DVD Review - Rage Against The Machines
A dark Los Angeles street in 1984. It's the early hours of the morning and in a nearby police station house, a lone officer sleepily mans the front desk. The door opens and in walks a towering, 6' 2'' badass clad head to toe in black leather: "I'm a friend of Sarah Connor. Can I see her, please?" "You can't see her. She's making a statement." "Where is she?" "Look, it's gonna be a while. You wanna wait. There's a bench." The Terminator steps back, scanning the booth, the electric door, the rooms beyond. "I'll be back." And back he was in a smash-and-grab raid of splintering glass, "Uzi nine milleemeder" gunfire and unstoppable determination in a scene that would become on of the most iconic moments in Eighties cinema. With a snappy one-line and plenty of (pump) action, the Terminator T-800 had arrived.
Simplicity is always the best option for a novice filmmaker, even if he is James Cameron, the man who'd go on to direct such megabudget monoliths as Truel Lies and Titanic. There's something impressively pared down about The Terminator, a sci-fi thriller in which almost everything happens in contemporary Los Angeles. Forget your ray-guns, phased-plasma rifles with a forthy-watt range and expensive sets, 95% of The Terminator takes place in 1984, requiring hardly any budget-munching layouts by the financiers. Even the time travel mechanics are kept as simple as a high school science project - a flash of blue light, a burst of noise and that's your lot. Genius!
Spending his $7 million budget frugally, Cameron kept a tight reign on the purse strings to ensure that all his dosh went on two sequences: the opening robot war set in 2029 Los Angeles and the Terminator's endoskeleton finale. It was something the journeyman director had learned from the master of low-budget sci-fi, Roger Corman. He'd worked with him at New World Pictures at the beginning of the Eighties on films like Battle Beyond The Stars, a B-movie Star Wars rip-off in which Cameron was credited as set designer and miniature builder. It was an opportunity to learn the business from the bottom end of the market, since Corman specialised in rough and ready microbudget movies that were the modern day equivalent of a run-down sideshow hidden away at the back of the funfair - brubby, cheap but occasionally fun in a guilty pleasure kind of way. When Cameron finally graduated to the director's chair with Piranha II: The Spawning - an embarrassingly shoddy effort that the über-director now fondly refers to as "the finest flying-piranha movie ever made" - he was able to prove that he'd learnt the Corman knack of making something out or next to nothing.
He came, he saw, he Terminated
Next to nothing was pretty much all Cameron had as work started on The Terminator. The idea was still pretty sketchy: all Cameron knew was that he wanted to make "the definitive robot movie", a film that was both fantastic and believable. "We'd had things like Westworld, where Yul Brynner's face falls off and there's a transistor radio underneath - which is not visually satisfying because you don't feel that this mechanism could have been inside moving those facial features." The Terminator was going to change all that.
"No one was in this picture to make a lot of money," claimed producer, co-writer and Cameron's second wife Gale Anne Hurd after its release. "We wanted to prove that with creative control we would make a terrific movie, and that we would be bankable commodities." Hoping to produce a low-budget sci-fi movie that would be good enough to secure them a place on the bottom rungs of Hollywood's career ladder, they never suspected that they were actually about to step into the express elevator to the penthouse suite.
Sitting down to write The Terminator with Hurd, Cameron fleshed out the basic idea. What he came up with was a post-nuclear war earth, a battle between humans and machines, a time travel device and a last-minute race to save the future from itself by stopping the assassination of human resistance leader John Connor before he is even born, by a cyborg Terminator sent back to kill his mother. Even on the page, it seemed like gripping stuff.
Then came the casting process that would seal the film's fate. Originally, Cameron had a very definite vision about the killer robot's look: "The Terminator was going to be a guy with a scary face, but not particalarly imposing. I intended for him to be a kind of lurking figure in the crowd, with the collar of his trenchcoat turned up like the bad guy from film-noir." During the casting process, something got lost in the translation from Cameron's imagination to the finished film. That something was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 1984, Schwarzenegger was an actor better known because of his unpronounceable surname than for baring his pecs in the laughable yet great Conan The Barbarian and it sequal Conan The Destroyer. The youngest ever Mr. Universe winner, Schwarzenegger decided in the early Seventies that he was going to stop pumping iron and start picking up acting paycheques. Eventually the cheques would become heavier than his dumbbells, but in 1984 Aaanhold was simply on the look out for an action role that would let him break some bones without having to take his shirt off. With this in mind, his agent sent him the script for The Terminator... and asked him if he'd be interested in playing Reese, with Lance Henrikson (who'd eventually take the role of over-chatty Detective Vukovich) as the killer cyborg!
