. Hence Terminator 1’s unexpected success.

But then 1991 rolled around and undid everything Terminator 1 had built. Microsoft had just released Windows 3.0 and people were learning that they loved their home computers. Cell phones were no longer Zach Morris sized. Oh, and the Soviet Union collapsed and the Doomsday clock hit zero (the lowest point in its history) and most people wanted to laugh off any of those fears about bombs and robots and stuff.

 So 1991 may have seemed like an odd year to release another Terminator movie. But the series showed surprising versatility and easily adapted to the new era. In Terminator 2 the robots were our friends! And nuclear war could easily be averted with enough forethought! And the kids are alright and families are reunited and killing machines learn how to love (sort of). Terminator 2 told us there was compromise, which was precisely what we already knew at that point.

And then we entered the Internet era, and we had all sorts of new reasons to hate the machines. Pedophiles were lurking in chat rooms, the next generation of men and women were disappearing into online video games, and have you seen how expensive those non-Zach-Morris-sized cell phones are? And of course certain events at the turn of the century shook our faith in the idea that global destruction had been averted… I don’t want to play the worn out card that many pop culture historians use, but according to interviews, September 11th had a profound effect on Terminator 3.

And so, with 2003’s T3, we were right back to where we were in 1984: nuclear war is inevitable, the few machines that are friendly are heavily outnumbered by an army of Terminators backed by the military industrial complex, the kids are not alright, and the survival of the family unit rests on some very thin shoulders. Everybody panic.

And now we’re in 2009 and we have number 4 coming out. What does this mean? Why now? Keep checking back for my answers to these questions as I advance my over-analytical, wildly-unfounded film student assertions! And in the mean time, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

jakeb history

Encyclopedia Terminatica – Round 2

April 30th, 2009

Here are the rest of the definitions you’ll need to know as I delve further into the minutiae of Terminator awesomeness…

 T-800

The Cadillac of Terminators. This is the model portrayed by Schwarzenegger in the first three movies. They’re as close to indestructible as you can get, highly intelligent, and capable of blending in amongst regular humans. This model comes wrapped in living human tissue, allowing them to perform all sorts of incredibly gross tricks. These guys have been both the bane and the savior of the Connor family.

t800

Cyberdyne Systems

The geniuses behind Skynet. Originally Cyberdyne was a private computer engineering firm that made a gigantic leap forward in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence when their researchers stumbled upon bits and pieces of a future Terminator that Sarah Connor was clumsy enough to leave lying around at the end of T1. After the corporation and all of its data were destroyed by the Connor family at the end of T2, Cyberdyne became a division of the U.S. army, where the top brass was smart enough to put their latest creation – Skynet – in charge of the world’s nuclear stockpile.

hkHKs (Hunter-Killers)

These creatively named devices are gigantic robot airships and tanks that patrol the future of 2018 and hunt (and kill) humans. According to Kyle Reese in Terminator 1, the HKs make life above ground pretty difficult for the Resistance. If you look closely at the trailers, you’ll see an incredibly cool action sequence involving an HK, a bridge, and one heck of an explosion.

Time Displacement Field

The technology that allows Skynet and the Resistance to send things back through time. There are a few conditions to understand about this technology… One, only organic material can be sent through the portal, but inorganic material can be sent if it’s covered by organic material. So, a metal Terminator can be sent back as long as it’s covered in real human tissue, but it can’t be sent back with clothes or weapons (often resulting in comedic gratuitous nudity). Two, as far as I know, the time displacement field is a one way trip. When you go back, there’s no way to return. That being said, the TV series has found some interesting ways around this problem by suggesting that both Skynet and the Resistance have hidden displacement fields throughout the decades, thereby allowing their agents to access one and return home.

jakeb get psyched, history

Towards a Theory of John Connor – Part 2

April 29th, 2009

connor2

Last week I looked at little Johnny Connor’s first appearance in Terminator 2, and why I thought he was the perfect hero for the aimless 90s teenager. He gave all scrawny young nerds reason to hope, and showed us the hero hiding beneath a generation of cynics. And in a perfect move, T2 ended with John Connor riding off into the night, ready to face an uncertain future.

