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Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

In between the long but relatively short time gap with Terminator 3 and Terminator 4 – 2003 to 2009 – the writer of The War of the Worlds (2005), Josh Friedman, ran a TV drama based on the franchise. Wouldn’t you know it, it wasn’t half bad, but it wasn’t totally good either. It had minor faults running throughout its one and a half seasons, but the major issue with T:SCC was that it was based off of a franchise not known for its story.

The very first Terminator was a small movie with a great premise and a great execution. The sequel, Terminator 2, expanded on the first in plot and theme but essentially repeated the first. Terminator 3 was just a watered-down copy of Terminator 2, so there was never really a story beyond “Terminator goes back in time and another Terminator stops him from Terminating either John or Sarah Connor.” That’s something that couldn’t even be maintained satisfactorily for three movies, so I couldn’t imagine how the creatives behind T:SCC would even go about making a lengthy series in terms of serialized narrative.

With that in mind, Friedman in crew did a damn good job. Terminator 3 kind of set the precedent for repeating The Terminator‘s story, thereby worshiping T2 and striking originality from the series forever, so it does seem improbable that the show would’ve ever stepped out of the strict boundaries set by Jonathan Mostow’s movie. They explored some interesting areas, but in terms of science-fiction television, it would never find peace between stand alone and complex episodes like The X-Files or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and didn’t find the popularity that sustained a contemporary like Battlestar Galactica for so long.

Ultimately the show would be cancelled by FOX, much to the surprise of every fan of Firefly and other shows with Summer Glau. Dollhouse would also be seemingly claimed by the Summer Glau curse around the same time, but one of the real reasons it was cancelled was the less-than-satisfactory ticket returns for Salvation, which was hugely expensive in its own right.

It’s a shame because Summer Glau had to move on to The Cape, which I heard was really, really bad. She’s a very talented actress, but I am eager to see if she isn’t just a one trick pony, no matter how well she does the ‘distant and possibly insane creepy seventeen year old.’ She did a great job with her character, and was one of my favorite Terminators. Out of the four, definitely top three.

Something interesting to note about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is there is a scene where Summer Glau’s character, named Cameron, beats the hell out of a character named Ellison. She throws him around a room and perhaps in this way, a vengeance has finally been fulfilled…

Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation is not a movie concerned with plot like Terminator 3 seemingly was, nor character like Terminator 2. Its focus was cycling through elements from the franchise; visual cues and requisite one-liners. Director McG was placed into an odd scenario, one that filmmakers probably strive for but pull a Gob and think they’ve made a huge mistake. Not only is this the Terminator 3 that Terminator fans were waiting for – one detailing the future war hinted at across the ‘original trilogy’ – but it’s a third sequel to, once again, a movie that never needed one. Instead of using the original movies as foundation, Salvation opts to play it safe, wherein if the movie didn’t exist, we wouldn’t notice.

By saying that I mean that it adds nothing to the series, never taking a dare and branching out into undiscovered country. That would afterall be outside the Terminator lexicon. Taking risks? Only in terms of finance (Salvation was like all other Terminator movies – super expensive, this one being around $200 million, according to On a narrative level, there is no moving forward. Nothing happens in this movie that we couldn’t have guessed, just as was the case in Rise of the Machines.

Terminator Salvation charts John Connor’s rise to the Leader of humanity, and we see it through alternatively his and another character’s eyes. The writers didn’t seem to agree on who to choose as the main character, but this isn’t a bad thing. Similarly, all of the things thus far mentioned about how TSal doesn’t say or do anything isn’t bad either.

I wouldn’t expect anything more, and we live in an age where most genre fare in film looks back on older genre films with longing eyes. Guys like Rodriguez, Tarantino, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, even Peter Jackson – these guys lead the genre front but have put out movies paying homage to other movies. Some of these have used their homage nature to say something new, as in the case of Shaun of the Dead or Death Proof, but they do tend to represent the positive side of modern geek-film, where the negative side is saturated with superhero adaptations.

TSal is sort of the same thing. It’s a good movie as made by a big ol’ Terminator fan. If you too are a Terminator fan, you’ll probably like this movie. If not, it’s a slightly-above average actioner set in a Mad Max post-apocalypse. No, we don’t get to see the big ‘cyborg’ wars with purple lasers; it’s a smaller conflict that’s less total war and more chase scenes. That’s perfectly serviceable, but I feel I have some bias towards this film that needs mention before proceeding:

I’m a big science-fiction fan, and two of my absolute favorite things the genre can offer are the following: robots, and when military and futuristic imagery are mixed. Space marines? I’ll never get tired of them. Space marines fighting robots? I got a semi. Even if John Connor’s Resistance soldiers aren’t technically in space, they’re still creeping around corridors like in Aliens and facing down the classic Endoskeletons. I really, really dug a lot of what was going on in the movie.

