Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Beware The Terminator

     There are some movie quotes that everyone knows, even if they’ve never seen the films. Two such classic phrases, including “AH’LL BE BACK,” and “Hasta la vista, baby,” often get tossed between nerdy friends so frequently that their origin films have almost been forgotten and lost in the past.

     But now, thanks to the bizarre number of remakes and sequels that Hollywood is churning out this year, you all have the chance to see those particular quotes repeated (or perhaps re-written) as Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the silver screen to reprise his supreme iconic role as… the Terminator.

     But what has that role looked like in the past? And what can the previous Terminator movies tell us about the film that’s coming to theatres this Independence Day weekend? Allow me to give you a nice spoiler-free idea of what to expect from the upcoming film, Terminator Genisys.

Hogwarts Terminator, A History

     Back in 1984 when computer-generated special effects were just starting to replace claymation in fantasy and science fiction films, an action-thriller called Terminator was produced by Orion Pictures. The director? None other than James Cameron, whom you may know as the mastermind behind major blockbusters including Titanic and Avatar.

     The film was an immediate hit with audiences, both for its gritty, sic-fi-laced adrenaline rush and for its physically-impressive lead played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was then rocketed to stardom).

     The franchise has since spawned several sequels (Judgement Day in 1991, Rise of the Machines in 2003, and Salvation in 2009), a slew of video games and graphic novels, and even a television show called The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

     With perhaps the exception of the much-beloved second movie, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the continuations have been received to generally-mixed responses and are said to have slightly diminished in plot quality over the years. The newcomer in the list, Genisys, looks to be a bit of a toss-up at the moment (though it will be directed by Alan Taylor of Lost and Thor 2, so here’s hoping).

The Plot

The Terminator
     In the year 1984, a young woman named Sarah Connor is going about her bland life as a waitress. However, to her horror, two strange men begin following her: one to kill her, and the other to save her. And the police can't stop either of them.

     She soon learns that they are both from the year 2029 — and from a future that has been overrun by machines in the wake of a nuclear war. In that future, the one man who fought and eventually defeated the machine was John Connor: Sarah’s future son. And so, in a last-ditch effort to win the war, the machines commandeered a time machine and sent back a humanoid robotic Terminator to kill her before her son has even been conceived. And her adult son, in turn, sent a volunteer named Kyle Reese back in time to protect her.

     Soon Sarah falls headlong into a heart-pounding run for her life, as she and Kyle try and find a way to defeat the invincible assassin on their tail… or else risk the future defeat of all humankind.

The Terminator 2: Judgement Day
     It is now the year 1991, just three years before the predicted nuclear war that will destroy the majority of humanity and give rise to the rule of machines. After spending years raising her young son and preparing for the apocalypse, Sarah has lost John in a custody battle and is struggling to escape from a mental asylum for unstable women. 

     Unbeknownst to her, a second, newer-model Terminator has been sent back in time from the future… this time to kill John before he even becomes a teenager.

     However, as before, a protector from the future has also been sent to guard him. As Sarah and John are tangled in a new web of time travel, they decide to take matters into their own hands and try to prevent the apocalypse from ever happening at the hands of the organization Skynet in the first place.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
     Years after the attempts on his life when he was a boy, John Connor has grown up and seen the year of doom, 1994, pass without incident. However, a sudden attack on his life by a new terminator sets him on a new path, because a guardian from the future comes to his aid and warned that the apocalypse by Skynet has only been postponed, and not fully stopped. Without his mother to guide him, John and his new friend Kate Brewster must try and escape the latest Terminator model and prevent the apocalypse that is looming less than a week away.

Terminator Salvation
     After the nuclear apocalypse has wiped out the majority of humanity, John Connor struggles to guide the human resistance against the machines.

     However, he doesn’t count on the actions of Marcus Wright: a former convict who was executed in the years prior to judgement day, and who donated his body to science. Mysteriously resurrected in the bowels of an evil Skynet lab, Marcus seeks out Connor and meets the young Kyle Reese along the way

     …just as the war comes to a peak and Connor struggles to fulfill his destiny as mankind’s savior.

The Appeal

     Before Michael Bay took over the explosions-and-testosterone market (for better or worse… mostly just worse), films like Terminator and Rambo satisfied audiences with thrilling chases and fiery violence that was complimented by characters who weren’t one-dimensional cookie cutters. Terminator does have its fair share (and sometimes more than its fair share) of sexual tension, ridiculously-convoluted chase sequences, and even some adult nudity — but it actually deals with some of the obstacles that come with running for your life: like paranoia, trauma, injury, and eventually ingenuity.

