I don’t know about you, but the newest trailer for Terminator Salvation has gotten me seriously excited.
I saw it on the big screen in front of Watchmen the other night and for some reason a movie that had previously just been a blip on my radar is now starting to look like a helluva lot of fun. Christian Bale, rage black-outs aside, looks like he is going to be a really cool John Connor, and the aesthetic of the film (sun-drenched and gritty like Beyond Thunderdome meets The Matrix) looks like a pointedly cool choice from the project’s director, McG, someone I have spent a lot of breath maligning, but who just might pull this one out.
Take into account who they have on the script: John Brancato and Michael Ferris (the scribes from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a no-where-near-perfect but still striking previous installment) as well as Jonathan Nolan, who is the brother of Chris, the originator of the idea behind Memento, and the co-author of last year’s best film, The Dark Knight. Much remains to be seen about this project (McG is, after all, responsible for We Are Marshall) but the trailer suggests a level of ambition that I was not expecting.
And once you think about it, the fact that the Terminator series is one of the strongest film franchises of the past twenty five years sorta creeps up on you. The series has obviously entrenched itself in our pop culture vocabulary (“I’ll be back”) and been immortalized by Kevin Williamson (who doesn’t want that distinction?) in the famous sequel vs. original discussion in Scream 2, but, for my money, it has done much more than that: it has kept big, ambitious ideas coming at you even when all signs pointed to just another dumb action blockbuster.
Most people acknowledge that Terminator 2: Judgment Day kicks miles and miles of ass. Even those who don’t give it the props it deserves for being an intelligent sci-fi film will give it up on the grounds of action movie prowess. And with Terminator 3, though it is flawed, most people seem to acknowledge that it was a lot better than it had any right to be, coming up with an interesting, introspective ending that could have so easily amounted to little more than some explosions and a few dead bodies.
But most people seem to discount the first Terminator film, released in 1984, which really got the ball rolling. I remember as a kid seeing Terminator 2 long before ever worrying about its predecessor, and in a way that was okay—everything you need to know about the back story of Terminator 2 is pretty much told to you, so you could feasibly see the second without seeing the first and not lose much ground (I don’t recommend it, but it doesn’t take away from any enjoyment of the sequel). But if you do skip it, you miss an 80’s action movie that gives the decade a good name. Most people look at the film as one that Jim Cameron did to get his career rolling so he could get serious (though I’m not sure where The Abyss fits in there), but The Terminator has something that most action movies of the era lacked: a storytelling purpose that could keep you interested while most action movies have you counting the minutes to the next explosion.
The story is well known at this point, but I’ll recount it in case you’ve forgotten: the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, yes that one) is sent back through time to kill an ordinary woman, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in 1984. Why, you may ask? Because the human race will be annihilated in a few years by nuclear war, and Sarah’s unborn son, John, will lead the human resistance against the machines that caused the apocalypse.
Once the Terminator has arrived (after we get a shot of Arnold’s cute ass) he starts going through Sarah Connors in the phone book. He goes through a few false starts (no one said missions through time were easy or precise) but finally finds the right Sarah in a night club after she has gotten wind of the immediate danger. He zeroes in for the kill, but is thwarted by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a human soldier sent through time by the resistance to protect Sarah.
A series of car chases, shootouts, and explosions ensue as Sarah and Reese fight to elude or destroy the Terminator before he kills them both. Cameron directed action very well on subsequent films, but you can tell by this film that he didn’t need to fail much in order to learn the ropes. He executes the action beats like a reliable pro but never takes his eye off the ball—you are always aware of the human story unfolding.
Terminator Salvation will mark, obviously, the first Terminator film without Arnold. It is easy to crack jokes about the ex-bodybuilder who, miraculously, moved into politics. Judging acting separate from image, though, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the Terminator.
Arnold seems like an actor that depends very much on the director he is working with, and Cameron has always gotten the best performances out of him. Look at the way the Terminator moves in T3 (directed by Jonathan Mostow) versus the way he moves in The Terminator and T2—the movements are noticeably more robotic and less subtle. Cameron understood that the Terminator needed to be directed as an infiltration unit, and gets as much naturalism out of Arnold (who hadn’t done much acting at the time) as possible. Oh, a quick side note: the special effects in this movie are adorable; that’s all I will say.
Watching the film again a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised by how much I still liked Biehn and Hamilton in these roles. Hamilton obviously went on to play the character again in T2, delivering a powerful performance as a darker, tormented Sarah, but here she conveys the bewildered quality of a person buckling under the weight of something far larger than herself. Biehn plays Reese with an air of mystique (scenes from the future illuminate his character along the way) which unravels as he gets closer to Sarah. We get ourselves so wrapped up in the story’s tension that it is surprising when the two fall in love.
It’s no secret (read no further if it is) that Reese winds up being John Connor’s father, which has always been the emotional masterstroke of the series. As it has progressed over twenty five years, it has been interesting to see the story develop and move closer to moments that were set up in earlier films. Few franchises have the luxury of knowing, in some ways, the quality of the story they will be telling. Thanks to the story erected by Jim Cameron, McG and his screenwriters have a doozy to tell that we know is going to be affecting one way or another. Let’s hope they don’t squander the opportunity. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, I’m optimistic that they won’t.