The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Believe it or not, it was 17 YEARS AGO now

Full post behind the jump

There's a giant, gaping hole in the continuity of
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that has never been adequately spackled, even with the unexpectedly interesting spin-off TV series that recently emerged (River from Firefly as co-ed cyborg=deadly hotness). The first movie took place in 1984, and ended with Sarah Connor pregnant with her future resistance fighter son John. In confirmation of this, when the T-1000 adopts his police officer guise in the beginning of the sequel, the profile on John he accesses lists his date of birth in early 1985. It also lists his age as 10. This dates the movie's setting pretty clearly at 1995. This is a relief, since if it took place in 1991, the year of the movie's release, that would make John only 6 years old, so watching him rip off ATMs, scream around on a motorbike, and demonstrate an audibly-cracking voice would strain credulity even given the limitless hooliganism of These Damned Kids Today.

But here's the rub - the human race's hard deadline for nuclear annihilation is repeatedly given as August 29, 1997. Sarah mentions it in her loony bin ravings, and the T-800 played by Herr Governator Schwarzenegger confirms this when he lays out the history of Cyberdyne, Skynet, and the poor naive genius Miles Dyson. Which means there are but two years of civilization left after the events of the movie we're watching. But in his little speech about Dyson, the T-800 claims that Cyberdyne will start supplying the military with equipment
in three years, which would be...1998? The hell?

Rather than try and patch this logical fissure, the makers of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines thought it would be fun to make things even more confusing, by having John claim he was 13 in the events of the prior film. So it took place...after Judgment Day? What?

I know this is a terminal case of Nerdius Sticklerenza I'm showing symptoms of here, but it has always stunned me how something so obvious could have slipped through when so much else about
T2 demonstrates an expertly meticulous, even obsessive, attention to detail. I was 13 when it was released, the perfect age to declare it The Greatest Movie Ever Made on first viewing. But now it's aged to movie vintage, today's teenagers have never lived in a world when it, and the digital effects revolution that followed, didn't already exist, which I thought of while re-watching it the other night.

(They also have never lived in a world without Reservoir Dogs and Tarantino impersonators, but that's for another essay.)

The legacy of computer effects is that it made every hack with a desktop think they could be James Cameron. And audiences suffered an awful lot of silliness in the years that followed. For every Jurassic Park there were twenty Spawn-s. Terminator 2 contains less than 50 digitally-manipulated shots. Many contemporary movies barely have any shots that haven't been monkeyed with in cyberspace, especially with the practice of making digital intermediates for color re-balancing, first prominently used in O Brother Where Art Thou and really brought to jaw-dropping primetime in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But in spite of all those intervening years, the visuals of Judgment Day prove remarkably resilient. The memory plays tricks on us - those groundbreaking computer gimmicks, taken all together, amount to less than four minutes of the film's 2-1/4 hours. Producer/Director/co-writer James Cameron, trained as an effects technician at Roger Corman's "school" of low-budget filmmaking, may be known now as a digital pioneer, but T2 is a rich demonstration of how to him, effects are effects, and when it comes to analog, he was a master. So many of the picture's memorable moments are not computer-aided at all, but the work of makeup, robotic puppeteering, miniatures, and old-fashioned opticals. That he knew how to use all these tricks to lighten the load on the envelope-pushing digital work is one of the primary reasons those shots hold up to scrutiny this day.

But it's also because of my eternal little hobby-horse: storytelling. Cameron sensed, intuitively I think, that in the first Terminator he'd hit on the purest and most potent possible distillation of Act One in Hollywood's traditional three-act story structure. Events are perfectly calibrated in that first third to bring the tension to maximum boil at the exact moment that hunter meets prey meets protector. Notice how, if you bring no exterior knowledge into the movie, you don't know for sure what Kyle Reese wants with Sarah Connor until that single explosive moment in the nightclub. His enigma carries the audience along until the action of Act Two takes over.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, Cameron doubled down on his strong structural hand. The first half-hour of T2 is effectively an expensive re-iteration of the original Act One, with the added twist that the T-800 is now the protector; and again, if you pretend to no exterior knowledge, you can appreciate how carefully Cameron actually preserves that surprise until the confrontation at the mall.