In this way, TSal was a return to form. The first two Terminator movies offered me striking and indelible images – the Endoskeleton rising from fire, liquid metal T-1000, Arnold with a laser-sighted pistol in Tech-Noir – and Terminator Salvation does just the same. I always think back to the scene in the SkyNet base where John and Kyle and kid are backing away from the Terminator while firing a grenade launcher – it won’t stop, guys. Really cool scene.

For people who don’t dig on robots and soldiers, or possibly prefer Transformers to get your robots n soldiers fix (barf), Terminator Salvation may come off as entirely too dispensable diversionary fare. It does come off as a movie that doesn’t really give a fuck – we don’t get to know any of these characters, with one exception, and there’s no sense of gravity to any battle sequence – whereas The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day had genuine characters. After all this time of waiting to see a full-grown John Connor, Kyle Reese and the good T-800 are still much more memorable heroes.

In addition, one of the curious things about Terminator Salvation was that it didn’t really have a villain, and one of the Terminator series’ claim-to-fames is great villains: the T-800 and the T-1000. But just like in Crank 2, I didn’t really notice the absence of a villain that was as great as in earlier movies. For other people though, this might be a hinderance. Even Terminator 3 tried to have a memorable villain, though she was pretty much totally farcical and kind of offensive.

The one unique element to compliment TSal with was Sam Worthington’s character. No, at the end of the movie nothing in the Terminator mythos has really changed, and for the first in a new trilogy there isn’t really any great plot-point to build off of, like the destruction of the Death Star for example, but we did get an interesting intro to the hero John Connor through Worthington’s character, Jake Sully. Or, Robot Guy, I guess.

It’s similar I guess to what they did in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and even though I haven’t played the game, I know exactly what was going on because it was such an infamous move – they replaced iconic hero Solid Snake with a… different, fellow… and he followed Snake around and saw him being cool from a third-party perspective. Interesting angle to take, but unfortunately the other character has to actually be cool. Robot Guy was actually much more interesting than John Connor, who was essentially Batman, but without the VOICE. Robot Guy on the other hand seemed to be something of a hamfisted attempt at Oshii/Shirow robot-guy-ian philosophy, “How could it not know what it is?” which is very phildickian.

Let me rephrase: sparknotes phildickian. It’s not a very deep exploration of Ghost in the Shell, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (though that was the novel McG made the crew read in preparation of the movie) themes, but at least it tried. Did Terminator 3 try – anything? No, but that’s no excuse for Salvation not being a truly good movie.

It’s a dumb action movie with cool images. The things that made the first two movies great were lost on Salvation, which was a fine but unecessary entry, speaking on a narrative level.

In Conclude

That’s the Terminator saga. Less of a saga than Star Wars or even Back to the Future, but it’s one of the most memorable moments in the annals of science-fiction movies. After 25 years we’ve had four feature length movies, one television series, one theme park attraction, countless spin-off video-games and novels, and an interesting but rocky future for whoever owns the rights to the franchise at the moment. Joss Whedon? No, we’re not that lucky.

Halycon had produced Terminator Salvation, and now they have their eyes set on an adaptation of Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick. Sounds good, but not for Terminator fans. My advice for those fans – do what I do, and just watch T2 again.


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

The Terminator movies had been about one thing: a robot assassin securing the future. It’s a novel idea that’s like many of the best in science-fiction – simple. So brilliantly simple in fact, that our messiah JC would come under fire for plagiarism. Yes, that is just as idiotic as the accusations of the very same thing he dealt with during the marketing for Avatar.

Unfortunately, the simplicity of the plot works well for just one movie, and would take a creative genius to repeat for a sequel. James Cameron has always had passion fuel his every project, whether that be the feature-length adaptation of a short story he wrote when he was sixteen or the various trips he took to the bottom of the ocean. When executives offered him Terminator 2, he wasn’t going to waste the next two years of his life during its production – he was going to own it. Very clearly, he did: not only is it a great film in its own right, it pushed the boundaries of special-effects technology, an act that would inspire him and Stan Winston to push ahead and open their very own effects house in 1993.