And then John Connor pops up twelve years later in Terminator 3, this time played by Nick Stahl (otherwise known as the yellow guy in Sin City). And things quickly went south…

It’s pretty clear that Nick Stahl was not the first choice to play John. By most accounts, the filmmakers wanted wisecracking Ed Furlong to come back, but a wee problem with drugs and alcohol made him ineligible. Unfortunately for Stahl, stepping in as a replacement for such a beloved franchise was bound to generate unfavorable comparisons, and in my humble opinion he got a raw deal.

See, there are two things to consider when looking at Stahl’s Connor in T3. First off, there’s Stahl’s acting, and then there’s the script that was written for him.

Now if you just look at Stahl’s performance, he does a pretty solid job. Not only does he actually look like an older version of Furlong, but he also tries his best to channel that devil-may-care trickster attitude. Is it perfect? No. But all things considered, Stahl was a pretty decent choice to play a mid-twenties Connor. He looks like he’s grown up a bit, but he’s not so far removed from his predecessor that it’s hard to buy him as Connor (which, coincidentally, is my one and only problem with Christian Bale, but I’ll elaborate on that later).

Unfortunately for Stahl, however, he got stuck with a script that didn’t do the character justice. As I argued last week, what makes John Connor so compelling T2 is that he doesn’t let little things like destiny and the apocalypse get him down. The kid has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he ends up being a major disappointment, but at no point does he get whiney or angsty or moody. He stays supremely confident and just keeps on doing his own thing.

Stahl in T3, however, is the exact freaking opposite. The film opens with the whiniest, angstiest, moodiest monologue in the history of the franchise, and overnight this unflappable character has lost all of his gravitas. There’s a scene where he sits by himself drinking a beer as he looks out at a ravine. And there’s a scene where he crashes his little moped in a weak “look how suicidal I am” moment. And then, worst of all, there’s a scene where he whines to his ex-girlfriend about how hard it was to live up to his mom’s expectations. All of sudden John Connor is gone and he’s been replaced with the kid from Dawson’s Creek. The guys who wrote T3 got the character completely wrong, and it was downright painful to watch. As someone who had strongly identified with Connor in T2, it made me really uncomfortable to watch that same character suddenly lose all of his appealing attributes.

That being said, T3 does contain what is probably my favourite John Connor moment in the entire series.

Somewhere around the third act, John Connor snaps out of his funk and steps up as the hero we were promised way back in number 1. When the heat is on, his true colours show and he makes the call to stop running and start blowing stuff up (and that right there is the central Terminator ethos). But unfortunately John gets some bad intel, and instead of ending up in the Skynet command center, he finds himself in a fallout shelter equipped with all the fixings needed to start an underground resistance.

And this is where the magic happens.

As the nukes start flying, calls come pouring into John’s fallout shelter from generals around the world seeking instructions. And then John steps up to the mic and does what he has to: he starts saving the world. It’s a surprisingly powerful scene (surprising because the hour and a half that precedes it completely sucks) and manages to save the movie (almost). The mixture of fear and acceptance on Stahl’s face is spot on, and it makes me frustrated that he didn’t get the chance to work with a better script.

What’s more, the final scene sums up the John Connor philosophy of “let it be.” Connor gives us proof that there’s no point in sitting around panicking about your future, you just have to wait and see what happens. In that last scene the film finally delivers on the promise made to the aimless 90s teenagers who followed the young John Connor of T2. Does it make up for the inexplicably wrong handling of the character in the rest of the movie? Not entirely, but it’s a solid note to end on.

