Saturday, June 13, 2009

Terminal

We're coming up on a month now since Terminator Salvation, the third sequel to James Cameron's 1984 original, came to theaters, and if box office totals are any indication, I wasn't alone in greeting it with a shrug. After struggling mightily to cross the $100 million mark (itself increasingly irrelevant in this age of skyrocketing costs), the much-ballyhooed sequel will top out with an embarrassingly meager take of $135 mil or so, well short of its $200 mil-plus budget, effectively spelling the end of the Terminator movies for the time being.

It wasn't supposed to be like that, of course. This was supposed to be a franchise reinvention in the mold of the Nolan Batmans, or the Craig Bonds, or even the Abrams Trek. In fact, if you're a died-in-the-wool Terminator fan, then the month of May in general wasn't very good for you between Salvation's flame-out and the much-hyped, little-watched TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles meeting its own Judgment Day after being canceled in the middle of a cliffhanger. It's a little sad to look at these continued diminished returns, where one of the most hallowed, revered brands in sci-fi and filmdom is reduced to a mere footnote.

I don't have near enough experience with the show to have an informed opinion, but while I didn't hate Salvation, by no means should that be interpreted to imply that the opposite is true as well. The fact that I couldn't even be arsed to write a review should serve as testament to the general level of apathy I felt as I walked out of the multiplex, and continue to feel now as I sit typing this. Not so much a review, this is more a meditation on the continued Hollywood propensity towards strip-mining properties of any perceived value, as reflected through the lens of The Terminator.

Given the distance of several weeks since its release, I've had plenty of opportunities to summarize my impressions on the film, and the only thing I can really bring myself to do is pity poor, poor Joe McGinty. He tried. He really tried. When McGinty, known to fan and foe alike as the director McG, signed on to helm, there were hoots and hollers from Terminator fans in particular and film fans in general, and bloggers the world over had their fingers poised, ready to deride when the signal was given. He was, after all, the man who'd inflicted two successively awful Charlie's Angels movies on an unsuspecting public. Plus, he made the really boneheaded decision to adopt a cutesy-poo nickname as an alias.

Either one of these would have been a tough cross to bear, but taken together they became darn near insurmountable. I think it was because of this double-whammy, and the lowered expectations that came with, that I found myself -- despite myself -- actually rooting for the guy. Interview after interview, he asked, pleaded even, to be given a chance. Don't judge him on what he's done, judge him on what he will do. Fair enough, I thought. And as pictures and trailers and more continued to work their way out leading up to the big release, I had cause for optimism. The production design indeed looked impressive, the stunts indeed looked spectacular, and it starred Christian Bale in the lead for goodness sake! He wouldn't do a bad movie, right?

And the answer is no, he wouldn't. He would, however, do a mediocre one, and that's what Terminator Salvation ended up being. Despite an absolutely massive effort to clear the bar that the Terminator franchise had previously set, what McGinty has done is to pack the movie with enough whiz-bang and spectacle to carry you through it and not make your brain ache until after you've gone home, gotten a good night's sleep, and sat down with your Corn Flakes the next morning. After that -- hoo-boy -- get ready to break out the Tylenol.

The broader point though, and one that I've become increasingly cognizant of as I get older and I see more and more revered franchises from yesteryear trotted out for remakes, reboots, or (God help us) "re-imaginings," is that maybe it's okay to just leave well enough alone sometimes. Certain stories are simply meant to stand as is. No part two. No trilogy. No TV series. Just a beginning, middle, and end. Certainly as it pertains to Cameron's Terminator -- the first one and (arguably) the best -- that's very much the case.

Here was a film expressly not intended to be sequelized into franchise heaven. It told a story, a specific story, about the immutability of fate, and how love can transcend time, and that was it. Credits roll, fade to black. The fact that Cameron was able to squeeze another entry out of that with 1991's Judgment Day is a testament to his own creativity, making an end-run around his own concept to "fit." The fact that they were able to get another sequel to that was in turn a testament to the solid conceptual foundation Cameron had laid, even without his continued involvement.

Nevertheless, as much as I enjoyed both Terminator 2 and Terminator 3 (yes, even Terminator 3), neither adds anything to the simple finality of the first movie, thus both were (and are) essentially unnecessary. Of course, I'm not naive enough to think that Hollywood isn't just as much about "business" as it is about "show," but the key to any sequel isn't just to make money to ensure yet another sequel, it's to build on the original while maintaining fidelity to it, otherwise you end up with a purely monetary exercise. Sadly, such is now the case with The Terminator. It's become Planet of the Apes. It's become RoboCop. A brilliant, done-in-one story that's subsequently watered down and watered down through add-ons that extend the brand but diminish the simple power of the original.

