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The Terminator
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 3:48 pm - The Terminator
Of all the action movies of the past few decade the most relentlessly violent and bloody have been the three Terminator films done over the past twenty years. In both Robocop and Terminator, the first two were better than the third one, the second of the series adorned with a range and breadth that the first lacked.
All the Terminator and Robocop film are what this age calls ďover the topĒ. They have more wild, constant and ceaseless violence in them that one might find in any other movie, even the most sanguine epics of John Woo.
There were movies that had chases be forget the Terminator series; none were mostly scary variations on some hunt to the death. Terminator Three, not directed by James Cameron, spares us the gore mostly in a language of much more discretion about wholesale murder if innumerable people are properly killed in it. These movies have redefined the quantity and diverse quality of mayhem possible in a film, made Arnold Schwartzenegger a legend as permanent in film history as Charlie Chaplin, produced graphic effects by Stan Winston that were imitated in every other science fiction film of its time. Yet Terminator One and Two are much more a horror films like Frankenstein and Dracula than a whimsical Star Trek or Star Wars science fiction movie. It puts humans against humanoid super-creatures whom our species cannot cop with in the real world.
The most notable horror films of the late 20th centra, Jon Carpenterís Halloween series and Wes Cravenís Nightmare On Elm Street quaternity have villains that are essentially monster of dream as their unstoppable serial killer. Both their monster antagonists are dead creatures whose manifestation in the physical world is inexplicable.
We never know what their limitations or defects are as we do with Dracula, another undead monster; we donít even fathom as we do about Dracula why they kill anyone or what their ambitions are. We only sense the forty of their ontological frustrations. Like Jaws and other such films the idea that suburban America exists in a world of larger unimaginable and sinister forces is the same in all these films; in Alien the island is translated into a spaceship.
Terminator is separate from all them but Alien, also a James Cameron film, in that the monster killer is not at all a dream creature. He is in fact a kind of halfway house representative of a mineral world of pure mechanism that fascism and Communism in their day used to preach as the inevitable destiny of human kinds as if we were ants and the cosmos were a cosmic anthill.
It resembles Robocop in the way ordinary people react to the cyborg but isnít a vast social satire on corporate politics in American industrial cities like Detroit as we find in the Robocop series. Moreover in Terminator Two we have an actual tragic motif since Cameron is careful to delineate a progression in the robots as he spends more time with human beings in which not only the boy n the story looks up to the Terminator as a father; he initiates the adult, the robot, into a way of talking and thinking that turns the annotation into manhood upside down. For this alone Terminator Two is probably the best of the three films, maybe the most sensitive and artistic of any of this genre.
Terminator One has an initial premise that is fantastical but follows it out in a narrow compass with few characters that is more like an California myth than an epic. Itís not surprising that the first two Terminator films were James Cameron products, that Terminator One was Cameronís first film, or that Cameron also made the rather mythical resonant Alien with its versions of androgynous warrior women ala Frank Frazetta, replete with an invading sole foreigner taking all in a spaceship as Douglas Fairbanks once took whole cities alone, assaulting an island of supposed civilization in an astral cruiser large as a gated community or a planet. Alien and Terminator have similar themes in a country of Haves feeling the fragility of their imperial situation.
Like Robocop it is about the relation between an adult male who had become a robot, a cyborg, a product, and a world of human beings form whom he is alienated because he is not one of them. In Terminator Two the robot takes the place of the absent father of a young boy much as Shane becomes a kind if fulcrum for an initiating rite into manhood as hunter and warrior in George Stevenís classic film. Like Shane, the Terminator is a virtually asexual tough guy who learns in the second movie to have more human chalets and relate to both the boy and the mother he aims to protect in an emotional way. Cameron managed at once to produce a film of ceaseless mayhem and hunting and real character development in Terminator Two that is oddly missing from its flabby and parodic successor.
Some of the jokes in the Terminator movies reminds one of similar dark humor in Dracula. The humor in Dracula is that the Victorian world Dracula enters not only doesnít believe in him but in its materialist bubble finds him unthinkable. ďI donít drink wine,Ē is as ghastly a comment as Schwartzeneggerís ďIíll be back,Ē the dialogue is, shall we SA, spare, basic, not remarkable; the myth of the unthinkable player in a game one thought was civilized in am materialistic way whether it is London in the 1890s or California in the 1980s and onward is the pin upon which the terror of both myths rest.