So where do we go from here? Check back in the coming weeks for part 3 where I’ll look at the John Connor who is playing in the big leagues in Terminator Salvation.

jakeb characters, history

Terminator: Looking Back

April 27th, 2009

Looking Back
Does the part of your brain where you’ve stored all of your Terminator info need a power surge? Here’s a recap of the last three Terminator installments to get you geared up for the upcoming Terminator Salvation.


The Terminator (1984)

Stars: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn

In the first film, we meet Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Unbeknownst to her, a man from the future, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), tells her that she will bear a child who in the future, is destined to lead a resistance army against Skynet—a lethal race of artificially intelligent computerized machines owned by Cyberdyne Systems, whose mission is to exterminate the human race.
Reese explains that he was sent to the past to warn Sarah and explain that in his future, the year 2029, a war is taking place between Skynet and humanity. Sarah’s now-grown son, John Connor, is leading the resistance army and seems to be winning. In an effort to win the battle, Skynet sends a cyborg assassin known as the “Terminator” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to the past, to find Sarah Connor and kill her.
As Kyle and Sarah try to outrun this unstoppable machine, they fall in love and conceive a child: the future John Connor. But in a final showdown with the Terminator, Kyle meets his demise and Sarah defeats the assassin by crushing him in a hydraulic press.



Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick

Having survived an attack by the first Terminator sent to kill her eleven years earlier, Sarah Connor once again faces the wrath of Skynet when the deadly race sends two cyborg assassins from the year 2029: the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who is an exact replica of the first, and a new T-1000 prototype machine, made of a liquid metal that allows it to take the shape and appearance of anything it touches, that disguises itself as a police officer (Robert Patrick). Their mission: to kill Sarah and the adolescent John.
With her son John in foster care, Sarah, in an ongoing effort to continue her mission to warn humanity about the coming apocalypse, is arrested for bombings a computer company and is confined to a hospital for the criminally insane. Meanwhile, the Terminator captures her son John, who has been training to become a future leader. A young John learns that this new Terminator means him no harm and has actually been reprogrammed by his future self to protect his younger self.
John and the Terminator break Sarah out of the hospital and set out to find Miles Bennett Dyson (Joe Morton), a Cyberdyne Systems engineer working on a revolutionary new microprocessor that will form the basis for Skynet, and who unwittingly will be responsible for a nuclear attack on “Judgment Day.” When they find Dyson, Sarah, set on changing the future by killing him, only wounds Dyson. After the Terminator explains to Dyson the consequences of his research, Dyson helps them break into Cyberdyne Systems to destroy both his research and the parts for the first Terminator.
But when a SWAT team arrives, Dyson is killed while pushing a detonator to destroy the materials. Sarah, John and the Terminator escape and after a liquid nitrogen truck crashes, it freezes the T-1000 that’s in pursuit and shatters its structure. While the T-000 melts, John destroys the parts of the first Terminator by throwing them into the hot steels, and both Sarah and John destroy the Terminator who says he must also be destroyed so that Skynet cannot recreate him.



Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken

Although Judgment Day appeared to have been averted in the last Terminator, John Connor (Stahl) does not believe humanity is safe.
Just as suspected, two cyborgs are sent back in time: another Terminator (Schwarzenegger) and the T-X/Terminatrix (Loken), who each have their own mission. The Terminator is sent back in time by Connor’s future wife, Katherine Brewster (Danes), to protect him after it is revealed that it kills Connor in the year 2032. The T-X, equipped with advanced weapons and the ability to control most machines, is sent to fulfill Skynet’s mission once and for all: to kill Connor and his future army lieutenants.
But when the U.S. Air Force, under the command of Katherine’s father, Lieutenant General Robert Brewster, takes over the research facility and activates Skynet in order to stop a computer virus, all hell breaks loose as the original T-1s are revived and become part of T-X’s mission.
As T-X and its army of T-1s hunt John and Katherine, General Brewster sends them to Crystal Peak where they believe Skynet’s system core is located. There, they undergo another attack from T-X, until the Terminator destroys it by detonating a hydrogen fuel cell in its mouth.
Connor soon realizes that he and Kate are not at the system’s core, but at an old government bomb shelter. Connor realizes that Skynet’s operations are worldwide, making it impossible to shut down. As Skynet begins to launch nuclear missiles, Connor starts receiving messages from military forces, ultimately assuming he is in command, foreshadowing his future as leader of the resistance army.

