While making and eating dinner awhile ago, I overheard most of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which my housemate and his friend were watching in the next room. I thought, "God, was it really this stupid and preachy?" I wouldn't have known when I saw it as a kid, but it was hard to ignore. I finally found the first Terminator movie and watched it tonight. It blows the sequel out of the fucking water.
The first was made in 1984, while the sequel was made in 1991, during the peak of the social hysteria -- political correctness, identity politics and Rodney King, Third Wave feminism, etc. I don't like when critics read too much into what the work says about the larger culture in which it was made, but when it was made during a cultural and social hysteria, the imprint is hard to ignore. It really crippled what could have been a great sequel, and below are a few off-hand examples of how the Generation X era movie paled in comparison to the original from the New Wave / Reagan landslide period.
- Let's just get it out of the way: in T2, the computer programming genius who invents what will become the technology that is so smart that it takes over mankind -- is black. Not Ashkenazi Jewish or South Asian -- but black. These lame attempts to "provide good role models" don't fool anyone. Even looking just at really smart blacks, they aren't very interested in applying their talent to programming computers. Being a geek is just not a black thing. You can bet that if this character were written as a mad scientist type -- rather than an unwitting creator -- he would be blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
In contrast, the only black character in the first movie is a police officer who cares after Sarah Connor and is courageous enough to lose his life trying to stop the terminator once it starts shooting the fuck out of the police station. Sounds like more of a role model to me -- but then, being a police officer wouldn't motivate young black people to get trapped in the education bubble for 4+ years, the way that programming computers would. Yale or jail.
- In the sequel, Sarah Connor has transformed from a vulnerable, feminine waitress into a muscular, hyper-disciplined warrior. Again with the positive role model bullshit. Just let girls be girls and stop twisting their arms to get them to join the army or the mechanical engineering field. Aside from how inherently irritating all feminist propaganda is, this switch ruins much of the story. After all, we are so afraid for the terminator's victims in the first movie because they're so helpless, including Sarah Connor. By making her butch, we don't feel like she's in that much danger anymore -- we're just waiting to see which evenly matched badass character will come out on top.
- That annoying wannabe Gen X-er who's supposed to be the future savior of humanity. Let's see, having to suffer his voice and attitude vs. killing him off and humanity along with him -- it's actually not an easy choice.
- Infantilizing the Arnold terminator. What they were going for here was some kind of Give Peace a Chance dipshittery -- indeed, one of the final lines is Sarah Connor saying something to the effect of, "If we can teach a machine to love, then I have hope for humanity." But they haven't really reformed or transformed him -- he starts out completely clueless and is tutored by that punk kid about what's right and wrong.
This is not at all like Frankenstein's monster, who commits horrible crimes and feels morally conflicted as a result. If they had first shown Arnold killing a bunch of innocent kids just because they got in his way, then we would believe that the Connors had truly changed him by the end. As it stands, his character is just a big robotic baby -- pathetic.
- The new evil terminator, the T-1000, isn't frightening at all. Rather, he seems like a garden variety sociopath. In the first movie, the terminator doesn't craft a stealthy plan to kill John Connor's mother -- he simply looks up "Sarah Connor" in the phone book and blasts each of them to hell in order. That's what a fucking terminator does. That you could die in such a way is a bit unnerving, not to mention the fate of the scores of policemen and innocent bystanders in the nightclub who the terminator mows through. But very few innocents get killed in T2, except for those who actively get in the T-1000's way, so there's very little sense of "it could happen to me."
- The sequel relies too much on gimmicky special effects to show how cruel the T-1000 is -- turning his arm into a long blade and stabbing John's adoptive father through the neck, or turning his finger into a spike that he shoves through a security guard's eye. It's somewhat gory, but we don't feel that he's particularly cruel. The best shot that establishes how cold-hearted the terminator is in the first movie consists only of Arnold driving his car over a small boy's toy truck, crushing it. This also calls back to the shots of human skulls being run over by the tank tracks of the hunter-killer machines of the future. And as far as gore goes, punching a street punk through his gut, lifting him up, and ripping out his heart is a lot more badass.
- In general, the sequel is too optimistic -- Hope and Change. We watch a group of heros on a mission to stop the horrible technology from being invented in the first place, and they apparently succeed. Again, it's too Si Se Puede! In the first movie, we see lots of shots of the future -- and it looks like hell. Even the present looks pretty grimy, which wasn't too difficult to do in 1984 when crime and urban decay was still on the rise. Still, 1991 was the peak year of violent crime -- they could have easily emphasized how things appeared to be going downhill already by featuring street gangs, seedy nightclubs, alcohol-blinded street urchins, and all the rest that gives the first movie its gritty feel.
The whole point of the movie is that we thoughtlessly got ourselves into a big mess and may or may not get out of it. At the end of the first movie, a boy tells Sarah Connor that there's a storm coming, and she merely says, "I know," and rides toward it. Who knows what will happen? Rather than having a clear sense that the good guys are going to prevail, and that blacks and whites will all just get along after we teach terminators to cry, we're left feeling no more certain about humanity's fate than before. The first movie didn't offer the audience any of that schmaltz.
While the sequel did much better at the box office, only the first one is listed in the National Film Registry. The third one I saw on DVD awhile back, but I can't remember enough of it to comment on it. I just remember that it was forgettable. I haven't seen the new one either, but based on the reviews and word-of-mouth I've gotten, I'll wait till DVD (if then). A really good terminator movie needs a bleak cultural milieu to make it work. With things having been so great for awhile now, it's unlikely that we'll get another good movie in the series again.