One of my major vices as a movie-watcher is, notoriously, my inexplicable reluctancy to fix the many, many gaps in my movie knowledge and experience, much of which includes films that I really should have watched by now. Particularly, there are so many popular blockbusters that I still haven’t got to yet, and my reasons for not doing so dwell on little more than pure apathy (although I promised a friend I would finally get through the Harry Potter movies this month). However, I think one of the reasons, I’ve found, is that I tend to not exactly follow the crowd with films that tend to be instantly and/or universally impressed by its fanbase and appreciators. While this isn’t always the case, this could particularly be seen in my “that was good, but not that good” remarks on films such as Inception, The Avengers, Gravity, and – most recently, as I’ll elaborate on shortly – the Terminator films.
I should probably add that in general, I tend to sway away from most superhero-based action films. While I’m aware that these movies could hardly be classified as “superhero movies”, there’s no denying its partial influence on the influx of blockbusters inspired by comics and superhero stories, especially coming to fruition in the 90s and continuing to the present day. It also emphasizes the “good vs. evil” dynamic that permeates through these films and that I often cannot take all too seriously (also a reason why westerns don’t particularly appeal to me). Likewise, on a narrative basis, there really isn’t anything that either of the films do that could be considered particularly unique to the franchise itself. It plays with its story elements quite safely, progressing from A to Z in neat simple ways, and when there are twists, they don’t jar the mood of the film in any profound manners. This isn’t exactly a complaint; it’s just any old convention of action cinema.
I guess I should clarify that the first Terminator *does*, in fact, include elements of sci-fi among its action-based atmosphere, particularly with its quasi-futuristic, vaguely steampunk atmosphere. We all know the story: Schwarzenegger’s titular android assassin goes back in time to destroy Sarah Connor and prevent an otherwise inevitable nuclear holocaust, while Kyle Reese trails behind in an attempt to save her. From the initial third, I was more than slightly disturbed with the directions the narrative was taking in progressing forward – namely, the decision to have the Terminator mistakenly murder two other Sarah Connors in the city in an attempt to track down the true victim. These scenes were particularly discomforting to me in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I think it has a lot to do with how disposable this element of “kill the wrong women to find the right woman to kill” felt. Sure, the film itself remarks this as a negative thing and acknowledges the Terminator as an antagonist. Despite this, the story is, nonetheless, revolving around a group of identity-less dead women, with the ongoing threat that there are soon more to follow. It’s these kind of simple tactics to inject “drama” and “suspense” to such tales that tend to really piss me off.
Altogether, The Terminator really didn’t appeal to me all that much. This, once again, has a lot to do with the harsh discrepancies it places upon gender roles and performances within the context. Sarah could have been a truly dynamic character if the cards were played right. Unfortunately, her line of action is written as little more than running from the assassin, falling for (the incredibly overbearing, unsexy) Kyle, and prematurely performing the final action that obliterates the threat of the Terminator. She is mostly passive and never transcends the “victim” role until late in the final third. Is it inherently sexist to present female characters are feeble, confused, and frightened in situations where they are victimized? Of course not. My problem lies in how adamantly the movie prioritizes hypermasculinity as a means of surviving in this universe. Although I guess that may be a necessity with the kind of dystopian world presented in the film, it was disappointing that Sarah – unlike the other male characters – was given no effort to try to negotiate within these times of extreme violence. (On that note, I’m still trying to wrap my head around exactly how this kind of violence comes off to me as sensationalistic and mindless, whereas I have less of an issue with violence in slashers and exploitation cinema. But I guess that’s an topic for another day…)
But fear not, movie-lovers! I’m pleased to report that Terminator 2: Judgment Day pretty much nailed everything that I found so lackluster in its predecessor. Firstly, unlike the flat, dreary, oh so blatantly 80s mise-en-scéne of the first film, this sequel is significantly heightened in spectacle on pretty much every angle possible. The colors, lights, and shadows are more characterized and exciting; the sets are far more eye-catching; and the cinematography is just… wow! As I stated earlier, this film treads along safe, formulaic territory as far as story is concerned. However, it also takes more risks with the implementation of its action scenes and they are edited in ways that, along with looking really nice, are also very exciting and fun to watch.
As far as the gender issues are concerned, I think the sequel does a great job at avoiding the traps that are to be found in the original Terminator. These characters are no longer the two-dimensional caricatures whom we are forced to care about because the movie says so; rather, they are fleshed-out human beings (and android) whose identities lie beyond the realms of conventional masculinity/femininity. In the first film, our heroes were the conventionally masculine, good-looking Michael Biehn and the conventionally feminine, often pacified and victimized Linda Hamilton. In the second installment, we have the baby-faced, practically androgynous Edward Furlong and Linda Hamilton once again, but reprising her role in a gritty, tough-as-nails transformation. Such multi-dimensional presentations allows for characters that are not bogged down by annoying formula and cliché. These characters have more pronounceable depth, are more interesting, and – most importantly – are people that we can actually care about, making the fast-paced action scenes of a greater sense of vitality.
Finally, the boring hypermasculine tendencies that saturate the first film are less pronounced in this movie – for me personally, this is a huge plus. It allows for characters that are not bogged down by the need for them to always fit a cookie-cutter image of what audiences may be familiar and comfortable with. The pros of this tendency are also found in the very last scene, where John gives a tearful goodbye to the Terminator, whom he has grown close to. While we see plenty of emotional male-female and female-female encounters and relationships in cinema, there seems to be significantly less between two male characters. It follows the pervasive notion that men cannot express tangible emotion between one another (except humor and violence) for fear of damaging their ever-fragile masculine egos. We need more scenes like these in movies; more scenes of beautiful, shameless sensitivity between two males.
Unfortunately, Sarah Connor falls into the inevitable tendency of action movies’ refusal to give her a true, tangible identity. Of course, I don’t mind her awesome upping in badassery in Judgment Day, it’s disappointing that the most profound identification she’s given is as the mother of John who, in the grand scheme of things, plays the most vital part in the story. I’ll admit that I haven’t seen many action blockbusters, but I can name only a few major female characters in such films that are not granted a title of someone’s wife, mother, and/or daughter (and yes, I’m one of those naysayers who hate that Ellen Ripley was given a child in Aliens as a way to construct some kind of “character depth”, when she was just fine kicking extraterrestrial ass as her own person in the first film). Fortunately, there is much stronger indication of her dynamism in the sequel than in the original; there is much more of a sense of her negotiation through her environment as a troubled mother – but also (and most crucially) as a trouble human being. Hopefully with time, female action heros can reach this level of fully fleshed-out awesomeness and not have to be marked aside as a truly radical, uniquely feminist icon in a genre saturated with tiresome chauvinism.