Does the premature end of Sarah Connor and the limp box office fate of Salvation spell the end of The Terminator as a brand? I doubt it. If not right away, then somewhere down the line it'll be jolted back to Frankensteinian life in hopes of squeezing more blood from the stone, just like they're even now planning to do with the aforementioned Apes and RoboCop. There's too much money at stake for them not to try. But it is, however, the end of The Terminator as a concept with anything substantive to say. After Salvation, it's become something that, however technically proficient, is nonetheless utterly soulless and ruthlessly mechanical. How bitterly ironic.

6 comments:

IrfanR said...

Yes, i agree the film was a little disappointing and "medicore" is a good term to use, as i wasnt totally bad. But I think that T2 was def. the best of the series. I still have the poster on my door:)! Termintor (1st) was a classic though and you're right when you say that the sequels were not really necessary as it was a complete film in itself.

J.R. LeMar said...

I agree with you in terms of the first franchise. Terminator 2 was my favorite, but Terminator 3 grew on me, after awhile. My biggest problem with that one was the lack of Edward Furlong as John Conner, just for continuity's sake. But once I got ever that, I realized that it was a good enough movie. And that really should have been THE END.

Haven't seen Salvation, and have no desire to.

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I love the first one - it's just so damn awesome on so many levels, not the least of which is the near-parody of the unstoppable killer movie genre (by way of example, how many people noticed the actual date that most of the movie takes place?)

T2 is over-the-top sequel done right. I mean, as sequels go, nothing could ever top the work that Cameron did on Aliens, but T2 sure tries! And it does run with a similar idea to Cameron's approach to Aliens - that is, make a sequel that is fundamentally different from the original. In this case, the role-reversal of the main Terminator, the notion of oh, wait, maybe we can change our own fate, of ditching a romantic story for an emerging family story, that sort of thing.

Really, it would have been perfect except for some of the bad not-funny humour and the Ken Doll Terminator being tossed off the N2 truck at the end - such a sad effect for such a state-of-the-art-FX movie...

T3...nope. Just nope. Hated it. Hated every frame. Hated the chase scenes. Oh, sure, the idea of the movie was okay, and made for a story that was not only different from the original, it also could not have been told in 1984 (what with the lack of an internet and all back then...). But even with that...nope. Don't like it.

T:Salvation...meh. I can't be bothered to see it yet. Nothing about it has sounded compelling. Any time I thought about seeing it, I then though or I could just go see Star Trek again. Which I promptly did. Again. And again.

Anonymous said...

Watch it dude - it murders T3

Zaki said...

Pretty big fan of T3. I enjoyed it when I first saw it, and my appreciation for it has only grown the several times I've seen it since. By the time we got around to the third TERMINATOR flick, the series had long ago become about "cash cow" first, and "art" second. Given that, what I really appreciated about the third film was that it was willing to take risks with its central premise while still going through the requisite motions of a summer blockbuster.

T3 gives us the most complex and layered John Connor that we've seen in any iteration of the TERMINATOR brand. He's a man without a purpose. The one thing he'd been groomed for all his life, his reason for being, was wiped away when the last movie ended. It was a fascinating progression from the character we last met as Eddie Furlong, asking what the soldier does when not only is there no longer a war to fight, but there never WOULD be.

Further, what appealed to me about T3 was its examination of the themes of inevitability, hearkening back to the same notes struck in the first film. The idea that even if the future is set, it's about how we choose to face it. The ending of the movie, with John and Kate united in the face of an unsteady future, with the end of the world playing out all around them, is haunting, unnerving, and yes, almost beautiful.

Far from being a parody of the TERMINATOR brand, or one step too far, I feel it was a validation of everything Cameron had set in motion 19 years earlier. RISE OF THE MACHINES ended at a place that needed no further elucidation.

We knew what was going to come next, and anything else was just going to be another trip to the well, barring some really clever wordsmithing on the part of the franchise's minders. Sadly, such was not to be.

SALVATION is a harmless way to kill a few hours, no doubt, and on that scale it works just fine. However, it does a disservice to its lineage by being so blatantly assembly-lined to the point of utter disposability. SALVATION takes the TERMINATOR franchise and does it the worst possible disservice: it makes it "ordinary."

J.R. LeMar said...

To me, one of the most appealing aspects of the original series was the time travel issue. The idea that, in each film, they were fighting to either save or prevent the future. But now it's just another post-apocalyptic future film, which isn't that interesting to me.

Like I said on FB, I'm guessing that the next step will be a reboot/remake of the original, as opposed to a sequel of Salvation. Start over, with a Terminator (played by someone like Dwayne The Rock Johnson, or Jason Statham) coming back in time to the present day to kill the woman who's supposed to give birth to child (maybe a girl this time), who's supposed to grow up & save humanity.