Terminator Suckvation

Terminator Salvation is basically a slightly better version of Battlefield Earth. I know this an ad hominen point that’s been run into the ground, but it’s hard to expect much from a director who encourages the use of his “McG” nickname, especially one who has never made a movie that was worth watching. Never. This guy is such a douche, he publicly tells those who criticize his big screen adaptation of Charlie’s Angels and its sequel to “fuck off.” I’ve seen more artistic integrity in a stick-figure doodle. You cannot make such a set of movies and defend it when people rightly recognize it as shit.

I’m so sick of movies with such ridiculous plots taking themselves so seriously. Since when was it okay for a movie to be so joyless? Are all the new filmmakers emo adults who think the audience should be depressed just by the way their movies look? When you have metal skeletons shooting at your characters, it takes a lot of misdirection to make that boring. What we have here is an example of a movie director who doesn’t understand drama trying to craft a drama out of a franchise that was fun the first two times around, then uninspired the next.

The movie begins with a story box. I groaned. Then, a future biological machine named Marcus (Sam Worthington) is prepared to be executed on a table which conveniently allows the director to sneak in crucifix imagery—shit’s so basic they teach it the first day in Metaphor 101. I groaned again. There’s a plot, which is as simple as you can get when you tamper with the mythology surrounding John and Sarah Conner, Kyle Reese, and the fact that, originally, Skynet was supposed to have roasted the world by 1997.

(When the flow of time can be so easily changed, why should we care what happened/happens? One gets the feeling they’ll just change it in the sequel anyway.)

Despite this “simplicity,” the plot’s needlessly complex and convoluted; beginning with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, they had explanations for why Skynet was “postponed,” but no real good reasons beyond the obvious financial ones.

And there was no good reason to continue after T2: Judgment Day, either. It’s so obviously a money-making scheme, I was turned off from the get-go. Which isn’t to say I didn’t give the newer films a chance. It took me several false starts to get through parts 3 and 4, but I did it. Too bad John Conner can’t send a terminator back to stop the production of those movies, for they take away a lot from the good ones. You can’t trust anything in the series anymore. Part 5 will probably go back and alter it so that parts 1 and 2 never even happened. Then the filmmakers will be free to screw up the franchise in any way they choose.

Terminator is a great movie, but Terminator 2 is also great movie in a completely different way. It wasn’t about Skynet and machine-on-machine fight sequences, not entirely anyway. It was about John Conner and his need for a father figure. It was about how a machine, the very thought of which the main character’s mother despised, could provide that role. I imagine the idea came to James Cameron naturally. He wasn’t just sitting around, wondering what he could do next to keep the franchise going. And for the film’s villain, he imagined a logical successor: the T-1000, which provided something we had never seen before in a movie.

The villain in Terminator 3, on the other hand, provided something we had seen done a million times before in all those terrible movies that ripped off the first Terminator films. There was nothing new. It felt more like a sequel to JCVD’s Cyborg than a movie worthy of the Terminator title. John Conner was an absolutely terrible kid in part two, yet he was a lot easier to sympathize with than the boring adult version presented in part 3, or the one-note JC in Salvation for that matter.

Which brings me to the continuity errors surrounding John Conner’s character. The only father he’d ever known was a machine. He was helped again by a machine in the same incarnation in part 3, albeit a lot less believably. So why, then, wasn’t he a little more receptive of the idea of a good terminator in Salvation? Why did he automatically hate Marcus so bad? Even his mother eventually learned to accept the idea a machine could be good. So why the sudden turn-around?

I’ll tell you why: bad writing. That and lack of respect for the preceding films. You ask me, that’s unforgivable.

The obvious direction the fourth film should have taken was an exploration of Kyle Reese’s relationship with John Conner, similar to the father/son riffs in Terminator 2. Instead, you have Reese taken hostage midway through the movie and held there nearly until the end. By the time Conner finally meets him during the ridiculous climax, there’s no time left to explore anything remotely interesting.

Which just goes to prove that once you remove the human element, you’re left with is a film that amounts to porn for action junkies. But even though it’s the focus, I felt even the action wasn’t good enough for the franchise. It didn’t flow like music as it did in the first two and it didn’t do anything new whatsoever. (Okay, one scene was pretty good: it’s when John Conner gets into a helicopter, flies away from a nuclear blast, and crash-lands when the EMP knocks him out of the air. It was all done in one shot, which was mildly interesting, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that Conner was so lacking in character, I couldn’t sympathize with him enough to care.)

