Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why isn't Terminator 2 a Terrible Movie?


Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an amazing movie that is a huge part of 90's culture.  It had video games, t-shirts, action figures, a theme park attraction, comic books, and today has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Why?  It's fucking rad as hell, that's why!


So why does it look so absolutely horrible on paper?




See, the trailer knows exactly how to sell the movie.  Machine skull out of the flames, check.  Electricity in the alley way while a naked man robot travels through time, check.  Reminder of how catastrophic the previous terminator attack was, check.  Crazy woman saying her son is in danger while he watches a semi drive off of a bridge, check.  Action porn, check.  New machine that seems completely unstoppable, check.  The unstoppable machine from the previous movie is a good guy now, check.

The trailer has a lot of good shit going for it, which is well deserved.  The movie is badass.

But when you really get down into the ideas that came into making this movie, you have wonder who in their right mind would have thought it would be a good idea.


1. The movie is about a brat befriending a killing machine


One of the themes most focused on in the movie is John Connor's relationship with the machine.  One of the least focused on themes of the movie is that John Connor is a little shit.

First of all, let's look at how thematically baffling Connor's relationship with the Terminator is.  John Connor's dad was murdered by a Terminator of the same make and model.  The Terminator is the same kind of unfeeling robot as the horrific machine from the first movie that unwaveringly tries to murder John Connor's mother and unborn John Connor.  John Connor is destined to grow up to be the person who will fight to genocide the Terminator's entire robofamily.  Here they are, chilling, learning "hip" and "cool" new slang for the Terminator to use as it learns to smile and become Connor's surrogate father, if only for a few days.


And then they go on an adventure to ensure that Terminators never existed, ie; the Terminator that Connor is hanging out with would never have existed.  Wait, wouldn't that mean that John Connor never would have existed because Kyle Reese would have never gone back in time to impregnate Sarah Connor and... you know what?  I'm just going to skip the time travel causality loop bullshit today.


But that doesn't change the fact that this is essentially a budding friendship between what robots see as the future Osama Bin Laden and what humans see as the future Nazi stormtrooper.  Throw in a crazy woman and the guy who accidentally wrote the robo-Mein Kampf going to an office building to blow up the birthplace of robo-God-Hitler before it existed and you have the oddest team of heroes to ever be in a movie.


Now, this premise works out masterfully as one of the best action flicks of the decade.  But Christ, can you imagine writing a movie like that after having seen the first movie?  The first movie is entirely about beating the odds of an unstoppable killing machine, but the real unstoppable force is the future apocalypse which is inevitable.  And then you make the next movie star the same unstoppable killing machine as a good guy helping to prevent the unstoppable future robot apocalypse as the best friend of the child that the first terminator was trying to prevent from ever existing.  And then he learns to say, "hasta la vista, baby," and, "no problemo," and eventually learns how to smile.


Have you even seen the first Terminator?  Nobody should watch that movie and think, "Let's make him befriend a kid in the sequel while spouting slang and becoming a twisted foster father!"


That was a Terminator that impaled people with his fist and slaughtered a precinct's worth of police officers, even crawling relentlessly after an unarmed woman when he was reduced to half of a blown up skeleton.



2. Seriously, have you even seen the first Terminator?


If not, I'll summarize: Sarah Connor is going to become the mother to John Connor at some point in the future, and John Connor is going to lead a rebellion against evil robot overlords even further into the future.  The evil robot overlords don't like this so they send a human-ish looking robot designed to infiltrate and kill into the past to kill Sarah Connor before she even becomes pregnant with John Connor.  The rebellion sends soldier Kyle Reese to intercept the robo-assassin and WHOOPS has sex with Sarah Connor and fathers the very rebel leader the robot overlords were trying to prevent.  The robots also accidentally cause their own rise to power by leaving behind the technology that would lead to their development.  It's a causality loop that ties up rather nicely.

Yeah, ties up great.  Except I died!
But here's the thing: Terminator was a sci-fi horror movie.  The Terminator was supposed to be similar to something like Jason Voorhees if Jason Voorhees was a robot.

Hasta la vista, baby!
The Terminator is freakishly persistent and only intends to kill.  It's frightening how nothing seems to stop him, and you can run but you can't seem to hide.  He even does gross out horror in a scene where he removes his own eye for maintenance.


The whole thing is scary, as the terminator's fulfillment of its mission feels inevitable.  It seems like you can't possibly stop this robotic task master, and when they finally do stop it by crushing it in a big, fuck-off compactor, the true horror is revealed.

