catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 16 :: 2003.08.01 — 2003.08.14


It's back -- and it's worse

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

and its antecedents depict that, in the future, a global computer network with an army of cyborgs at its disposal will take over the earth after launching the world?s supply of nuclear weapons, wiping out three billion people instantly. A man called John Conner will lead the human race against the machines. This is why the machines send a Terminator, a highly advanced cybernetic organism, back in time to kill him. The human resistance of the future always manage to send a Terminator of their own to protect the young John Conner, never as powerful, yet with enough luck and wit to prevail.

I find very little reason to explain in detail the story line of Rise of the Machines because the plot varies little from the first two installments. The only notable difference between the first two and the third does a great deal of damage to the film and the series as a whole. At the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, we learn that machines will not take over and the nuclear holocaust is averted. Rise of the Machines ends with John Connor, although safely shielded from the impending nuclear onslaught, failing to stop the machine?s coup d?etat. The final sequence reveals hundreds mushroom clouds littering the earth. The narrative attempts to temper the sheer horror of this prospect by telling us that the humans will eventually win their fight against the machines, but this does not help. Besides being utterly depressing, Rise of the Machines reverses Judgment Day?s blatant message of ?no fate but what you make.? We can argue over the validity of a statement like that, but replacing the prospect of a better future with a terrifying fate never sits well with movie audiences.

Although I would think this ending would not leave the audience begging for more, Rise of the Machines quite obviously sets itself up for yet another sequel, which will take place post-nuclear holocaust. I hope and pray that a fourth film does not get made, although I do admire the first Terminator, which I thought was well-crafted and genuinely effective. The second, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, lacked any sense of horror and instead only paraded endless amounts of albeit impressive and groundbreaking special effects. This third one, I would hope, would signal an end to the series.

The original Terminator from 1984, although much smaller in scale and production, in many ways surpasses the others in style and tone. I found it tempting to define the film as a mix of sci-fi and horror, but that would not be true. A basic horror film does not let the audience know when the monster will attack. It lurks in the shadows and pops out when you least expect. The Terminator wastes no time with surprise. It exists only to find and destroy John and his mother, Sarah Conner, and it is not going to stop until they are dead. Because it is an advanced killing machine from the future, the Terminator simply cannot be brought down; you can blow it straight through a brick wall, but it will just get back up again. A signature shot from any of the three movies is the Terminator rising Phoenix-like from a mound of rubble without a scratch and marching straight for its intended victims with a face of stone. This image is devastatingly simple but extremely effective by tapping into a universal human nightmare of being chased by a monster that?s getting closer and closer.

Instead of a sci-fi/horror mix, it would be more appropriately labeled the name of the conveniently titled club where Sarah Connor finds brief refuge from their pursuer, Tech Noir. This is no crime picture with private eyes in fedoras smoking cigarettes, but that is all right. Noir exists more as a style rather than a genre, both visually and thematically. Terminator?s style owes obvious debts to the noir visual vernacular, and its themes of the cruelty of fate, psychological confusion and fear, and lurking death certainly resonates with its noir predecessors.

The sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991, helped announce the advent of digital mise-en-sc?ne, the dominant style of Hollywood movies that began to take off in the Nineties with rapid advancement in computer generated special effects. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, the director of the first two Terminators, both helped create this type of filmmaking, typified by films like Jurassic Park and Titanic. Later, producer Jerry Brukenheimer and his many director prot?g?s like Michael Bay and Tony Scott picked up this style and began pushing movies to their dazzling, eye-candy limit. In his book, A Cinema of Loneliness, critic Robert Kolker defines these types of films as ?special-effects movies in which spectacle is prominent and the viewer plays with a double consciousness of the artificiality of the images and their ?realism? simultaneously.? Hence, while the original Terminator struck genuine fear, its sequels induce a sense of awe and spectacle. Seeing T1000 melt into liquid metal and reform again for the first time in Judgment Day does not terrify the audience. This never really was its intent. Instead it inspires fascination with the technical achievement of the filmmaker and plays with our expectations of how this new Terminator will be bigger and badder.

