Tag: the terminator

The Terminator


The Terminator (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Cameron’s “The Terminator” is known for its muscular action sequences and the pitch-perfect casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent from post-apocalyptic 2029 to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), mother of John Connor, the man who will lead the resistance against the machines, but let us not overlook that the screenplay is so precise and efficient, it makes modern sci-fi action pictures look saggy, lackadaisical, weak. Here is a movie that offers an experience: it can be entertaining, funny, pulse-pounding, and horrifying at a drop of a hat. It is miraculous that despite the disparate elements that must be juggled, the story’s forward momentum continues to build until the climax. It works from top to bottom.

Right from the opening minutes it is without question that plenty of thought is put into the images on screen. The arrival of two figures from the future—a machine and a human—run in parallel. The former is sinewy, tall, without an identifying emotion his face. The latter, on the other hand, is built but scrawny by comparison, his face plagued by confusion, uncertainty, agitation, perhaps even fear. Similarity lies in their nakedness. But a difference: the machine must blend into its new environment while the man, too, must do the same… on top of avoiding shame for having to go on without them. Another similarity: their mission is find Sarah Connor. The difference: the machine is programmed to kill her, but the man feels the need to protect her. There is minimal dialogue, but our eyes are transfixed on the screen.

The lack of words or critical dialogue goes on for minutes as the director racks up the tension. Even when we meet Sarah, as words are exchanged among colleagues and friends, there is nothing important to be said or expressed. These are played for chuckles or laughs. Instead, we pay attention to what is being reported on television. Because the work shows that the background elements can be important in this story, we are trained to pay attention to every small detail. In other words, the work tasks us to participate. And because we are engaged, it must be established early on that the heroine be intelligent. It is a mistake for this character to be dumb when we meet her only to get smarter later on. Screenwriters James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd anticipate this pitfall and so they find ways to be two steps ahead of expectations.

There is excellence in easily overlooked moments. For instance, when our protagonist gets on her bike and looks both ways before driving off, there is great tension to be felt. The funny thing is that she is not aware she is being hunted… yet. But we already have this knowledge. To Sarah, to look both ways is the sensible, ordinary thing to do. But to us, it is a life or death situation: a figure approaching from a distance in either direction could mean that the cyborg programmed to kill has found her and she could be dead in seconds. These moments of pause, of inhalation, elevate the action film toward a more visceral territory. It cannot be denied there are horror elements in the work outside of the relentless, highly physical, seemingly unstoppable villain.

Here we are at the end of the review and I have not even detailed the high caliber action scenes. And I don’t feel the need to because they must be experienced to be appreciated fully. But notice the sound design: immediate, forceful, sharp; they tend to jolt the viewers into paying attention that much more. Yet at times the approach is minimalistic: the pulsating score is enough to hasten our heartbeats.

There is certainly a few dated special and visual effects (the CGI cyborg in its rawest, metallic form running from the background toward the foreground quickly comes to mind) and obvious cosmetics (Schwarzenegger donning a most unconvincing, chuckle-worthy mask since technology that allowed seamless blending of two faces—man and machine—was not yet available). But I consider these to be negligible technical shortcomings because the rest of the work functions on a high level. There are two or three lines of mawkish dialogue, but this is overcome by daring to turn the story’s core into a love story.

I, Robot


I, Robot (2004)
★ / ★★★★

Detective Spooner (Will Smith) was assigned to investigate the suicide of Dr. Lanning, the main scientist in charge of commercialization of robots on 2035. Spooner suspected that the murder was staged to look as a suicide by a robot named Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and it was only the first step of the robots’ plan to take over the world. “I, Robot” completely missed the mark to make an intelligent film about humans’ increasing dependence on technology. Much of the movie was a predictable set-up to make the main character run after or shoot at something. The uninspired false alarms were transparent. For instance, early in the movie, Spooner saw a robot running with a purse. He thought it was trying to steal the purse. Naturally, smart audiences would most likely surmise it was simply delivering the purse to its rightful owner because no tension was established regarding rogue robots yet. Spooner looked like a fool because his fear was only in his mind. The scene would have been more effective if placed after the murder of the prominent scientist to serve as a small rising action, regardless of the pettiness of the crime, to make us believe that perhaps the robot was up to something more devious than it seemed. Another scientist that jumped into the mix of the mystery was Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) who, despite all the reasonable doubt placed in front of her, could not seem to make up her mind where to place her loyalty. For a character who was supposed to be the voice of reason regarding the advantages of having robots in the home or at work, her logic was flawed. Her character was tantamount to those horror movie characters who decided to look for something in a dark room during the most inopportune times. Her eventual acknowledgement that the detective was right to be suspicious of the robots felt too forced. Granted, I did admire the special and visual effects. There were two action sequences that I thought were exciting to watch. The first was when Spooner had to face about a hundred robots in an underground freeway while going about 125 miles per hour. The second was when the robots climbed on their manufacturer’s building in an attempt to stop Spooner and Dr. Calvin from ruining their revolution. I do have to say, however, that there was another glaring inconsistency concerning those two scenes. In the first, the detective had a very difficult time destroying the robots. He had to use his car, gun, and high speed to survive. But in the latter, he was able to use his hands to rip the robots apart. Finding out that Alex Proyas, who directed the slightly brilliant “Dark City,” directed this film was all the more disappointing. If the film’s special and visual effects had been stripped away, not a thing would have kept it afloat because it lacked heart and intelligence. I found it ironic that Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s “The Terminator” were far more convincing robots despite the fact that they were played by actual humans.

