Friday 1 September 2017

The Terminator: Come With Me If You Want To Live

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was re-released this Tuesday. I went to see it, of course, and also watched the 1984 film The Terminator on DVD last week.

The date was significant: The eponymous Judgment Day, the nuclear war instigated by the machine intelligence Skynet, is named as August 29, 1997. So, the re-release was twenty years later to the day.

The 3D conversion was unnecessary and didn't really add much to the experience; but it was great to see T2 on the big screen, when I had been a little too young on the original release. Furthermore, after three additional sequels which were mediocre at best, the first two films are an exhilarating breath of fresh air. Even after more than twenty years, they feel far more meaningful than the lazy attempts by the sequels to exploit their achievement.

Spoilers are ahead; but the films are respectively 26 and 33 years old, so I feel comfortable with revealing plot details. If for some reason you haven't seen them, you could always go watch the DVDs and then read the rest of this blog entry; I assure you it will be worth your while.

I must admit, I'm a little biased here. I met the first two films at an impressionable age in my mid-teens, and they'll always hold a special place in my heart; but even allowing for that, I firmly believe these are outstanding films. They are near perfect in their pacing and action, but there is something more going on.

As I pointed out in my review of Terminator: Genisys, part of what gives them weight is Sarah Connor's journey. In the first film, she starts off as a waitress whose main concerns are getting through another shift and finding a date on Friday night; at the end, she has become a warrior who accepts her destiny as mother to the last hope of humankind.

Her arc in the second film is still more interesting. At the beginning, she has become a merciless fighter, who has lost touch with her own humanity and come to resemble that which she most hates: The Terminator.

It becomes clearest when she decides to murder Miles Dyson, the engineer responsible for creating Skynet. In exactly the same way as the Terminator in the first film, she is ready to kill the parent of her enemy, before the enemy can even exist. Miles lies helpless before her, with his wife and child pleading for mercy, and Sarah's finger tightens on the trigger... but unlike Skynet, she has a conscience, and chooses at the last moment to lower her gun.

This character development and theme of moral choice is largely absent from the sequels. They try to replicate the thrills, shiny robots and big explosions, without the depth present in the first two films, so inevitably they fall short.

John Connor in T2 is also an interesting character, and very much the moral centre of the film. Credit goes to Edward Furlong for making us believe in him; he is one of the very few child actors in an adult action film who isn't annoying.

When he learns the Terminator is programmed to obey his orders, he has a brief phase of bossing him around for fun; but when the Terminator nearly kills an innocent man, John very quickly wises up. Subsequently, both his mother and the Terminator are encouraging him to lie low, hide from the T-1000 sent to kill him, and prepare to fulfill his destiny as leader of the human resistance; but he refuses to do so, because saving lives in the here and now is more important to him.

Finally, there is Kyle Reese, Sarah's protector in the first film. He's lonely, traumatised, brave, and tough. He has grown up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and must be profoundly disoriented by the Los Angeles of the 1980s. He can never go home; his one and only purpose in life is to defend Sarah Connor.

I have to admire Reese's explanations of time travel. There's no Star Trek gibberish here:

(To Sarah:) One possible future, from your point of view. I don't know tech stuff.

(Angrily, to Silberman:) I didn't build the fucking thing!

I'm thinking of Reese in the context of a rather scathing criticism by Tracy King of James Cameron's claims to feminism.

I won't go into the full details of the argument here, except to say I largely agree with King. I'd like to expand on a point she makes about Reese:

She is going to fall for her rescuer and have unprotected sex with him while he’s still wearing the dirty jogging bottoms he took from a homeless guy at the start of the film.

She's not wrong; that's what happens. (To be fair, he takes the jogging bottoms off first, but I get the point.) In the context of the film, it's dramatically justified, but it's not remotely feminist.

(Incidentally, here's something left ambiguous by the film: Do Sarah and Kyle understand they may be conceiving John Connor? Did they stop to think of this, or are they merely clinging to each other out of instinct, in the face of almost certain death?)

In fact, Reese's character is tapping into a very old archetype: He's Sir Galahad. He is a smelly, scruffy and foul-mouthed version of the knight errant, to be sure; but the fundamentals are all there.

He is the virgin warrior, sent to protect a woman in distress. His virtue lies in his total devotion, and willingness to die for her. Of course, Reese gets to go one better than Galahad on his quest for the Holy Grail. To fulfil his destiny, he must have sex. It's not a betrayal of trust, as when Lancelot gets it on with Guinevere; it's a necessary act, required so that John Connor can be born, grow up and defeat Skynet.

It's a powerful image, but also decidedly creepy. This isn't Reese's fault; he was manipulated by John Connor into worshipping Sarah, long before he was sent back in time to protect her.

The message is that persistence and devotion alone are enough; forget about building a mature relationship based on shared goals and beliefs. I suppose the shared goal in the film is "don't get killed by the Terminator", but that really isn't a basis for a long-term partnership.

With more guns and explosions, it's basically the same version of masculinity portrayed in a hundred romantic comedies. Never mind realistic partnerships, those are hard and boring; obsession is cute and eventually it will win the heroine's heart.

I can say it now: As a fifteen-year-old with no more experience with women than Reese had, I thought it looked pretty cool. As a model for the real world, Reese and his ilk set a lousy example.

That said, these stories persist for a reason. The characters in the first two Terminator films have an emotional punch, which the later sequels cannot match. I hope to be still enjoying these films in another twenty years.

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