Other thoughts about the franchise:

  • The writers of part 3 were sitting around a table, wondering how they could make their villain better than the villain in Terminator 2, which was an impossible goal from the get-go. One writer probably exclaimed, “I know! We’ll make it a woman!” And then they proceeded to pat each other on the backs and blow each other.
  • The obnoxious biblical symbolism began in part 3’s ending, I believe. John Conner and Clair Danes are Adam and Eve. How goddamned sickening. 
  • In parts 1 and 2, we get a feeling for how the terminators were programmed. We get in their heads and learn how they think. In parts 3 and 4, they don’t think at all. They fire a million bullets, even when the characters have long ago removed themselves from the path of fire, and they fall into impossible traps with all the grace of lemmings. (By the way, why do they have such bad aim now?) One terminator, in part 4, is caught hanging upside down in a rope. Instead of shooting the rope, it shoots its foot—its own fucking foot! Yet another point where I groaned. The terminators now lack a certain strategical purpose. They’re essentially metal zombies with guns now.

    I Learned Science from Arthur C. Clarke

    Two years ago today, the last surviving member of science fiction’s “Big Three” died. It was Arthur C. Clarke, whose prose was never really what anyone else would call great, but it was sufficient. That’s not the point. He was an ideas man.

    ACC also had science—real science, when it didn’t get in the way of awesomeness—and he had a huge influence on my imagination today, which is why I believe that science fiction stories and fiction in general are healthy things for children; a lot of Clarke’s works would have been labeled “young adult” if released today. I was always interested in science, but I wasn’t in love with the subject until ACC showed me how weird and bizarre it is.

    So maybe I should really say I learned science appreciation from Clarke, instead of using the sensational title above, but having revisited a lot of his stories lately, I was struck by one epiphany after another: it was unreal how often I would stop reading and think, “Oh… so that’s why I started thinking about that at such an early age.” He didn’t just have a big influence on my interest in science, but creatively and politically.

    I never realized how much Clarke influenced the adult I would grow up to be until recently. 

    Rendezvous with Rama

    Consider Rendezvous with Rama, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula, not to mention it’s one of the books that got me reading in the first place. It’s a haunting adventure story told without the prerequisite heroes and damsels in distress, yet it’s every bit as entertaining as Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure. Clarke’s seminal work begins: “Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.”

    The book’s fictional element starts on September 11th, 2077, when a meteorite strikes Earth and kills six hundred thousand people. This is foreshadowed, a paragraph before, by Clarke’s textbook narration of two narrow misses in real life: in June of 1908, “Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometers—a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe. On February 12, 1947, another Russian city had a still narrower escape, when the second great meteorite of the twentieth century detonated less than four hundred kilometers from Vladivostok, with an explosion rivaling that of the newly invented uranium bomb.”

    Clarke writes on about the killer meteorite of 2077:

    Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.

    The catastrophe spurs humans to implement SPACEGUARD, a program which watches for catastrophic collisions. Fifty years later, SPACEGUARD (which is on the brink of being shut down) discovers what scientists will soon call Rama: a cylindrical spacecraft which has mysteriously entered our solar system and will soon leave. This gives humans a very small window by which to study the alien craft. At which point I was hooked and spent a long night reading the novel beneath my covers with a flashlight.

    The year was 1993 and I was ten years old. I’d seen Rama Revealed on a bookshelf and was fascinated by the cover and its synopsis. When I realized it was a sequel, I begged one of my parents to order a copy of the original book for me. Here’s a startling thought: what if they hadn’t? Honestly, the very thing that makes me me is so deeply wrapped up in that story. If they hadn’t indulged my request, the person writing this post wouldn’t exist.

    What Rendezvous did for me was introduce my feeble little mind to visual thinking, including in and about conceptual physics. The spacecraft Rama generates artificial “gravity” via centripetal force. Inside, separating the two halves of the cylindrical craft is an ocean in the form of a equatorial band, held in place by said spin. Perhaps I struggled with this imagery at first: a giant band of water that “sticks” to the inside of the cylinder’s continuous wall. And when the characters ride a boat in the middle of this ocean, they can look up and see more of the ocean ahead and above them.