Dante’s Peak


Dante’s Peak (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

One of my first memories was the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. I saw the destruction of our home, felt rocks falling from the sky, panic beginning to grow, and sky being so dark because the ash was so thick. Pierce Brosnan stars as volcanologist Harry Dalton who visited a small town led by Linda Hamilton as the mayor. Harry believed that the volcano was going to erupt soon because classic signs began to emerge, but his fellow volcanologists thought there was no scientific evidence to warrant immediate evacuation. Predictably enough, just when everyone finally agreed on a course of action, Dante’s Peak began to unleash major destruction. Evacuation became complicated for romantically entangled Harry and the mayor because the mayor’s kids (Jeremy Foley, Jamie Renée Smith) stupidly drove up the mountain to rescue dear old grandmother (Elizabeth Hoffman) who wouldn’t leave her home. I understand the negative reviews incited by this film. The acting was thin, the script was mediocre and the story was cliché. However, I admit that I enjoyed watching it because when I see a disaster flick, some of the elements I look for are destruction, visual and special effects, and a struggle for survival. This picture had those three elements. I thought the movie was at its best during the more silent moments where we were led to believe that certain characters were about to meet their demise. I don’t bite my nails (I think it’s a filthy habit) but I felt the urge to do so during the boat scene. The characters had no choice but to take a boat because lava was everywhere. But little did they know that the lake water had been turned into acid and it was eating away the boat’s metallic structure. In a nutshell, the boat was slowly sinking and touching the water meant a painful death. I’m most engaged when characters are trapped and I can’t find a solution for their predicament. Admittedly, some scenes did bother me such as Hamilton’s lack of leadership. As a mayor, I expected to see her making difficult decisions in times need–not just her own or her children’s but also the town’s. Instead, we saw her passing out coffee and going head over heels when she was around Harry. I felt like she wasn’t a very good leader or a role model which was a shame because I knew she was capable of delivering strength because she starred in James Cameron’s first two “Terminator” pictures. “Dante’s Peak,” written by Leslie Bohem and directed by Roger Donaldson, had its weaknesses because of its adamancy to stick with the formula but as a popcorn blockbuster, it had its moments of genuine suspense.

Avatar


Avatar (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Cameron has always given us movies that are beyond anything we would expect whether it’s about an upcoming apocalypse (“The Terminator,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), a rescue team plunging into an alien-colonized planet (“Aliens”), a secret agent finding out about his cheating wife (“True Lies”), a romantic interpretation of a tragedy (“Titanic”), or a real-life deep sea adventure (“Aliens of the Deep”). So when he releases a new movie with an extremely high budget and spent years and years shaping it, it saddens (and angers) me that people expect it to be downright disappointing. That lack of appreciation for a director who obviously loves his work and cares about his audiences just doesn’t fly with me. That group-think of hoping someone would fail is such an ugly quality and I don’t ever want to be a part of it. As I expected, “Avatar” exceeded expectations and I cannot help but rub its success on the faces of those people who judge a movie by its trailer (including the fools who claim “it sucks” without proper justification such as actually watching the film). Whatever happened to giving something the benefit of the doubt?

“Avatar” tells the story of humans–divided into researchers and the army–who go into another planet called Pandora in hopes of extracting the mineral Unobtainium to save Earth from an energy crisis. The catch is that the area where most of the element of interest is found underneath a giant tree that is inhabited by the Na’vi, the blue-colored, highly spiritual natives who do not get along with the humans despite efforts from the lead researchers (Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore) to get to know their culture and customs. After waking up from a coma and finding out about his twin brother’s demise, a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington–words cannot describe how much I love this guy) is hired by a colonel (Stephen Lang) to gain the natives’ trust (through transfering his mind into an avatar–a DNA hybrid of man and Na’vi) and double-crossing them in the end. In exchange, the colonel promises to give Jake the functionality of his legs by means of an expensive spine surgery. However, things quickly got more complicated when Jake falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and the fact that Jake finds it more liberating (or meaningful?) to be in a Na’vi than a human.