Pushing the envelope has always been Cameron’s thing, as seen most obviously with the most ambitious movie ever just two years ago. Jonathan Mostow’s movie on the other hand was a product of pure ‘corporate soulless filmmaking,’ as I feel I’ve heard it described before. They wanted to make a sequel to a franchise, not realizing how very little the franchise could accomplish as a franchise. It was so small, so contained. The first two Terminator movies really would feel like one movie split down the middle (and at one point they pretty much were) if they didn’t look so different, and weren’t so self-contained in themselves.

It’s not even that problematic that Mostow’s picture was born out of a money-hunger, because that’s forgivable and the Terminator series wasn’t going anywhere anyway. Couldn’t hurt it, on some level. The problem extends to the first two movies as not sequel-friendly. Yes, Terminator 2 remains one of the best sequels, and at the time was one of the most profitable sequels, despite its for-the-time massive budget (doubled for Salvation), but that doesn’t mean Terminator 3 has to be a thing.

Regardless, it clearly was, and in 2003 we were treated to a fun, light-weight, action-heavy, comical, and really stupid science-fiction spectacle called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which was created by several Terminator regulars – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stan Winston, to name a few – but sans the key mind, James Cameron.

Cameron’s ideal Terminator 3 was a movie that doesn’t exist, which makes more sense on a narrative level for the series. Alternatively, it’s T2 3D: Battle Across Time, which is a theme-park ride and early 3D experiment for the director. Not much of a movie, but more of a sequel to T2 than T3 could ever be.

Mostow is, as movie-critic John Scalzi put it, competent but not all that interesting. He’s by this time made two cyberpunk movies that fall under that label – Rise of the Machines and Surrogates, the latter of which was partly filmed near my hometown. With Terminator 3, he tried to do what James Cameron did with Aliens – follow an incredible act. Like James Cameron, he also took quite the departure from the original works, and played up his greatest asset – Arnold Schwarzenegger – for the laughs this time around.

The Terminator is one of the only dramatic roles Schwarzenegger has ever had, and it’s his best without question. The other roles he’s had – John Matrix, Quaid/Hauser, Dutch – have been sometimes self-aware action heroes, echoing the iconic line about being back. The T-800 was the opportunity for the star to be serious, not that jokes weren’t to be had in the first two movies.

I wouldn’t be harping on it too much if the character in Terminator 3 wasn’t so damn stupid. The appropriately intense scene early in Terminator 2 at the biker bar is attempted again in the third outing, but with a much different tone. It’s the same purpose as we’ve come to expect – he needs clothes, NOW – so we expect Bill Paxton to get his stomach punched in or a guy thrown on a super hot stovetop. Instead, a male stripper gets his hand crunched after some ‘hilarious’ sassiness.

That example is telling of the rest of the movie relative to the original movies. It’s a comedy, and it came out of left field. There are good moments, like when the T-800 takes a bullet to the tooth, or when the machines rise, but these are surrounded by some of the most maddening sequences ever committed to film.

The Terminator

Having not seen the film in probably five years, I have nothing to say about this one, despite considering it one of my absolute favorites…

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2 in relation to the original is almost like the relationship between the current Clerks movies, where Clerks 2 uses its deconstruction of the first, the undeniable fact of passing time, and as its very presence as a sequel, to highlight loftier themes where the original was unable to. By using the original movie as something of a foundation, it achieves something higher, but not without staying true to spirit. Terminator 2 expands on the cautionary themes of The Terminator by taking the concept a step further.

Essentially what James Cameron was saying with the 1984 film was that machines will bring about our destruction because they are our instruments – and we are super dicks. The prevailing theme in opposition to this premise is hope, which is dramatized here in a pregnant Sarah Connor, unTerminated at the end of the movie.

In Terminator 2, the positive outlook may seem less so in some ways – by the end of the movie we’re following a dark highway and it’s uncertain (certain in 2003, but left ambiguous in ’91 due to a cut ending*) whether the battle’s won. Yet, things are okay on a grander scale than in the first movie because it operates on a larger scope, dealing with humanity. The point of the sequel was to see the villainous, evil T-800 ‘cyborg’ learn about peace and the value of human life. As Sarah says, if a machine can learn such things, maybe we can too. This theme would be echoed later on, to less (in my opinion) success in the year 2009.