Somewhere along the line, no one can quite remember how, where or when everyone realised that having the Austrian Oak play the Terminator would be a far more effective use of his superhuman physique. After all, while he may have been able to put Charles Atlas in the shade, he had the worst English accent imaginable and couldn't act his way out of a pair of lederhosen. With just sixteen lines of dialogue, who better to play an emotionless robot from the 21st Century?
With Arnie signed up for the Terminator role, it meant Cameron had to reassess the trenchcoat-wearing man-in-the-crowd he'd first envisaged: "Once Arnold was cast, it changed the complexion of the film forever. It never would have worked to do that kind of gritty realism with Arnold in the role... If you think about it, Arnold actually defies logic. He's supposed to be inconspicuous, an infiltrator. But at six feet two inches and 220 pounds, he stands out in any crowd. Plus he's got an accent for which there's no logical justification".
Still, audiences seemed willing to suspend their beliefs. Opening in 26 October, 1984 in the States, The Terminator defied its bottom-shelf origins to become one of the most successfull films of the Eighties. For Cameron, the film's appeal was obvious: "It was an 'underdog' movie" where "people come out of the theatre feeling that they got more than they expected." You went into the auditorium to watch a sci-fi flick by a director no one had heard of with that muscle man from Conan and you got 108 minutes of non-stop bang for your buck, a wall-to-wall action spectacle that was dark, dangerous and full of outrageous set pieces like Arnie's one-man assault on the LAPD station house. What you got, in effect, was one of the defining movies of the Eighties, a film that delivered everyone's secret fantasy of getting to be the villain.
"The Terminator can be as rude as he wants," says Cameron when asked about the film's deeped-seated appeal. "He can walk through a door, go through a plate glass window and just get up, brush off impacts from bullits. It's like the dark side of Superman, in a sense. I think it has a great cathartic value to people who wish they could just splinter open the door to their boss' office, walk in, break his desk in half, grab him by the throat and throw him out the window, and get away with it. Everybody's got that little demon what wants to be able to do whatever it wants." In other words, with a push in the right direction (and a indestructable titanium endoskeleton backed-up with some serious bassass attitidude) we could all be the Terminator.
Even at this early stage in his career, Cameron was savvy enough to know that the read to success lay in giving the paying customer what they wanted. He knew that the best kind of sci-fi movies had to be more than just a few gadgets and SFX. Squeezing in enough ideas to turn a Nobel Prize-winning scientist's grey matter to mush, The Terminator wasn't just another dumb actioner. It was that rare thing, a movie that delivers both non-stop action and more cerebral pleasures. As Cameron put it, The Terminator existed as "a linear action piece taht a 12-year-old would think was the most rad picture they'd ever seen and a science fiction that a 45-year-old Stanford English professor would think had some socio-political significance between the lines".
Judging by the box office, it was clear that every 12-year-old thrill seeker and every 45-year-old Enlgish professor in the country had stumped up their dollars to see the film.
You could be mine
At 02:14 Eastern Time on 29 August 1997, the Skynet Defence System becomes self-aware. In a panic, the government tries to switch it off, but it was too late. Judgment Day is here and the rise of the machines has begon.
At 21:30 Pacific Time on 1 July 1991, it was Judgment Day in the cinema too as the apocalyptic sequel to The Terminator opened with the force of a 100-megaton nuclear blast hitting Los Angeles. Seven years after the series made its debut, The Terminator franchise had become one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. Cameron was now one of the industry's most lauded young turks, riding high on films like Aliens and The Abyss, while Arnie had achieved a level of mega-celebrity that matched his physique - epic, impossible, unstoppable and larger-than-any-known-life.
Pickin up a gloden $15 million salary for taking the franchise on his broad shoulders even though he only had just 700 words of dialogue (which crunched down to a whopping #21,429 per word), Arnie was the superstar of 1991. With a pumping Guns 'n' Roses soundtrack, some of the most advanced SFX ever seen and a completely buff Linda Hamilton getting her hardbodied physique out to prove that sisters are capable of doing it for themselves (especially when it comes to field stripping M16 assault rifles), Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or T2 for short, was a runaway juggernaut of a movie, ploughinh through the competition as if they were plastic traffic cones, Arnie had said he'd be bacj and be was... with a vengeance.