    Sure, this type of spacecraft setup has been a staple of science fiction before and since, but it was probably my first brush with the concept. In an interesting subplot somewhere in the middle of the book, the explorers want to get a look at the device at the far end of the craft, which they assume is some sort of a space drive. You see spaceships in movies that don’t have any visible means of propulsion, but in an ACC story, this is troublesome because it violates Netwon’s third law of motion: “For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.”

    The Sentinel/2001: A Space Odyssey

    Some time after inhaling the entire Rama series, I found the book version of 2001, which was more or less written concurrently with the film at Kubrick’s request. If nothing else, it expanded on the Dawn of Man stuff seen in the film, which was probably the first time I considered human evolution and our prehistoric ancestors. It also expands on how Hal 9000 tries to kill the main character, which in some ways is scarier than the movie. I mean, imagine being alone on a spaceship with a brilliant yet murderous computer and, suddenly… well, let’s not spoil that here, but the sequence was probably deemed unfilmable by Kubrick’s budget, which is why we got what we got—which was good, too.

    The novel is allegedly based on ACC’s short story The Sentinel, which is probably the first time I considered the fact that the haze of distance is unique to planetary objects with atmospheres:

    On the Moon, of course, there is no loss of detail with distance—none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth.

    This may not be pertinent information to most people, but it was exactly the kind of information I needed as a budding science geek. (Though the short story is essentially the beginning of 2001, minus the Dawn of Man stuff, ACC himself has said 2001 really isn’t based on The Sentinel despite common belief.)

    The Early Stuff

    Some of ACC’s earlier stuff may seem a little lackluster compared to classics like 2001 and Rama, but the science is still pretty hard and the stories are charming, if not disappointingly simplistic in structure. Some of the things he dwells on is common knowledge for most SF fans (particularly the “There’s no up or down in space” stuff), but I think it’s interesting to note how early he was writing it… specifically the fact that he was writing it before humans ever went to space. A lot of what he wrote was not common knowledge when originally published.

    And sometimes he demonstrated unexpected humor early on, as is the case with Islands in the Sky, a novel aimed at teenagers in which the narrator wins a trip to space:

    There were also, I’d discovered, some interesting tricks and practical jokes that could be played in space. One of the best involved nothing more complicated than an ordinary match.

    What happens is the other astronauts play a prank on the boy: they tell him the way you make sure you have a fresh supply of oxygen is the same way miners do it back on Earth: you light a match. (Never mind why astronauts have matches on board. That’s not the point.) If the match goes out, “well, you go out too, as quickly as you can!”

    One of the astronauts demonstrates by lighting a match which promptly extinguishes itself, much to the boy’s dismay.

    It’s funny how the mind works, for up to that moment I’d been breathing comfortably, yet now I seemed to be suffocating.

    The boy worriedly tells him to light another match. And it, too, goes out. Then, after the boy panics, he realizes they were only pulling his chain. ACC then has his characters explain that, in the absence of gravity, smoke has nowhere to go and suffocates the flame. I don’t know why, but that scene always stuck with me. I guess I enjoyed daydreaming about all the pranks you could pull in microgravity.

    Childhood’s End

    Childhood’s End is probably the most loved of Clarke’s earlier novels. (I confess I didn’t care that much for it the first time I read it, and only begrudgingly enjoy aspects of it now that I’m adult.) At one point in the novel, the characters successfully use a device that’s essentially a spirit board, which is disappointing to those who love ACC’s usually hard science. (Yes, Clarke’s work has always been described as “mystical,” but more in an Indiana Jones way, minus the paranormal crap. Think: the ark of the covenant if it were a natural artifact instead of a paranormal relic.)

    Having said that, beyond the explanations of time dilation at relativistic speeds (one of the first times I was introduced to that concept), the only thing about Childhood’s End that really sticks out in my mind today is the introduction included in my edition (1990, Pan Books LTD.). There, Clarke admits that he was impressed by the evidence for the paranormal when he wrote Childhood’s End.

    When Childhood’s End first appeared, many readers were baffled by a statement after the title page to the effect that “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” This was not entirely facetious; I had just published The Exploration of Space, and painted an optimistic picture of our future expansion into the Universe. Now I had written a book which said, “The stars are not for Man,” and I did not want anyone to think I had suddenly recanted.

    Today, I would like to change the target of that disclaimer to cover 99 percent of the “paranormal” (it can’t all be nonsense) and 100 percent of UFO “encounters.”

    At any rate, I just thought I’d use the anniversary of Clarke’s death to geek out about the things that made me such a geek today.