One of the many qualities I loved about this film was its ability to be about a lot of things (love, self-awareness, faith, discovery…) but never losing the wonder of meeting and interacting with an alien culture. Note that I use the word “culture” instead of “species” because we really got to know what they were about and why we ultimately root for them. Right when we plunged into the dangerous world of the Na’vi, I felt like I was experiencing something completely new. Like the lead character, everything was fascinating. I wanted to touch the strange-looking flowers and I wasn’t sure whether a certain creature was friendly or ready to attack. The theme of rebirth was consistently tackled throughout the picture in meaningful ways. Although some may see it as having a religious perspective, being not a religious person myself, I was moved by the possibilities and the interpretations made me feel more alive. I just wish that there were more metaphors and discussions regarding the science. I was interested in how they created an avatar. They did mention DNA hybridization but I’m sure that’s not the complete story. “DNA hybridization” may sound complicated to most people but once one has studied the basics (I have), it’s really a quite simple concept. Having set in the future, it could have really increased that “wow” factor by offering us unconventional explanations and poking fun of the limited technology we have now. (Since we think we’re so technologically advanced nowadays.)

I was very engaged when Weaver’s character was explaining the parallels between the neural connections in our brain and the Navi’s complex relationship with mother nature. That particular scene really supported my ethics and beliefs that a true scientist is sensitive to its subjects and not just all about the cold science. That message is really important to me because, from my experiences, every day I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are all about the brain but who are seriously lacking emotional intelligence. The director makes it apparent that this is about brains vs. brawns (scientists and Na’vis vs. the army) but I think it’s much more layered than that because there were scientists in the film that didn’t care about the natives and there were members of the army that did care (Michelle Rodriguez). Despite all the extended action sequences, I thought it had something more in its core and that’s why I couldn’t help but admire the picture. Admittedly, the story could have been much stronger but when I look back on it, the only way it could strengthen that aspect is to have another hour or so. I certainly wouldn’t cut a scene from the final version because I thought each one had something special to offer. It definitely had Pocahontas elements to it yet it’s different because it was able to offer a modern (or futuristic?) interpretation.

“Avatar” is an outstanding achievement in filmmaking, especially when it comes to its visual effects. I would not be surprised at all if it won every single technical awards in the Oscars or perhaps a Best Picture nomination. With a budget of over $300 million (from what I read from multiple sources), I thought the budget really translated onto film. Not only did the CGI images looked sharp by themselves but it was also amazing to see the CGI mesh so well with live action and the live actors. My experience was also magnified because I saw the movie in 3D. (I suggest you watch it in 3D as well.) With a behemoth of a running time that is 160 minutes (personally, I wish it ran longer), it may seem intimidating at first. But once all the action and imagination starts, you will not want to take a bathroom break. I can only hope others will have a chance to be absorbed in this world that Cameron has created for us. Most of all, I wish that people would stop hating on huge projects such as this one and show more appreciation and humility toward people who work so hard to offer us something new. It’s alright to express distaste after actually giving the final product a chance. But it’s important to still have some respect because what we project to the world is ultimately a reflection of us.

The Abyss


The Abyss (1989)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Titanic”) directed this deep sea adventure which stars Ed Harris as the leader of a team of divers hired for a rescue mission after a nuclear submarine mysteriously sinks. His ice queen of a wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who he does not get along with comes along and a lot of tension brews between them. The divers are aided by the Navy led by Michael Biehn but we later discover that he is not emotionally, psychologically, and physically equipped enough to handle the pressure (pun intended) of staying underwater for an extended period of time. This film surprised me because I did not think it would be as emotional as it was. I thought what was going to happen was the divers would find the submarine, encounter some aliens and head back home. I did not think that it was going to be a story of survival, clashing against differing positions of power, dealing with fear and paranoia, and pushing an extraterrestrial agenda. The underwater scenes were nothing short of amazing. I really felt like I was deep sea diving with the characters because all I could see were giant rocks, endless darkness, and blue light coming from their mode of transports. It reminded me of scenes from a fascinating documentary (also directed by Cameron) called “Aliens of the Deep.” I also liked the fact that the alien angle of the story was minimized up until the very end. The tension rises after each scene due to human errors and vulnerabilities so I had no trouble buying into everything that was happening. When Biehn’s character finally lost it, I was scared for all of the characters that he considered his enemy because he knew how to kill and do it efficiently. Although the film could have been shorter, in some ways it worked to its advantage because we really get to feel how it was like to be stuck underwater for almost three hours. Two stand out scenes for me were the resuscitation and the falling into the abyss scenes. I felt a whole range of emotions during those scenes and even I had to tear up a bit because I had no idea how it was all going to turn out. In many ways, it had the drama of “Titanic” and the horror of “The Thing.” There’s a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche (or some version of it) in the beginning of the film that perfectly summed up the experience. That is, “If you look into the abyss, the abyss will look into you.”