Toni-Marie Ippolito history

Towards a Theory of John Connor - Part 1

April 22nd, 2009

connor1

Now we get to the good stuff.

Seeing as I have way too much to say about John Connor for just one post, I’m gonna break things up and start by looking at his first appearance in Terminator 2…

Connor (as originally played by Edward Furlong) is probably my favourite child character to appear in an adult-oriented movie. The thing is, I usually hate it when kids take the spotlight. I even have a problem with Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (which, according to my friends, officially makes me the devil). But for some reason, I was always okay with Furlong’s Connor, even though he displays all the hallmarks of annoying child stars: the grating voice, the look-how-cool-I-am attitude, and the rapid-fire pop culture sayings. On paper, Furlong is basically Macaulay Culkin with more swearwords.

But the fact of the matter is, Furlong’s Connor is the most identifiable character in the franchise, and might very well be the reason why Terminator 2 still stands as the best entry in the series.

If, in the summer of 1991, you happened to be a pubescent boy (and let’s be honest, that is the Terminator fanbase), then chances are you saw Terminator 2 in a very special light, because young John Connor might just be the perfect hero for generations of aimless youngsters.

It’s hard not to feel for the kid. For starters, his mom’s always pushing him to succeed, and it’s awfully hard to live up to such high expectations (what with her pressuring him to be the messiah and all), his dad’s gone, he has trouble making friends, he’s always crossing the authorities, and it’s really hard to meet girls when you’re being chased around by robots. But instead of getting all angsty and whiney like his contemporaries on Degrassi High, John Connor says screw it. In very colourful and creative ways. And instead of retreating into video games and Dungeons and Dragons, he makes his own fun, he makes his own father figure, and he takes no guff. But at the same time, he makes nice with his mom, he does what he can to save the day, and he’s not afraid to cry.

Watching this movie for the first time as a fellow aimless young hipster was like a religious experience. Because at the ends of the day, John Connor gives all scrawny, nerdy dudes reason to hope. And the movie, for all its superbad action tendencies, ends with the surprisingly uplifting message that if you just be yourself and let your emotions out, things will be okay and you’ll grow up to be a hero after all.

And, really, how cool is that?

Not since Luke Skywalker in Star Wars has one amazingly annoying young man given legions of bored, dissatisfied film nerds reason to dream.

See, the magic of John Connor in T2 is that, all in all, he’s a major disappointment. In the first film this guy has been hyped as the one and only savior of humanity, over-flowing with brains and war-heroics and superpowers. And then in T2 we get Edward Furlong, who is pretty much the exact opposite. He’s scrawny, selfish, bored, and often does incredibly stupid things just for the heck of it.

But the thing is, he knows he’s a disappointment. He knows he’s not the man he’s supposed to be, but he refuses to let other people’s expectations change him. He has kind of a “que sera sera” outlook to the whole thing. And for the masses of young men and women whose parents wanted them to become accountants and doctors and lawyers, but who instead wanted to daydream about sci-fi and watch cartoons, John Connor is all kinds of heroic. His message is simple: Live your life, try not to piss off your parents too much, and if it truly is meant to be, then just let it be.

And most importantly, there’s no situation that can’t be solved with coarse language.