     The series also has a history of including one major plot twist per film. Modern audiences may be able to spot or predict these “surprises” without too much of a strain, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, especially in the first two movies. Not to mention that the special effects are still pretty impressive for the most part, when you consider the years that these movies came out.

     Terminator also deals with the “looming apocalypse” genre very well. One of the real struggles with such sagas is that it’s actually very hard for a modern audience to relate to characters who have to fight and scavenge for a living. We may love the gritty stories, but it’s hard for us to really place ourselves in those situations.

     The Terminator series (all but the fourth one) takes place in modern-day, showing the effects that a post-apocalyptic world could have on our present one. That’s what really drives home the grit and the adrenaline. (Well, that and the musical theme that always plays over the movie titles. Goosebumps galore!)

     Now, that still doesn’t make Terminator the most intellectual screenplay ever written, but it was the original man-versus-machine film. It terrorized audiences with a grim, technology-ruled future long before The Matrix ever did, and it’s arguably the best role that Schwarzenegger’s ever played. (Some might say that it’s because he didn’t really have to act at all; others might say that it’s because he’s so physically perfect for the role of a deadly brutish robot. I think it’s because his accent gives the Terminator a more foreign, not-human quality that adds to the tension. Opinions vary.)

The Rating

     The series is pretty immediately R right from the get-go, so don’t bring the kids along.

     Violence: There are invincible robots running around killing innocent people, so there’s a fair bit of gore. People are crushed, sliced up, impaled, burned, you name it. In some cases, characters (usually semi-robotic ones) get their eyes or flesh sliced through, both during fights and if/when they’re operating on themselves. The audience can see pretty much everything, and it’s worth a lot of cringing.

     Sex: There are some occasional moments of romance and couples are left by the camera before things get too racy, but a mature audience is still required here. Almost every movie has at least one case of full nudity, front and back — and even if it is in shadow, it’s still kind of unnecessary and over-the-top. (I don’t think I’ve even seen Michael Bay go this far for his audiences, and that’s saying something.) There are also some pretty creepy, didn’t-need-to-see-that implications made about the relationships between patients and caretakers in the female asylum.

     Language: Yep, still worth the rating. Characters drop almost every major censored word in the book, even a boy who hasn’t hit his teens yet. Like the nudity and violence, it’s all for the sake of pulling the audience into the gritty underworld.

The Genre

     Terminator is a mix of both modern run-for-your-life thrillers, and intricate Matrix-esque themes dealing with both machinery and time travel. The latter movies really start to mess with the timeline(s) until it’s severely unclear which people in the future are still alive, and it doesn’t look like Genisys is going to be much of a help in that department… But at least, unlike the bleak post-apocalyptic Terminator Salvation, Genisys is going to take place back in the modern world again.

     There won’t be a lot of moral themes running through the film (except, perhaps, “Don’t get too dependent on your Smart Phone”), and it’s hard to tell whether the new film will have a good mix of characters that differ in race and gender. The past few films have varied from impressive to shameful in both departments. Frankly, this adventure is mainly about the explosions.

     So is it worth it?

The Decision

     That depends on you. If blood, guts, and gritty cursing isn’t your thing, I probably wouldn’t recommend it (boy, I just made this series sound pretty awful, didn’t I). Terminator is the sort of adventure that feels real perhaps because of the fact that it doesn’t shy away from tangible, terrifying circumstances.

     For some of you, that may make it an immediate no-go. But for others of you who don’t mind the occasional gritty thriller like Rambo, The Pelican Brief, or any adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel, then you might be pleasantly surprised by what Terminator has to offer.

     The first two films are really the best — though it doesn’t look like you can walk into Genisys without familiarizing yourself with all four. Christian Bale (Batman Begins) and Sam Worthington (Avatar) star in the fourth one, so at least you’ll get some familiar faces there.

It's like Reign of Fire. Just replace the dragons with robots.

     And if you’re still on the fence, just give it time. There are plenty of trailers on Youtube that might interest you if you’re more of a visual person (like myself). Most fan-made “ultimate trailers” are little more than clips of explosions that have been edited together, and the ones that are actually well-done tend to reveal the major plot twists for one or more of the movies. So I would recommend the original trailer for the first film. It’s a great taste of what you’re in for — but it’s also pretty graphic and practically worth an R rating itself, so be warned if you have a weak stomach. 


     In the end, if you know any Terminator fans (or just fans of classic action blockbusters), I’d recommend that you ask them whether you’re ready for a film series like this one. They know you better than I do. Then fix yourself a big bowl of popcorn and find an especially-comfy couch, because heart-pounding thrillers like these don’t get churned out like they used to. Terminator is the quintessential action movie, with enough explosions to keep you stupefied and juuust enough intelligence to keep you satisfied.


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