Seven years on, things had changed considerably. The original Terminator may have been a no-budget underdog, but T2 was a mammoth mega-blockbuster with a $60 million budget that then spiralled towards the $100 million mark as the effects took centre stage. It was an inflation that left Hollywood's accountants frantically putting on their brown trousers while firing up their Excel spreadsheets in a sweaty panic. No other movie had cost so much.
For the investment, though, they were getting some high quality stuff, with two Terminator - the now obsolete T-800 Arnie who'd reinvented himself as a caring, sharing kindergarten cybercop and the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a "memetic poly-alloy skinned" machine that could morph into any person or object of a similair volume that it had a molecular sample of. The showdown between these two cyborg killers would send audiences into whooping overdrive.
Cameron delivered a spectacle like no other. It's an old thruth that there are few sequels that live up to the original, but T2 delivered everything and more that fans were looking for in a way that none of today's blockbusters have ever been able to replicate. Even the critics were too busy picking their jaws upoff the floor to make any snide remarks. Using state-of-the-art morphing technology - a computer effect that allowed SFX teams to distort physical objects or people so that it looked as though they were stretching and changing shape into something or someone else - made famous by Michael Jackson in his "Black Or White" music video - T2 set Arnie's hulking cyborg against an adversary who could change shape at will. It was, as Cameron summed it up, "like watching a Panzer Tank and a Porsche go head to head."
For Robert Patrick, actor whose CD was full of low-budget clag, starring in T2 was a dream come true. It was also a terrifying nightmaer of intensive training and workouts overseen by an ex-Israeli army commando. In order to make himself look as though he'd have even a vague chance of standing up to Arnie, Patrick had to endure weeks of "physical hell" that revolved around four daily workouts of running, wieghts, judo and swimming with sand bags tied to his back: "Becoming involved with T2 was a very intense part of my life," says the star who'd go on to replace David Duchovny on The X-Files. "I remember Arnold saying 'Relax it's only a movie...' but I knew that if I fucked up the movie wouldn't work."
Patrick wasn't the only one feeling the pain. While Arnie chomped on the finest cigars and flexed his muscles by carrying around his increasingly inflated ego, co-star Linda Hamilton was undergoing a radical transformation of her own in order to play Sarah Connor as a near-psychotic survivalist. Training day and night, Hamilton was now unrecognisable. Gone was the dippy Mr. Big Buns waitress of The Terminator, this was a woman who had seen the future and was locked and loaded and ready to rock with it. For the actress herself, more used to playing roles in TV shows like Beauty And The Beast than visionary warrior woman, it was a transformation she didn't feel entirely comfortable with: "I know it sounds ridiculous, but I had a problem with lines like 'On the floor fuck face,' as I was worried what my mother would think when she saw the picture!"
For Arnie, there were no such concerns. Ditching his tough guy persona to become the father figure for John Connor (Edward Furlong), the boy he'd previously been despatched to kill, the Austrain Oak was on top wise-cracking form, bursting into a biker bar to collect some new threads ("I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle"), learning some usefull slang ("No problemo") and adopting a less lethal approuching to terminating by shooting his victims in the legs rahter than the forehead. He even got to save the world from nuclear destruction by decommisionning himself, climbing into a vat of molten metal in the self-sacrificing finale.
Aaanhold might have been playing a robot, but he was the larger-than-life star of T2, the only essential factor in a franchise that he had come to embody. He was, naturally, extremely modest about it: "I take a real beating in the new film. Robert Patrick is much more threatening and dangerous as the new Terminator. You see, the producers realised that I'm far too good looking - no camera can take all these good looks - so what they have to do is beat me up, put all these appliances and terrible makeup on my face to tone down how handsome I am."
As T2 took four Oscars, facing down the like of The Silence Of The Lambs, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, City Slickers and The Addams Family, it was obvious that he'd be back again. It was just a question of when, how and where.
