Friday, January 08, 2010
Electric Playground on the Terminator franchise
Over at Electric Playground, you can watch a short video that examines the Terminator franchise and speculates about its future. There are interview snippets from a few commentators, including me. I distinguish how the franchise began with The Terminator, in many ways a classic horror movie with the focus on an implacable, demonic enemy from another order of things: Sarah Connor's everyday world is suddenly ruptured by the arrival of a terrifying killer cyborg from the future. But the logic of the back story has caused the movie franchise to shift modes - to the point where Terminator Salvation is something much more like a war movie.
I should say that I don't necessarily agree with the views of the other commentators. In particular, I do agree that The Terminator must be seen in the context of the Cold War, which had intensified at the beginning of the 1980s. But I think it's a misreading to see the Terminator and the other war machines referred to as somehow representative of communism and coerced social conformity, as one of the commentators suggests. Writer/director James Cameron was and is no cold warrior, and let's not forget the narrative premise that America incorporated these advanced machines into its strategic weapons system. (This is even clearer in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where we learn specific detail about Skynet).
Rather, the sinister, destructive machines stand in for the madness of the cold war, in which both sides built nuclear arsenals capable of mass destruction on a planetary scale. Beyond that, the machines can stand for all the madness of escalating war technology: I don't see these movies as unambiguously technophobic, but they certainly explore the darkest side of humans' use of technoscience, our penchant, over the centuries, for creating weapons of escalating destructive power. In doing so, they don't neglect the almost pornographic allure of guns and war machines (captured once again in Cameron's Avatar, but that's a topic for another post). At one point, the action of The Terminator takes place in a nightclub called Tech Noir, and that pretty much sums up the writer/director's theme.
The Terminator itself has nothing to do with communism, but is simply an unstoppable enemy - one that is ultimately revealed as an image of death, when its camouflage of human skin and flesh is burned away, and it rises from the flames as a walking metal skeleton with red-glowing eyes. At the end of the movie, as the pregnant Sarah Connor drives in the desert, menaced by a coming storm, it is not the triumph of communism that she anticipates but the madness of a nuclear war that will largely exterminate humanity.
Disagreement is healthy, though, so have a look at the video and decide for yourself.
It's especially useful to see short excerpts from all of the movies (and the TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles) in the space of just a few minutes to show how much of the original look and feel has been retained, even as the emphasis in the movies shifts from the horror of one woman's pursuit by a sinister, unstoppable, seemingly-human but effectively demonic enemy ... to the larger scale of war. The war depicted in Terminator Salvation is fought against malevolent, powerful, and inhuman adversaries, but now on more equal (though certainly not symmetrical) terms. While the most recent movie retains much of the grim feel that has existed throughout, and some of the horror elements - particularly in the final scenes, which somewhat reprise the endings of the first two movies - the logic of the narrative has moved on, and that will need to be acknowledged in any future episodes.