The robots can't be stopped.  The future can't be changed.  The robot apocalypse will happen.

The real unstoppable killer is time.

Yes, time ruins everything
The theme is absolutely consistent and makes the first Terminator a perfectly complete movie.  No sequel is necessary.  The present and the future are explained in their full relationship with each other and nothing can screw with-


Wait what?  What the fuck?  How did- why did you do that?  Why would you do that?  Why would you take the perfect causality loop and message of the inevitability of fate and throw it the middle finger?  This completely, utterly rapes the very concepts and ideas put forward by Terminator 1.

Now, I understand that you can't have a lovable robo-Dad hanging out with a child rebel leader learning slang AND have a completely hopeless message.  What I don't understand is how any of this comes from the first movie.  The first movie is 100% about impending doom and the second movie (which by the way features a WAY more unstoppable machine) is all about subverting impending doom and replacing it with a futuristic playground in Washington DC.


Not only that, but the movie has to change the robot assassin in some pretty funny ways to try to make him likable at all.  We've already mentioned how he uses slang and the power of smiles to appear more human.  But did you ever notice how when the Terminator was supposed to be scary he doesn't have eyebrows?

Eyebrows = Likability

They let Arnold show his brows a few times in the first Terminator, but cover them up as often as they can, especially when he starts to appear more robotic.  The Terminator in Terminator 2 only appears more human as he takes damage, appearing more determined than relentless.  The Terminator appears more human over time, but is the same model as the Terminator from the first movie.  This creates a nagging question:

3. Nagging Questions


Is it okay to be trying to genocide all of the robots if they are thinking machines capable of, over time, bonding with humans?  Sure, early on in Terminator 2 the Terminator says that he does not understand human emotions.  Does that mean that they're necessarily incapable of it?  They're capable of learning a whole lot when Skynet isn't restricting their neural net processors.

The Terminator: My CPU is a neural-net processor; a learning computer. But Skynet presets the switch to read-only when we're sent out alone.

Sarah Connor: Doesn't want you doing too much thinking, huh?

The Terminator: No.

So wait, the Terminators are capable of thinking and becoming good, which Skynet is aware of and fears, and so disables their ability to think.  Of course, it would make a lot more sense if Skynet were to manufacture them without the learning bit of their brains if it's such an issue, but it's there.  It's there and it's part of what allows it to learn to be more like a human.  Hell, the movies even let you know that the Terminators have a point of view through which they see the world.


So the terrifying Terminator that acted as the unthinking monster in the first movie is actually a slave for Skynet just as much as the humans are oppressed.  The Terminators are all capable of free will, but are pseudo-lobotomized so they can't question Skynet.

The Terminators, who were conceptualized in the first movie to be the representation of the unstoppable march of unthinking, emotionless process are actually slaves to RoboHitler (not to be confused with MechaHitler).  Kind of ruins the theme there right?


4. Additional Theme Whiplash

So far we have the entire concept of the Terminator as a cold, unthinking machine ruined as well as the concept of the movies being an analogy for the unstoppable march of time.  But surely Terminator 2 forges some themes of its own, right?


Not really, no.  It tries, but never on the same effective level as the first movie.

The major theme for Terminator 2 is that you can forge your own destiny.  That's really necessary when you consider that a movie about a wise-cracking robot guardian of the future bane of robo-Hitler's existence might not work with a theme as depressing as the first movie.  That's how this movie becomes more of an action sci-fi movie and abandons the horror elements.  Right?

Not quite

Enter the T-1000.  While the Terminator in Terminator 2 replaces Kyle Reese as the defender from the future, the T-1000 replaces the Terminator.  (technically they're both Terminators, but the Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator is called a T-800 Model 101.  I'm going to keep calling the T-1000 the T-1000 and the T-800 the Terminator though)

The T-1000 does a decent role of being a foil to the Terminator.  While the Terminator is a hard chunk of metal that gets chipped away over time, the T-1000 is a squishy blob that keeps reshaping itself.  While the Terminator learns over the course of the movie to be more human like in spirit, the T-1000 only learns to take on different human forms through mimicry.


He also does pretty well at being an action movie villain by being able to react viscerally to physical violence, only to recover and come back again.  Where the Terminator only has brute force at his disposal, the T-1000 is mostly immune to brute force.

So there you go, action villain and a complete theme of action to completely shed the horror movie skin from the previous film, right?  

Well, no.

It turns out that the T-1000 is fucking terrifying.


He shape shifts into anything and then his finger will just extend out and impale your eye.  His arms turn into blades.  He can melt between steel bars.  When you shoot him he violently splatters and reforms.  He's an even more unstoppable machine than the original Terminator.