In Rise of the Machines, very little advancement in the technical achievement of both the film?s special effects and Terminator?s abilities make this third film a bad copy of the second. A total lack of originality necessitates a different kind of spectacle, and this time it is the figure of the female body. The decision to have a woman play the new Terminator, called TX or, get this, the Terminatrix, could not be more appropriate. In such a self-conscious film like this, the Terminatrix exists solely for us to be enthralled with. I find it hard to imagine a better example of pure spectacle in an American movie than a curvaceous, butt-kicking woman glossed over with digital effects. Perhaps the next step would be to have her orgasm while killing people, except that has already happened. Ever seen Goldeneye? Where can a movie go beyond that? I am both curious and frightened to think how much more sugar could be pumped into eye candy.

Unfortunately, Rise of the Machines douses itself with even more self-consciousness than Judgment Day. Sequels, especially big budget franchises such as this, demand a certain level of this because their existence depends on the audience?s demands and expectations from the previous movies. As with most film series, this self-consciousness soon wears thin and inevitably results in movies that are simply bad parodies of themselves. Everything becomes a joke, or even a joke about a joke.

Here?s a great example: at the beginning of the first movie, the Terminator, who always travels through time naked, took some clothes from a couple of punks hanging out at the Los Angeles Observatory. In Judgment Day, he takes clothes from a biker at a bar. As he steps outside, George Thoroughgood?s ?Bad to the Bone? plays in the background. This subtle wink at the audience indicates the film knows that it is image that is important. We have no reason to take this character seriously when he is simply a spectacle in and of himself. A developed sense of style will make up for a lack of depth and can cover a myriad of sins which the character may commit, no matter how horrific, especially if the film laughs at itself like this one does.

In Rise of the Machines, this is pushed even further. The Terminator, played by Schwarzenegger and sent to protect John Conner, walks into a country bar on ladies night and demands the clothes of a male stripper who, through his effeminate language, we are to infer is gay. This stripper happens to be wearing a black leather get-up which looks not so much like a biker costume but a Madison Avenue version of what a biker would wear. When Arnold leaves the bar fully dressed and ready to begin his mission, ?Bad to the Bone? is not playing like it was in Judgment Day. No, it is The Village People?s ?Macho Man? blasting through the speakers. As an added touch, when Arnold reaches into the pocket of the jacket he just stole, we anticipate him pulling out a pair of cool, black sunglasses, but he instead produces some sparkly, star shaped shades a la Elton John.

The big laugh here is that the Terminator might be gay. Further suggestions of this appear a few times throughout the picture, which makes sense. Why not apply the stereotype of the fashion obsessed, urban homosexual to a character so self aware of his image? A smaller, almost throwaway, but still important joke is that Arnold does not need to threaten the man?s life to get his clothes like in the first two films, yet he still uses violence. I find it a bit frightening when the importance of a character?s image and style dominate, and actions, especially violent ones, are reduced to the level of a joke. What makes this worse is that this mindset permeates contemporary action films. Robert Kolker describes this reckless mentality in his discussion of the film Die Hard and its hero, John McClane. His thoughts can easily be applied to Judgment Day and Rise of the Machines and deserves to be quoted at length:

This hero is too aware of his cinematic, pop-cultural existence to take any of it very seriously. More accurately, he and the film that contains him counterpoint seriousness against irony and self-effacement and cynicism. [Judgment Day] is in the post-modern mode that relies on the cynical, sentimental, and self-protective response on the part of the film and its audience. It keeps telling us it?s all a joke, that the world is no more meaningful than the film that is representing it at the moment, or is as the film represents it, and we would be fools to take it any more seriously. We would equally be fools not to. That would put us outside the joke.

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