Rise of the Machines
It turned out to be a long, long wait. While seven years filled the gap between The Terminator and T2, the third film took 12 years to hit the big screen. Quite a stretch, even for a franchise of this size to take in its stride. Worse still, it was a 12-year period that had its fair share of ups and downs, including much-publicised heart surgery for the big man himself. It wasn't just Arnie's ticker that was showing signs of wear and tear, though. His celebrity had become rather high-cholesterol too, with a sting of dismal flops - Junior, Jingle All The Way, Batman & Robin, End Of Days, Collateral Damage - going into cardiac arrest at the box office. At 56, could it be that Arnie had finally met his match in Old Father Time?
The star himself wasn't having any of it: "We all get older and there will be a time when I cannot play the same parts," he told journalists as T3 opened. "But I have no problem with that now - I will be able to do the action for a long time." Yet that wasn't enough to convince his detractors that, just maybe, the Terminator was bout to become an obsolete model.
One thing that was worrying the Austrian Oak, though, was that Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines didn't have the box-office pedigree of its predecessors. While the absence of Edward Furlong and Linda Hamilton didn't cause many sleepless nights, the refusal of Cameron to get with the programme looked like it might sink the whole deal. After buying the rights to The Terminator franchise, producers Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna approached the hirsute king of the world cap in hand to ask for his directorial skill, but he turned them down. Flat. The big question was, with Cameron out, would Anrie take the bait. For a while it looked decidedly dicey. The star had always said he wouldn't be interested in doing a third movie unless Cameron was onboard. But, ever the sonsummate showman, the big guy decided that if it was what the fans wanted, he was honour-bound to give it to them. Audience tests had proved that, in the star's own words, "there has been a one hundred per cent 'Want to see' with this movie and no negatives". And so Arnie pitched in for the ride. The fact that he was getting a cool $30 million salary and free publicity for his campaign to become governor of California was simply an unexpected bonus, of course.
For Jonathan Mostow, the man who had the task of *gulp* stepping into James Cameron's Titanic-sizes directional shoes, it was the story that clinched the deal. "My initial response was, frankly, sceptical. I thought 'Why do they need to make Terminator 3? The last one was so good!' It sounded like a cynical attempt to cash in whatever goodwill the fans had left. But when I read the script, it opened my eyes to the fact that there was actually an interesting story to tell here."
Blah, blah, blah. Saying the script is "interesting" smacked of PR guff for "I decided to do it because the price was right", something that left many fans debious about what T3 would bring. Still, at least with Stan Winston, the SFX man behind T1 and T2 who'd been responsible for designing the original Terminator, there was some hope. Particularly since with a zero-heavy $185 million budget, it was clear that T3 was going to look amazing, even if the new director had cut his teeth on the far-from-stunning Breakdown and U-571. Mostow was philosophical about the challenge: "If the movie is great, people will say I merely connected the dots on an already established formula. If the movie is not as good as the first two, for sure, I'm going to be blamed". Que sera, sera.
One thing T3 definitely had that its predecessors lackedm was a slinky, high-tech female Terminator (played by former model Kristanna Loken) who's sent back to the present to off little John Connor (Nick Stahl), who's now a 22-year-old man. Throw in Claire Danes as his veterinarian love interest and sit back and watch as Anrie's T-800 takes in the T-X (short for Terminatrix). It's black leather vs red leather and high heels. Bondage lovers' heaven and a dream come true for Loken who had to pinch herself to believe it was really happening, while doing her best not to damage her $30 million megastar adversary: "Can you imagine if I'd accidentally hit him in the face?"
Surprisingly, it all turned out for the best, mainly because the T-X proved such a worthy advisary for Arnie's battle-scarred cyborg. As her SFX creator Stan Winston - who says he's been married for 30 years and knows what he's talking about - put it: "The T-X is the ultimate bitch." This is one drop-dead gorgeous cyborg who'll stop at nothing to get what she wants, taking over police cars with her nanotechnology enhancements or smashing the T-800 through concrete buildings as he dangles on the end of a crane. Action-packed stuff. At least it was more adrenalin pumping than the sight of the prototype Terminators, which looked like a bunch of escapees from TV's Robot Wars - more dustbin Daleks than Hunter Killers. But then came that apocalyptic, time-twisting teaser ending... good enough to make the whole film seem a worthwhile addition to the first two films and set up the prospect of Terminator 4.
Whether or not a fourth outing is ever likely to be more than just a glimmer in a youn fanboy's eye isn't certain yet, but whatever happens, this is one franchise that's unlikely to be mared for termination anytime soon.
Sources for quotes: Empire, Fangorio, Cinefantastique, Starburst, Total Film, Schwarzenegger.com