Saturday, July 26, 2003

Remarks about Terminator 3

Actually, I'm just stalling. You see, I did go out and eat dog stew this evening (I'm still digesting the experience), and am going to write about it. But I want to string you along with some filler, and since I happened to go out and see "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" with my buddy Jang-woong and his wife Bo-hyun earlier in the afternoon, I thought I'd meditate on that first.

T3 just came out here in Seoul-- it opened yesterday (Friday). It wasn't as awful as the previews made it look. (Perhaps the worst aspect of the preview was that stupid CGI "glimmer" they tried to put in Kristanna Loken's eye. It was in the preview, but absent from the theatrical release. Good. Test audiences must not have liked it.)

Time travel movies create a huge problem for themselves: when can the story stop? Once you establish that time travel is possible (via time machine or whatever conveyance), you're stuck in a loop. Terminator failed to kill your mom? No problem: send another. Still doesn't work? No problem: send another. Repeat as necessary (note that the "Terminator" series never considers the possibility of sending cyborgs further back in time).

Let me backtrack: when I say "create a huge problem," I mean dramatically speaking. The studio bosses don't give a crap: a loop means more sequels. More sequels mean more money. There's no problem for the bosses. But for those of us J-types on tenterhooks, biting our nails, suffering sexual impotence, and wondering when, oh when, we'll have a definitive conclusion to this cyber-apocalyptic saga, time travel movies like the "Terminator" series are problematic.

Meantime, let's chant it: Arnold is back! And the "I'll be back" line appears twice in the film, albeit in somewhat mutated form.

The female terminator (or "terminatrix," as Nick Stahl's John Connor calls her) is quite a badass with quite a bad ass. We don't get to see much of that lass' ass, alas, though we do get to watch her tits inflate early in the movie (it's to distract a policeman who's pulled her over, and to give all the Korean men in the theater a glimpse of something their girlfriends can never provide: truly fluffy meat-pillows).

The terminatrix's design presents a problem for me, though: she's an odd combination of Robert Patrick's T-1000 from T2 and a souped-up version of endoskeletal Arnold, but with built-in weaponry and heightened perceptive ability. The T-1000 made a certain weird sense: it could be liquid or solid, and it formed only simple, solid objects. The T-X, however, seems to be vulnerable in ways the T-1000 was not: its weapons, though they melt when the terminatrix changes form, can be damaged. The T-X can lose parts of itself (at one point she rips her torso away, animal-like, from her lower body to continue pursuit), and these parts, once separated, don't simply melt back into the rest of the body. Hmmmm. Best not to think too hard about this.

Nick Stahl and Clare Danes play well off each other as John Connor and Kate Brewster, though the script makes it clear that any heat will be reserved for later. Perhaps the worst actor of the bunch was David Andrews, who played Robert Brewster, Kate's father-- and a pivotal figure in the inevitable "rise of the machines." The casting director could have found someone a little more impressive than Bland, Generic, Bargain Basement White Guy (a category we'll add to Hollywood's racist litany of Generic Asian for All Occasions, Saintly-or-Satanic Black Dude, and Frenetic, Possibly High Latino). Kristanna Loken does a fine job as a ruthless assassin droid who confirms her kills by sampling the DNA of her victims through her tongue.

Arnold proves up to the herculean task of acting like a cyborg for the third time in almost twenty years. There's no "chill out... dickwad"-style line in this movie, but our Terminator does learn the expression "Talk to the hand!" from a gay stripper early on in the story-- right before forcing the stripper to disrobe sooner than planned. And just as "Attack of the Clones" had a running joke about Jedi losing their lightsabers, T3 has fun with Arnold's constantly disappearing sunglasses. The first pair he tries on, a set of Elton John-style star-shaped doozies, are a riot... and they get terminated, because as we all know, this is no girly-man Terminator. Arnold's Great Acting Moment does come, though, when the T-X infects him with a virus that contravenes his protect-the-humans directive. Arnold's touching portrayal of a machine's internal conflict escalates into a cathartic orgy of vehicle-bashing that would have left the audience weeping had Kevin Kline been in the role instead of Schwarzenegger.