The Transylvanians know exactly how to deal with Dracula; they accept him as a part of their world. The Londoners are prey for Dracula because they have a much more narrow view of reality than Transylvanian peasants. In the same way the police, the psychiatrists, the authorities running the various parsons that hold the mother in this drama, played by excellent Linda Hamilton, regard the feisty Hamilton as insane or a crank while the audience knows she is telling the truth.
We identify with both the institutional people who are sure their world is as closed and narrow as they think it is and the character who know better if they donít like what they know. Dracula has may more limitations than the various Terminators in the later series and could have been quelled and destroyed early had he not been able to count on ignorance of his nature from shipman and Londoners. The Terminator can pass in California though he has an odd accent but seems through three movies virtually invulnerable to any human capacity to protect themselves against it.
In Terminator Two Cameron ups the ante of strangers passing as humans by having a later version of the killer robot, played by Edward Furlong, enter the same California with no accent at all and seeming not at all like a scary bodybuilder. The extension of the myth is that the blonde and slender Furlong is a more sophisticated version of the robot killer who can like woody Allenís much less dangerous Zelig imitate whoever he touches so that he seems exactly like the person he just killed.
In Terminator Three the robot killer is female; there is no attempt in this relatively lame script James Cameron didnít write to give her a sardonic character or make her oddly interesting.
One can't help relating this myth to Cameroonís other two success, Alien and the Titanic. In both cases something terrible happens to a world and almost everybody in it is killed. The people in the realm and those who run it are sure that they are impugnable; they arenít at all. The talents of both the Alien in the spaceship and the Terminator in California include replicating others and seeming to be human.
My feeling is that Cameron took this sinister quality and some of his plot for both movies from a famous A.E. von Vogt story, told in the third person by von Vogt from the point of view of the alien predator.
In this the Terminator series has resonances of classic horror movies like Frankenstein and Dracula, both of which had a European background in casting Arnold Schwartzenegger as the Terminator his Austrian accent certain give people who remember the Third Reich the shivers.
Nobody would mistake the Frankenstein monster for a human in the movies; in the novel the monster looks like a human and has none of the grotesque qualities Boris Karloff give him in the film. Dracula looks human plus or minus a few qualities. The Frankenstein monster canít be social and even philosophic as he is in the novel; Dracula can.
In fact the Dracula story needs somebody as smart and knowledgeable as Dracula to destroy the vampire; with van Helsing the tale would go quite another way. At some point in Terminator One the Terminator asserts there is nothing on Earth that can stop or destroy him. He doesnít have any physical limitations as Dracula does. It turns out that there are ways to despatch all the Terminators but there arenít many.
Schwartenegger was probably cast in this movie because of his performance in Predator, another movie without sex and very minimal dialogue in which Schwartenegger plays a military warrior facing an alien with powers of invisibility of a more subtle kind. His famous line: ďYou are one ugly matherfucker!Ē a comment returned by the as civil allen predator, sums up the mythic power of these kinds of films. We live in a country and for that matter a world in which there are many more diverse and strange looking people in it, many of whom we are afraid of for good reason or no reason at all.
Itís all rather unfair to Schwartenegger who is not even German but from a small town, Thal, in Austria, was born two years after the Third Reich fell, is a moderate Republican who has spent most of his life in America, hardly a fascist of any kind, whose life is a testimony to his choice of leaving not only Austria but Europe altogether and settling in our country with the zeal of one who found a nation proper for his life.
To scramble with the scramblers as one more exile in a country of exiles, itís plain for his success in the United States and how much ordinary people admire him that Schwartzenegger made the right choice.
Yet some of the sinister yet moving resonance of the Terminator film comes from Schwarteneggerís portrayal of the new man of fascism guised as a robot without feeling, a machine who is programmed to take orders. It might be said that among other things the Terminator series is the best psychological portrait of the Third Reich mentality ever produced. He is a killing machine who only take orders. He is physically as well as metaphorically part machine, at once supremely powerful and less than a servant of a machine world. Those Americans who donít remember how frightening Germany and Germans were to most of the world in the 1940s might have a different take on Schwarteneggerís performance.
His motorcycle costume, to oldsters a Storm Trooper outfit, might seem to younger folk something like the Hellís Angels clothes Marlon Brando and his motorcycle garb he wore in The Wild One. There is quite a tradition of such White trash threats in American movies: Brando playing the same role basically in The Fugitive Kind and Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas and other male rogues in later movies.
This sartorial White trash costume is a kind of a movie code for a wild male. Just as a car is a closed vehicle; a motorcycle is an open one. One feels the full breadth of nature riding one. If one gets into an accident there is nothing between one and the world or whatever hits one. It is a moving icon of bravery and peril. The Terminator series has a lot of such car accidents on motorcycles.