Keep your eyes peeled for part 2 where we’ll look at Nick Stahl’s time behind the John Connor reigns and see what we have to look forward to in Salvation.

jakeb characters, history

Puppet Time

April 21st, 2009

winston

2008 saw the death of an honest-to-God film legend. And I know that term gets thrown around a lot when someone dies in Hollywood, but there’s no other way to describe special effects wizard Stan Winston. In fact, when you look at Winston’s body of work (which includes Terminator, Jurassic Park, Aliens, Predator, Iron Man, Edward Scissorhands, and – regrettably – the Star Wars Christmas Special), it’s awfully tempting to call him the most influential FX man of the past forty years. This is the guy who gave me nightmares as a kid, had me dreaming about dinosaurs and spaceships as a teenager, and now has earned my continued awe and respect as a film student. If that’s laying it on a little thick, well… what can I say? He literally designed the look of my childhood.

And while Winston and his crew certainly knew their way around a computer, I’ve always thought he deserved the most recognition for his non-CGI work. Winston’s puppets, models, and miniatures make up some of the coolest monsters in Hollywood history, beginning with one of his earliest projects (and still one of his best), the metal Terminator exoskeletons.

So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the last movies Winston worked on before his death was Terminator Salvation.

And, yes, I’m very excited.

See, we’ve pretty much reached the point where puppets and models and miniatures are obsolete. Any robot or spaceship or dinosaur can be animated on a computer for around the same price. And, in all fairness, in most cases the CGI will look better. Bottom line: you can always do more with a computer.

But, when done right, nothing tops a real, physical model. Because the better CGI gets, the more you’re drawn out of the movie and end up thinking, “wow, that’s really good CGI!” But a puppet can actually scare the pants off you. Or at least me, anyway. Maybe it’s not the same for everyone. And don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that the Terminator franchise (specifically number 2) was one of the defining moments in CG effects history (and I’ll be talking about that in more detail next week), but still… at the end of the day, I’ll always take a puppet over a drawing. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I was raised on old-school Lucas and Spielberg and Cameron, so this is what I’ve come to appreciate. Maybe the kids raised on Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter will look back and think puppets are stupid.

All I know is that Terminator Salvation can only benefit from the awesome work of Stan Winston.

McG has said time and again that he’s going for a gritty, realistic, dirty, ugly feel for this movie, and going the extra mile to at least include some puppetry was absolutely the right call.

Oh, and for the record, Winston was one of the leading engineers in animatronics, meaning in other words that he actually built real freaking robots. If he had to go, I’m glad he went doing Terminator.

But what do you think? What works better for you? Would you rather see shiny computer drawings, or gritty, greasy models?

jakeb get psyched, history

Encyclopedia Terminatica

April 18th, 2009

So it occurs to me that I’ve been using an awful lot of Terminator jargon under the assumption that everyone else is as obsessed with mid-80s science fiction as I am. In order to make further readings a little easier on the Terminator-impaired, here’s my first entry in an ongoing Terminator Encyclopedia.

Skynet
a.k.a the Bad Guy

Originally designed as a computer program to control U.S. defense systems, Skynet developed a personality and started thinking for itself. The creators promptly freaked out and tried to shut it down. Facing imminent destruction, Skynet decided to use all those fancy nuclear weapons at its disposal to wipe out most of humanity. Skynet now spends its time building Terminators for the sole purpose of eradicating the last vestiges of mankind.

skynet1

“The Resistance”

a.k.a. the Good Guys

The Resistance is a ragtag group of freedom fighters made up of survivors who have managed to escape Skynet’s grasp. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned by their robotic adversaries, we know that at some point in the future John Connor will lead the Resistance to victory. Skynet also knows this, and resorts to various time travel tricks to prevent such an outcome from occurring.

resistance1

T-600

An early, pre-Schwarzenegger model Terminator equipped with all manner of weapons. Unlike later models, the T-600 lacks the convincing organic exterior needed to blend in with humans. According to Kyle Rees in Terminator 1, the T-600’s fake rubber skin makes it easy to spot. But just because it lacks stealth, it doesn’t mean the T-600 isn’t damn near unstoppable.

t600

Kyle Reese

A member of the Resistance sent back through time to protect Sarah Connor in Terminator 1. Originally played by Michael Biehn, a younger Kyle Reese (this time played by Anton Yelchin) will appear in Terminator Salvation. Much of what we know about the future and John’s destiny comes from what Kyle tells Sarah in the first movie.

jakeb get psyched, history

Why I still love Terminator despite 18 years of bad sequels, weak rip-offs, a failing tv series, and embarrassing gubernatorial campaigns

April 9th, 2009

intro_pic

I was somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to Terminator appreciation.