T3's story mixes humor with pseudo-deep meditations about fate, and is surprisingly complex, emotionally. It's no surprise that, since 1999's "The Matrix" borrowed much of its back story from T1 and T2, there are obvious similarities between the plot and dialogue of T3 and "The Matrix Reloaded." But unlike "Matrix," there's no descent into Derridean differance or Foucaultian meditations on power. T3 struck me as thoroughly un-postmodern, and I mean that as a compliment.

T3 is, however, at times too much of a throwback to 80s-era filmic excess, and I was very conscious, sitting with a Korean audience, that I was watching an American flick. An early chase sequence put the terminatrix at the wheel of an enormous crane truck, with Arnold hanging off the crane, getting dragged through building after building. I don't know how much of this scene was CGI, but I suspect the buildings in question actually were demolished. Stuff like that reminds you how much money our studios have to play with. Here in Seoul, if you want to see a movie with a lot of destruction, you'd do well to watch a sci-fi anime like "Wonderful Days." In Korea, films don't have huge smash-up budgets.

There's the inevitable issue of female empowerment. Arnold, representing the old chauvinist school, gets his ass kicked by the new (maybe not so new) feminist school. There's no denying the T-X is stronger, quicker, and smarter than Arnold's cyborg (and, in her final primal-screaming moments, almost as emotional as the T-1000-- I loved that CGI sequence in T2), but I think we have to be careful about feminist tropes. Keep in mind that the T-X is the bad guy (so to speak). All that grrrl-y empowerment is misguided, and in the service of eeeeevil. Chalk up one for the chauvinists.

The director this time around is Jonathan Mostow, helming in place of ueber-ego James Cameron. I'm convinced Cameron could have made a better and more compelling film, but Mostow brings some nice touches of his own to the series. One thing to note is that Mostow-- unlike Cameron, who has an affinity for murky, blue-lit soundstages (cf. "Aliens," "Abyss," certain spots in "Titanic," and T2)-- is able to make broad daylight look depressing. This is important because the vaunted Judgment Day (the moment the Skynet AI becomes self-aware and launches its attack on humanity) begins in mid-to-late afternoon.

Mostow's humorous touches are all over the film as well, especially in some of the Terminator-versus-Terminator fight choreography. Watching machines abuse each other on such an operatic scale makes me wonder if this is what it's like to attend a monster truck rally. The special effects of T3 lack the pizzazz of its predecessors, though it was fun to watch Arnold put his own head back on after it had been stomped off.

It occurs to me all of a sudden that Arnold doesn't get to wield anything quite as impressive as the helicopter minigun that got him through much of T2. Shit. That's not good.

Sci-fi movies are full of corny moments and images, of course, and some of the "iconic" imagery of Arnold Doing His Thing in T3 was ridiculous. I offer, as Exhibit A, the scene with Arnold in the cemetery, blasting away at police while holding a shielded coffin that hides John Connor. Interesting subversion of death and life metaphors (cough). Exhibit B: the awkward, bulky, tank-treaded hunter-killer prototypes that chase John and Kate through a defense installation, which reminded me strongly of the ungainly ED-209 in Paul Verhoeven's excellent (if loopily Grand Guignol) "Robocop."

T3 offers some material that will be fodder for the inevitable T4-- a movie whose arrival is as assured as the coming-into-sentience of Skynet. I don't think I'm giving anything important away when I say that T3 ends with a rather beautiful shot, from a satellite's-eye view, of massive, all-out nuclear war. The movie ends on a note that's simultaneously depressing and timorously hopeful, and the story was just good enough to make me think that, yeah, I might want to see T4.

OK, I know you want to read about what it's like to eat dog. That's the next post. I promise.

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