In contrast to Dracula, who is very much of a sensualist even to dabbling in bestiality and has many wives. The Terminators are not at all asexual of they are all very attractive to humans were they humans. Part of the underlying power of the myth in Terminator One and Two is that in One the Terminator hunts down a woman for a relentless hour and a half and has no other desire but to kill her. It blurs the mythic classic male image of the hunt for sex and prey.
Like Robocop the Terminator may not be a sexual being but he is very bonded by its programs in a way that human beings are or sometimes would like to be. Robocop at least once was a human being, a very bonded Catholic family man, killed while investigating a crime. His existence after death as a cyborg is in one way posthumous as Jean-Claude van Dammeís in his tragic and soulful Universal Soldier, in another way a kind of resection of a creature of pure will like Freddy Krueger and Jason in the Nightmare on Elm street and Halloween horror flicks.
Yet the language of both the three Robocop and the three Terminator films places the cyborg in very physical language in a material world with no eerie overlay.
With such simple and basic use of words the character of all these films is much closer to that of a silent movie such as Murnauís The Last Laugh or Hitchcock movies with or without sound in which a rich skein of visual images tell the story in a continually interesting idiosyncratic way. Jamesí Cameron among many directoos from David Lynch to Paul Verhoven these days are masters of making sensationally visual making silent movies like melodramas with overdubbed raucous sound tracks and minimal dialogue: a visual idiom that utterly centers our attention occipitally as the dialogue never can attempt to do with spoken revelations of character.
We are amused in Terminator One and Two at his satire on the priestly narrowness and stupidity of psychiatrists; the power of the joke really comes from visual cues. The psychologist in Terminator One after offering in a kind of broad mime style his dismissal of the sanity of the good guy foe of the Terminator, walks out of the police station as the Terminator ambles into it to slaughter virion in the place. We know something like that is about to happen. The image of the psychiatrist and Terminator passing each other in an ordinary way seals for the point of the mockery as the dialogue does.
If Arnold Schwartenegger has nineteen lines in all of Terminator One by somebodyís count it speaks for Cameronís achievement that he is nevertheless a viable character with an inner life. He is the perfect protagonists for the over the top quality of the film of ultimate male will like Raoul Walshís White Heat in which the Terminator is still trying at the end of the narrative to kill his victim when nearly all of his body had been burnt, exploded or ripped away. It expresses in pure action his nature of ultimately indomitable will. The camera lingers over the red light going out of the cyborgís eyes as if even in death there is some hunger to act and main that haunts the Terminator.
Schwartenegger plays his part very much like a mime is a style that was very familiar to both Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney. Given the few lines in these films itís probable that nearly all of it was shot as silent film as well with Cameron talking to the actors as silent directors did. Much of this film is a mix of montage and an enormous amount of silently filmed chases of all kinds; there are very few studio scenes.
It looks as if Cameron has taken over some found nondescript buildings and used them for as found material a few days to make the footage from which he has assembled this film. He connects these episodes with varied chases and hunts of unprecedented length. It is as far from live theatre as one might imagine.
Cameronís visual style is parodied in The Last Action Hero, in my view a very brilliant and underrated Schwartzenegger vehicle quite well as an operatic idiom of baroque openendedness. One sees shots of merely the feet of the Terminator, then nervous jump shots that cut saw to normal life as it were as one of the devices of this style.
There are more tracking shots in the scenes in the future than elsewhere. Cameron almost certainly choreographed this film carefully shot for shot before he made it; afterwards he assembled the kaleidoscopic parts into a very coherent narrative of relentless terror.
Most of what one sees and finds scary in Terminator films outside of the flaming or brooding specter of the monster himself is the attempt of ordinary people to lead normal lives one step or less from something absolutely terrifying. Once the film establishes the identify and reality of the monster the existence of this creature colors with startling menace scenes that otherwise might be dull or tribal.
In all of these movies as in Dracula there is a power that comes from the very ordinary characters in the film struggling in a live or die dialogue with an intelligent monster they havenít been born to cope with. Even the Jaws movers had a giant shark that seemed more intelligent and resourceful than most of the characters in it. The Terminator movies particularly make fun of psychiatrists talking of a large world as a sign that one is insane.
On another level, Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Terminator, Freddy Kreuger, Jason, the van Damme character, and even the monster in Alien all are some variation of a rather protean definition of what a male human being might be, or should be in a world in which the rules of naturae seem to have been at least momentarily set aside by the power of some fortress of a realm. These monsters are always out to kill women, dominate a world, and have all sort of other dark intents one associates with male savagery.
