Tuesday, May 19, 2009
There Is No Fate
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was not very good.
Actually, that's not true. On its own merit, as a generic action movie, it was quite good. It was exciting, it had believable performances, it had cool characters, it even had a discernible message. But do you notice the "3" in the title? That means it was preceded by two Terminator movies. And unfortunately for T3, its predecessors were two of the best and most influential "action" films ever released.
The Terminator, released in 1984, was the first starring vehicle for the now-ubiquitous Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a not-so-subtle way, this film is directly responsible for Arnold's governance of California. But more importantly, it effectively invented a new form of action cinema.
The second half of the twentieth century saw innumerable developments in genre reconstruction beginning with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone in the late 1960's. Filmmakers--and their audience--were getting smarter, and it shown through in even the most Neanderthal of genres, the action-adventure. By the 1980's, the high-concept film was in full effect thanks to the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. In 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark--an archetype of adventure cinema now considered one of the best films of all time in any genre--was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
And so we come to 1984. Arnold Schwarzenegger is famous only amongst bodybuilding fanatics for his seven Mr. Olympia titles. James Cameron is a 29-year-old filmmaker with only Piranha II: The Spawning under his directorial belt. Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are in their early twenties, their only experience coming in soap operas and, in Biehn's case, as an extra in Grease. Together, on a budget of $6 million, they will make the cornerstone of one of the most lucrative and popular film franchises in history.
The Terminator was released on October 26, 1984--not exactly blockbuster season. By the end of its theatrical run, it had grossed $38 million in the United States and $50 million overseas. Cameron and Co. had...something. But it wasn't yet clear what. The answer would come seven years later.
By 1991, the global film community had been saturated with the sweaty, tongue-in-cheek explosionfests of the late 1980's, many of which were Arnold's fault (Commando, Predator, The Running Man, Total Recall), and the rest of which were Stallone's fault (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, Rambo: Fourth Sandwich Part XVI, Rocky IV, Over the Top). The announcement of Terminator 2: Judgment Day probably didn't arouse any scholarly types across the country. "Another Schwarzenegger movie," someone probably sighed in June. "The studio is just capitalizing on his fame and they're going to ruin all of the promise of the original."
Which is precisely what didn't happen. The first Terminator introduced the iconic "character"--awesomely--as a silent, methodical, merciless killer. As our ill-fated hero, Kyle Reese, said laconically: "It can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead."
So the second one would be more of the same, wouldn't it? Somehow James Cameron took his one-dimensional killing machine and twisted it into the father figure in the most warped version of the mid-1950's nuclear family of the 20th century.
This wasn't merely a fun popcorn movie; this was spectacular filmmaking--Adam Greenberg's cinematography is often cited as the best in the history of color film. Terminator 2's legacy as arguably the best and most transcendental action film of all time stands to this day, even as we approach the 18th (!) anniversary of its theatrical release. Considering the release and popularity of films like The Spirit, Punisher: War Zone, and Max Payne, it often seems as though filmmakers concede that they cannot even approach the level of nuance and skill that Cameron and Co. displayed in 1991, and therefore do not even try.
Which leads us to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. When compared it to other action films of this decade, T3 shows us just how spoiled we were by its predecessors. It was a fine action vehicle. Arnold was in top form, Nick Stahl delivered a sincere performance as John Connor, and it even had the nihilistic ending we have come to expect and love of the series. But...it wasn't T2. It wasn't T1. It simply went through the motions so that it might emerge unscathed from the box office. It delivered, with near-chemical precision, no more than the audience asked for. Perhaps it was the non-involvement of James Cameron, whose absence may have yielded the dearth of originality. Perhaps it was Nick Stahl, who confused the vulnerability of Edward Furlong's John Connor with pedantic whining. Perhaps it was Claire Danes' Kate Brewster character, who could have been excised from the entire film without anyone noticing.
In a few days, the fourth installment of the Terminator franchise will be unleashed upon the early summer masses. It will make mad bank, as the childrens say; box office revenue is almost certainly not a concern in the Warner Bros. offices. Some are even predicting Salvation will outgross Michael EXPLOSION Bay’s Transformers sequel, also due this summer.
No, the execs are happily anticipating Salvation’s opening weekend for exactly the same reason that I am afraid of it: they got what they wanted. Say this out loud: The fourth entry in the Terminator film franchise is a PG-13 May release directed by McG. That sounds undeniably less than promising, doesn’t it?
The first Terminator accomplished its meager aspirations because nobody cared about its financial prospects. It was shot cheaply and marketed even cheaper (cheaperly?). The second Terminator succeeded because 1991 was a time before (but only just before) America turned into a giant conservative racist grandmother and you could make a 3-hour, R-rated awesomefest for $200 million and still turn an enormous profit. If Terminator 2 came out today it would maybe, maybe, crack $80 million domestically.
The facts of Terminator Salvation keep us living on a knife’s edge. It has undeniable positives. Its lead is Christian Bale, who has over the past nine years crafted one of the five best active careers in Hollywood. Its script was rewritten by Jonathan Nolan, who penned Memento, one of the cleanest examples of experimental storytelling, and The Dark Knight, the new and future benchmark in quality action filmmaking.
But it has one terrifying, inescapable pitfall. A pitfall that consists of only three letters: McG.
Yes, Terminator Salvation, with its Hall of Fame cast and crew, is helmed by Joseph McGinty Nichol, a man with a perfectly normal name who has professionally christened himself as a fast food combo meal. How many Oscars would Schindler’s List have won if it had been directed by “The Spielz?”
McG is still young enough—40—that his brightest days are still ahead of him. The obsession with youth does not inhabit the area behind the camera as it does in front of it. But his existing body of work is enough to make you cringe at the notion of handing him one of action cinema’s most beloved and important enterprises. McG has directed, in total, three films: Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and We Are Marshall. That’s it.
Before all you McG fans (if you’re out there) rush to his defense, I shall make the inevitable statistical concession: Yes, I am fully aware that the first Charlie’s Angels film has a totally respectable 68% “Fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes. And yes, to some degree, you can color me impressed that McG was able to make 68% of a good film out of one of the most vapid concepts to ever come out of 1970’s network television—the foremost authority on vapidity.
But we are not asking him to deliver The Transporter 4, nor Predator 3, nor Commando 2. This is a film franchise featuring two flawless entries (according to their professional critiques) and a third which, while considered abysmal compared to its predecessors, is still better than McG’s best effort to date.
I don’t want to sound unenthusiastic or hopeless; on the contrary, the film’s teasers and previews have left me almost bewildered by the potential for quality. Salvation might just be a superb addition to the franchise.
It would be inaccurate to say that I have faith in McG and his ability to reproduce the stirring combination of intimacy and exhilaration of T2. I don’t. What I have is cautious optimism in the pieces surrounding McG to overcome his directorial shortcomings and deliver something of high, but not ethereal, quality. There is nothing that would make me happier than for McG to prove me wrong about him. That might not be a ringing endorsement, but it’s the best we can do.
McG of all people should know by now to heed the words of Sarah Connor. The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. Here’s hoping McG took her words to heart and crafted a film that any director could be proud of.