But then, instead of the heedless chase of The Terminator, the genius of T2 is that, after its first Act; the second Act, the body of the movie, actually begins with another reprise of this same format. Once again hunter, prey, and Protector gradually converge, only this time with the dramatic irony that Sarah Connor believes she is the protector plotting her escape, while the audience knows that she is in fact the prey once again (the T-1000 intending to murder her and assume her identity to catch John), and the T-800 from her nightmares is now working with her son to save her. Wheels within wheels.

Why this picture always feels like an epic is that, within the overall body of the pursuit of John that starts in the build-up to the mall and climaxes with the freeway chase and the stalk through the steel meel, the central hour/hour-and-a-half is its own three-act movie about John and Sarah's relationship, and our perspective, detached now from Sarah, places our emotional grounding in John's ongoing lesson to the Terminator about the value of humanity. These things don't happen by coincidence - that is the true character arc of the movie, and Sarah, with her plans to murder Dyson, is now an unstable element within the lesson. Our sympathies move from mother to son; she is still his ferocious defender, but he is maturing to take the leadership role that will one day call to him, and the movie dramatizes that passing-of-the-torch.

Cameron is an efficient tube-feeder when it comes to exposition, he primes us to learn first by showing us the T-1000's amazing abilities, then, while our minds have been shocked to a moldable quivering by the sight of it, he quickly lays down the ground-rules - liquid metal, impersonates shapes, no chemicals or moving parts. Our imaginations thus inspired and prepared, we only need one fancy shot here and there and our own enthusiasm for the concept, paired with Robert Patrick's lean-mean-assassinating machine performance, fills in the rest.

It is not the stuff that happens which makes the effects in Terminator 2 immortal, it is the implications behind the stuff, the way it raises the stakes of danger, the way it makes the foe seem more implacable and unconquerable than ever. A little detail that often goes unnoticed in that climactic chase - while the T-1000 is chasing them in the helicopter, he's loading and firing his sub-machine gun at them with two hands; while piloting the 'copter with a third. Making an audience delirious with the question: "How do you beat an S.O.B. that can do THAT?", that, with 50 "effects shots" or 2,000, is how you become remembered.

And P.S. - If you ever wondered why so many Terminators look like Arnold, this goofy deleted scene from Terminator 3 answered the question:


  • The continuity issues are indeed a bit awkward. It's kind of like making the Enterprise Young Kirk's first assignment, when it's been previously established that he got started on the Farragut. Or Charles Weyland popping up in the present day-set "Alien Vs. Predator". But, what the hell. As you said, the effects hold up(Francis Lawrence, are you paying attention?), much in the same way we all still dig Rob Bottin's work on "The Thing". And really, not enough credit is given to Robert Patrick's performance, and the difficulty of portraying evil under a blank facade. Christian Bale is also good at this, especially in "American Psycho". And now Bale is to be the new John Connor. Are you up for some future war? I know I am. I still wonder what happened to Kyle Reese when he was injured during that last future war scene in the first film. Oh, and I'm up for that Tarantino imitator commentary. We went from Judy and Mickey to: "Hey, my dad's got a warehouse!" "Great, I'll bring the guns!"

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 7:25 AM  

  • I am damn ready for some future war. I generally wish the third Terminator had actually shown the immediate aftermath of Judgment Day, when humanity is still bewildered and traumatized, and the machines institute their own version of Shock and Awe and start building extermination camps. I want to see the beginning of the resistance, and the 600-series Infiltrators with the rubber skin. Sadly it's the same writers as T3, so we'll probably just get more gadgets and chases and unnecessary comic relief.

    And I'm telling myself I'm going to grant the new Star Trek a lot of continuity license a la Batman Begins and other franchise reboots, since I wouldn't expect them to also treat as sacrosanct canon those miniskirt-wearing yeomen and 23rd-century Starfleet's galling chauvinism about why women can't be starship captains.

    By Blogger Nick, at 9:25 AM  

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