The film ends on a note of hope that’s equally as larger than the first movie’s as its budget is; the two seem proportionate, and Terminator 2 is a massive film, much larger than the first and even larger than Aliens and The Abyss, despite the latter being a shoot so difficult and dangerous as to nearly claim the life of our adventurous director. By this logic, Terminator 3 would seemingly be even larger…

*Before the revision post-test screening, Terminator 2 originally ended with a flashforward to a bright future where an older Sarah watches from a park bench the now grown John, a US Senator, playing with his daughter. It was reviled, but closed the book on SkyNet…

Spoiler Alert, seriously. You should make the effort to read Ubik if you haven’t already, and then come back and skim this, the usual stuff. It’s actually a pretty quick read, and this is coming from somebody who rarely meanders onto the printed page. It must have taken me three months to read Childhood’s End, but Ubik was only a matter of three days.

Ubik is the most maddening, perplexing, fascinating, and mind-blowing novel I’ve yet to read. It feels, essentially, like a funny PKD short story like “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but blown up to 200 pages. That’s not a bad thing, but it does present one crucial problem. There’s a punchline to the novel, and it feels like a giant joke, in some way, that Philip K. Dick is dictating to us with his usual wit and entertaining prose. That’s fine, except that I didn’t feel nearly as much sympathy for the hero of the aforementioned short story as I did with Joe Chip or Glen Runciter – or even Pat Conley, who’s involvement in the narrative took me the most. When the characters are victims of some massive farce by the end of a phildickian short story, it’s the story itself that sticks with us; the characters are just vessels by which the story’s punchline gets through. In the longform medium, the paradigm shifts, and the length and complexity of the journey undertaken by the characters engages us on a higher level with those characters.

And yet, Ubik ends with the short story kick, which, by the time I reached the About the Author section and gazed upon it with wild eyes, caused me to emit a sound not unlike a groan, but more like a yelp. I was shocked, but this feeling was both amplified and frustrated by emotions gathered in the immediately preceeding chapter: disgust, mostly. When Jory was revealed I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to reveal how hero Joe Chip would resolve this larger-than-life conflict in the last twenty or so pages, meanwhile ticking away in my mind about how the scenario depicted is like The Matrix (or Inception, if you’d rather) but so much more fucked up, unbelievably so.

In the novel’s final moments, I was constantly reminded of how close to death Joe Chip was, how horrible this death would be, how irreversibly screwed he was, and how no matter what satirical 1992 future he lived in where life and death operate on a strange new level – he could never escape it. My mind was churning with these dark, intense thoughts, and after I put the book down one last time I experienced something very rare.

Usually in science-fiction I really fall in love with, I find myself thinking about the themes and ideas explored long after the title has expired, and usually I relate them here on this website. After Ubik, I was literally thoughtless. My mind was actually blown, taken up to a height unprecedented by an author with golden wings and dropped at the turn of the final page onto hard pavement. The disturbing nature of half-life and of Jory shook me, carrying me with jolting unease through the rest of the novel, where my mental discomfort paralleled hero Joe Chip’s frantic and shattering struggle to regain control of his body – inside his mind.

Based on what Wikipedia has to offer, and the scrawling I’ve found on the inside covers as penned by the book’s previous owner, the eponymous Ubik has been interpreted as God, something that heals us and is everywhere. The argument is that Ubik restores our faith in ourselves, makes Joe Chip believe that he can win the unwinnable fight against Jory. But in the end, he cannot. Eventually things run out – everything ends, and in the Ubik universe, things seem to end with Jory. So is Dick in this way criticizing God and our faith in him? The ending makes me think so, which essentially says that we can’t be sure of anything, not even God or his healing powers, but death is a constant for everyone, no matter how far we get into the future.

I don’t know. Philip K. Dick would go on to write more blatantly theological novels, yet Ubik isn’t considered one of them. It is however, very phildickian, and one clear tell is the inclusion of the dark-haired girl. This time it’s a character named Pat Conley, who indeed is malevolent and a force of destruction. For me, she’s also a force of more discomfort – I really didn’t take to the idea that she was eaten by Jory, that just didn’t sit well with me. Otherwise she was an interesting character among a cast of interesting characters, and I can’t help but wonder how Philip K. Dick manages to balance so many well-rounded elements in one novel, considering how fast he put these and the short stories out.

There’s a lot to be said about Ubik, but I don’t have the capacity to say it. I’ll leave this one up to you, dear reader, because I think what we have here is something of a personal journey to be undertaken, and I can only point you in the Dickiest direction.


Death Threats

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