As good as at pure unquenchable terror and feverish action the first Terminator movie was, Terminator Two suggests something of the loss of hymnody the cyborg realizes in his contact with living humans that probably is the resonance ordinary people, few or none of them monsters, relate to an apparent human who is mostly machine. It is as much a comment on loss as Draculaís remark: ďThree are some things whose than death.Ē
Dracula finds looking into mirrors abhorrent because it show him he is a wraith, no longer one of the living. The Terminator looks into a mirror to perform an occipital apparat on himself that is both horrible and tragic. He can only do this because he feels no pain. He also can't experience pleasure or much of anything else. He isnít dead; he is in a state way beyond death.
There is a wonderful moment in Terminator One in which a purely visual set of montage images in Cameronís silent film style express a major loss wordlessly: the genius of film. One should say that most of he footage of the Terminator movies was shot silently, overdubbed with sound later. The original texture of the movie wasnít much different than a silent film.
The constant images of loss are a comment like the anguish of the Universal Soldier on the hunger of corporations for a world of humans like machines though in the movieís upside down myths we see only machines like humans. Loss is the principal theme in the almost purely visual language of Cameron as well as Terminator Three. The perfect physique of Arnold Schwartzenegger in all three movies is systematically and measuredly reduced to a barely viable and extraordinarily grotesque monster of increasing ugliness as the assassin moves through and is injured by fire, explosions and all manner of mayhem.
In Terminator One the monster at first in burnt to a crisp, then loses an eye, its outer body is flayed altogether and then he loses its legs up to the torso. Itís an extraordinary decline. To make the normal into the flamboyantly terrifying and vice versa is one of the classical magicks of art. We all have such autumnal passages but for most of us it is quiet and takes decades. In Terminator Two Schwartzenegger remarking on his physical losses, in that movie including losing an arm, says dryly: ďI need a vacation.Ē
The image of loss balanced by a malleable reconstruction of the self is certainly a theme of all three movies; in Terminator Two and Three the more sophisticated cyborgs are able to make themselves seem as they were with apparent loss at all. Itís something like the ability of all the Terminators to mimic aurally anyone they touch. The advanced cyborg assassins are in their ultimately fluid and empty nature what every American work is supposed to want to be: a nothingness and secret riddle behind his average semblance, a creature anonymous beyond anonymity.
Although all the Terminators are biologically sexless their sense of male will, industry, recourse and focus even when apparently female is quintessentially male if they arenít run as well by as powerful erotic favors. A Terminator that also had that kind of amorous hunger as well would be another kind of monster, more like Dracula.
Yet the juxtaposition of ultimate hunter and protector of the hearth and child is pretty serious stiff than any male audience who watches this movie is liable to be very attracted to. The same polarity of female killer and nurturing wife in Terminator Three doesnít work at all mythically because feminine animus is usually more a harvest of betrayal and lies than of directly applied bloody force.
The material is potentially there for such a development of the character of the perfectly made and beauteous female Terminator in Terminator Three but it never happens; she is just a lovely killing machine.
The loss that is the center of both the human and cyborg existences of the important characters in all the Terminator movies never is developed in Terminator Three though the plot certainly has such motifs en utero. If anything the females in both Cameron movies and the lovely assassin in Terminator Three become much more soldierly and militant rather than lyric and consoling as civilization dissolves before them. They harden themselves into killers as they face both personal live or die situations of imminent ultimate loss.
Itís hardly a wonder that these movies have rarely been seen by the Upper Middle Class White women who read books of gossip about imaginary affluent people these days. Our culture has really divided in two with educated women reading contemporary fiction selected by feminists, men paying tickets to see what we call action movies.
The spectacle of these gritty affairs hides as well as displays the ability of directors like Cameron to develop the male mythic character with a nearly purely visual subtlety. The hapless psychiatrist in all three the Terminator movies isnít just a passing joke; he is another kind of priestly male driven fashionably insane by his culture who plainly isnít ready to deal with the real world.
Iíd been struck while reading thorough innumerable reviews of the Terminator movies on the Internet how none of the writers mention that these films are mythic. Moreover these flicks occupy an even larger genre in films of the last part of the 20th century in which words and language are medley a thin oil that moves the silent and melodramatic narrative from one visual image to another.
One of the talents of James Cameron has been to take a screenplay that has as little dialogue as possible, make a silent movie, lard it with enough sonics of mayhem to make it terrifying not with deluge but prodigal volumes of richly harsh noise.