Terminator Salvation


Terminator Salvation (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

This fourth installment of “The Terminator” franchise may not have been as good as the first two films but it was a step above from the somewhat mediocre third outing. Initially, I was underwhelmed during the first few minutes of “Terminator Salvation” due to my high expectations. However, once the ball started rolling about fifteen minutes into the picture, I really got into it and I was curious what was going to happen next. (Not to mention I was at the edge of the seat during the more intense chase scenes.)

This sequel is set in year 2018 and it features a grown-up John Connor (Christian Bale) and his struggle to lead humanity against Skynet and its fatal machines. It also tells the story of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a man that was sentenced to death back in year 2003, woke up fifteen years later and eventually found out that he was a hybrid between a human and a robot. Their paths later collided because Wright was saved by Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) during his first encounter with a terminator; Connor, on the other hand, was on a mission to find his father, Kyle Reese, because if he dies on the hand of Skynet, Connor would not exist and therefore alter the future altogether. To prevent further confusion, it must be noted that it was not explicitly mentioned in this installment that Kyle Reese time traveled back to the past and conceived John Connor. (I dislike describing storylines that involve time travel. It’s always been my weakness so I apologize if it is in any way confusing or inaccurate.)

Being a summer blockbuster film or not, the visual and special effects are outstanding. In my head I kept thinking, “How did they even manage to shoot that?” and “Hey, that’s a neat stunt.” Throughout the entire picture, I really felt like I was watching the planet in ruins after Skynet took over. The post-apocalyptic feel reminded me of the best scenes from “Blade Runner” and “Children of Men.” As for the acting, I thought everyone did a really good job because they were convincing in their respective roles. However, Worthington was the one that stood out the most. I found it strange that I cared more about his character than Bale’s–the supposed main character. Even though Worthington was tough on the outside, there was a certain sensitivity in his eyes that reminded me of Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s style of acting in his most dramatic roles. Worthington embodied Marcus Wright so fully to the point where I was convinced that there was more to his story and that he’s not just a hybrid between a human and a robot. He almost made me wish that he was the focus of the story instead of John Connor. (And that’s probably not a good thing.) If he chooses to appear in films that are astute while at the same time able to feature his acting abilities, Worthington is definitely someone to look out for in the future.

For me, the main weakness of “Terminator Salvation” lies in its story. With such a big mythology set up by the first two films, this one felt considerably smaller in scope. The secondary problems that chip off from that primary issue include having too much action sequences, not having enough character development, not having enough comedic moments to let the film breathe, and sidelining John Connor’s importance. It’s nice to have exciting action scenes (and they undoubtedly do have that here) but it’s hard to care if there’s not enough moral conundrums facing characters who matter. It’s also suffocating if the tone of the picture is one-note–this one felt too serious for its own good, as if it was trying to be “The Dark Knight” when it was not even close to that level. What made the first two installment so great are the vibrant pockets of humor that were ultimately ingrained in the media consciousness. (Remember “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby”?) Lastly, John Connor did not feel as important as he should have been. Yes, I got that he was supposed to be leader and therefore supposed to be tough and commanding. And that’s the problem: I only saw him in that light and I wish McG, the director, established more scenes where we could ascertain another dimension of his personality.

There’s no doubt about it: I would recommend “Terminator Salvation.” However, I must urge people who have not yet seen the first three films (especially the first two) to catch up because there were references here and there that enhanced my viewing experience. If one had not seen the prior installments, one will most likely miss those or “not get it.” While I admit that this is far from a perfect post-apocalyptic adventure with subtle moral ambiguities, the positives outweigh the negatives as mentioned above. Perhaps if this series is to survive (and it most likely will), a more capable director and stronger writers could take over to truly blow die-hard fans and nondie-hard fans out of the water. In the meantime, “Terminator Salvation” will have to suffice.