They shoot him (a lot) crash cars and helicopters in violent explosions with him within them, and even freeze and shatter him.  He keeps reforming.  True unstoppable horror who brutally murders people.

But by this point the movie has ditched the concept of the unstoppable march of progress.  Sure they stop the T-1000, but is having the unstoppable march of progress only stopped by another product of the unstoppable march of progress a perfect fit with the theme of changing your own fate?  No, it's a confusing mess of themes.  You have action, horror, inconsistent sci-fi, and dodging the robot apocalypse by using militaristic robots who are a symptom of the robot apocalypse.

And now the causality loop is totally fucked, because if the first movie showed that time travel accidentally caused the future then wouldn't that mean that the first movie no longer makes sense because time travel actually CHANGES the future instead of causing it, so there shouldn't have been a robot uprising to begin with in the first movie because time travel isn't part of a static timeline and...

Shit, sorry, I forgot I wasn't going to bother with time travel shenanigans here.

Also, just to throw out another theme whiplash is a theme that appears halfway through the film where Sarah Connor's hatred of machines almost turns her into a human equivalent of a Terminator.  She goes after Miles Dyson to try to kill him, preventing judgement day.  After the scene is over this theme is never revisited again.

5. Now pitch the movie I just described

So, after the savior of humanity was conceived by a time traveller trying to protect the savior of humanity's mother from a future robot assassin, let's say that the robots try again.  This time they send back a robot blob that can shape shift and is even MORE unstoppable.  But!  The humans have a reprogrammed version of the original Terminator and they send that back to fight the robot blob.  And, over the course of the adventure, the Terminator bonds with the kid that will one day lead the rebellion against the machines and learns to be more like a human by using slang and facial expressions.  

They break the kid's mother out of an insane asylum run by rapists and escape to Mexico.  After stocking up with weapons from Mexico, they go back to LA to find the guy who accidentally creates Robo-Hitler and blow up his office (and him with it, which is probably for the best anyway).


The future is prevented, but they're still being chased by Roboblob.  Thankfully, it chases them into a steel mill where they melt him down.  Then the Terminator melts himself to ensure that the bad future never happens.  Everybody lives happily ever after.

Wow that sounds like a joke


But it's not and it's awesome.  And I don't know how exactly it worked, but I have some ideas.

Revolutionary Visual Effects Don't Hurt


There was nothing like the T-1000 before in film because it couldn't be done.  It was an awesome blend of practical and digital effects that blew peoples' minds and still does in some instances.  There were also some great practical effects used for the Terminator's battle damage and a great puppet of Sarah Connor being annihilated by a nuke in a nightmare of the titular judgement day.

Oh yeah, and the actual post-judgement day intro was awesome.


It's a thrill ride

Every ten or so minutes of the movie is punctuated with an awesome action set-piece that has fun with the elements of the concept.  If the Terminator is very precise but can't kill anybody, have a scene where he clears out a room full of police officers by launching gas grenades into their legs, incapacitating (but not killing) them.  If the T-1000 is liquid metal, show him walk straight through jail bars with ease during a chase.  If the Terminator is a hulky robot, have him run up onto a moving truck and start shooting the driver at point blank, flip the truck on its side, and ride it as it skids down the road.



The movie is always exciting in interesting ways.  A fight scene isn't just a fist fight like it would be if it were a T-800 Terminator fighting another T-800 Terminator.  Having a bruiser-type robot fight a malleable metal blob means very interesting approaches to combat and visceral responses to each blow.

Against all odds, it has heart


As stupid as the premise of this movie is for trying to shoehorn a robotic murderer making friends with a child story, it somehow works.  John Connor is a foul-mouthed prick who shits all over his foster parents and steals from ATMs and somehow he has loads of chemistry with a stoic murder machine.  It just works for some reason that is totally lost on me.

Add in the character of Sarah Connor who has to learn how to trust the Terminator that tried to kill her in the past and you end up with a Terminator that is genuinely lovable even though it's SUCH A BAD IDEA BUT SOMEHOW IT WORKS I DON'T GET IT.

So yeah, it's a good movie

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a really good movie and I recommend it to anybody.  Somehow, James Cameron took the dumbest idea for a Terminator sequel and made it into a working movie.  The only issue is that, since it was actually a terrible idea that was just executed perfectly, all of the sequels that have tried to capitalize on the concepts in Terminator 2 have all fallen horribly flat.

But I'll write another post about that.

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