Itís always the though of the businessmen who run the film industry to put together a sequel once itís established that the first film made lots of unexpected money. It was Cameronís talent to make a very different film from the same materials in Terminator Two.
There are very deliberate resonances taken for ordinary American life Cameron created in the first two Terminator movies that are very powerful. Cameronís world has an androgynous familiar eccentric warrior protagonist that has evolved from a very convention young California woman. Her son seen in Terminator Two is fatherless, anxious to learn something of manhood for an adult male; he does so in the end from a male robot.
Apparently there was nothing more to say about any of this action; besides Cameron wasnít around to say in Terminator Three. Like many such sequels of sequels this film has an air of exhaustion as it makes reference back to one surefire motifs that had worked in its more viable predecessors. Aiming to extend ideas that had run their course, it has no main action.
Its dramatic conflict between its good and bad guys seems contrived, almost unimportant; the myth fails here partially because the Schwartenegger character is, though Arnold does his best to make him tormented, is rather incidental to an attempt to make the narrative about the remaking of a human being who is a sort of wastrel into a hero.
There are ironies in Terminator Three though never worked out that are ingeniously clever. The Schwartzenegger character tells the hero that he has killed him in the future; now his job is to save him in the past. Itís a deliciously cunning idea though never developed. In a similar motif in the previous movie, the female lead played by Linda Hamilton almost escapes an insane asylum whose staff is dedicated to convincing her that her tale about the Terminator and assassins from the future is a lunacy only to find not merely the Schwartenegger character waiting for her as she breaks out of the loony bin but that he is not her assassin but her savior.
Cameron in Terminator Two develops this idea in a wonderful way; the Terminator is an ironic father-like figure to the son who had sent back a comrade to fight the original Terminator, his double in Terminator One. They play and blur of who is who in all three movies is really very clever, in a Jungian way mythically appropriate.
It doesn't help make the last of a film series persuasive whose early promise had been both mythic and real terror, not a mocking laugher at its predecessors, as its reason for being.
Since this human character, jejune California White trash, isnít very interesting, the story lags ovariotomy the robotic Terminator is not on the screen. Perhaps the puerility of the protagonist is a stratagem for attracting the adolescents and children market the producers thought this film would bring into the movie houses.
The film is much more comical and less recklessly violent than the other two Terminators; in fact in its comparative fear of showing violence and death to get a PG rating it is often a parody of itself. It even mentions in passing in one very violent scene that it hasnít killed anybody. Thatís not why people go to watch any Terminator film. The language of discretion, inference and caution, not graphic and crazy violence, was never its trump. Itís one of Hollywoodís signature acts to offer one the gestures of its successes without the substance in sequels executed by directors who were elsewhere when the improbable moneymaker had been fashioned in the first place. Perhaps the most remarkable run of such films, the James Bond series, has had four or five James Bonds, several different directors and screenplay writers, even new sets of makers of its anxiety-inspiring musical scores.
Like the other such run including the Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman series of the 1930s and 40s, its endless sequels had the effect of senescence when it sold tickets to terrify an audience with displaying some horrifyingly exotic species of feral male virility.
If the first presentation and its sequels extends over a long time as both the James Bond and Terminator series have, the meaning of the myth changes as the times do. Of course the Bond series began as a spoof of the old British imperial routine of the invincibility of the ordinary English swaggering adventurer and soldier of the pulp fiction of an earlier age. The first James Bond movie, Doctor No, surfaced at a time when the empire had been dead about fifteen years.
The America of Terminator Three in 2003 is not as different from the realm of Terminator One in 1982. One of the intriguing changes is that the remarkable Arnold Schwartenegger is now the governor of California, occasionally calling himself the Terminator although he is the first to say that films are make-believe, yet bringing the fictional image of the decisive male into reality and out of his films.
I donít think Arnold could have been elected on his terrifying performance in Terminator One in 1982. He was too scary. Arnold actually disappears in the last fifteen minutes of that film as his real inner nature as a robot replaces him visually in the film. Yet ironically, as the protector of women and children in Terminator Two he became in that emanation the champion of life itself though his character was only elusively alive against sophisticated cyborgs with no accent, armed with a protean ability to seem ordinary he had always lacked.
In Terminator Three in 2003 Arnold plays the same role but as an ancillary character in a rather lame romance with two milquetoast California characters whose banality whimsically inters the film when the much more intriguing and horrific robots are causing mayhem elsewhere.
I would guess that by 2003 Americans arenít afraid theyíre going to be taken over by conscious machines anymore. They have the same epicurean contempt for their mineral servants from a toaster to an imaginary robot they have at bottom for themselves.
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