Being a doe-eyed four year old when the first sequel came out, my parents did everything in their power to prevent me from seeing a movie they considered to be far too violent. And so, for the next decade, I’d offer blank stares and shrugged shoulders whenever a friend would sarcastically shout “hasta la vista!” or mumble, “I’ll be back.” It was a lonely existence.

But then, one fine summer when I was 15, I ended up catching a TV broadcast of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And, baby, it was love at first sight.

Here was a movie that had absolutely everything. It was about the relationship between parents and their children. It was about the struggle between free will and destiny. It was about the desire to overcome our darkest, most destructive impulses. But it was also about robots who ride motorcycles and fire grenade launchers while spouting 80s witticisms. It was about time travel and special effects and blowing stuff up just for the sake of blowing stuff up. As a 15 year old boy, this was freaking Shakespeare.

From that point on, Terminator became a very important part of my life.

Like, for instance, there was this one year where I dropped out of college and decided to live on my parents’ couch, and whenever someone asked me what I was doing with my life I’d tell them I was waiting to lead the resistance in the coming war against the machines.

And then, at the first office job I ever worked, I spent four months calling the tech support guy “Skynet.” Amazingly I lasted three years there.

And I, like everyone else, thought that Terminator 1 and 2 were the beginning of a beautiful franchise, one that would be mentioned in the same breath as Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Another entry in the gleaming halls of sci-fi excellence.

But, alas, then we were given Terminator 3, and all such hopes were dashed. The proverbial ball was dropped with a sequel that was nothing more than a pale imitation of its predecessors and somehow all the good parts of the franchise came undone overnight. Several others have already commented on the failure of this movie, so I’ll just simply say that I was heartbroken.

And then Schwarzenegger ran for office.

And then there was the TV show.

And so, when I heard that McG, the visionary auteur behind Charlie’s Angels 1 and 2 would be directing a fourth installment, I responded with a resounding “meh.” I’d been hurt once before, and now I was bitter and scorned.

But then time passed, and more info came to light… and soon I found myself reconsidering my rather cynical position.

First I heard that Christian “He’s Freaking Batman!” Bale had been cast as John Connor, and my interest immediately piqued.

And then I learned that the story wouldn’t be a rehash of the old “robot sent back through time” bit, but would actually be the movie I had been dying to see since I was fifteen: John Connor, in the future, leading the war.

And then I saw the trailers. And, baby, it was love all over again.

Complex discussions about the nature of humanity? Check.

One man’s struggle to find and fulfill his purpose? Check.

John Connor crushing robots with a helicopter? You better believe it!

In short, McG and crew have managed to spark my waning interest with some very promising material. Can this film live up to the wildly unrealistic expectations of one diehard fan? Can it undo eighteen years of disappointment? Can this movie cement Terminator’s position as action/adventure/sci-fi brilliance?

Well here’s hoping.

And now the fun part… for the next 42 days we’ll be discussing every aspect of this movie. Like how we’re supposed to believe that Edward Furlong could grow up to be Christian Bale. Why I love Bryce Dallas Howard and why I’m worried about Anton Yelchin. Why a Schwarzenegger cameo could make this the movie of the summer. Why the prospect of seeing Linda Hamilton return as Sarah Connor has me psyched out of my mind. And why, after all this time, I still need to know if we can win the impending war against the machines.

So check back tomorrow to see what I have to say about Kate Connor and her role in the series.

And spread the word, because if you’re reading this… you are the resistance!

jakeb history