Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Peaking on Crystal: 10 Reasons Terminator 3 (2003)

The year T3 came out, 2003, was a defining year in my life, and I saw it in the theater right before my own edition of a similar mythic arc. If you make the The Kristanna Loken T-model my ex-wife and re-cast Arnold's part with Angelina Jolie circa Girl, Interrupted, and replace Crystal Peak with a fifth floor walk up in the East Village, well suddenly it's all there. If your life isn't as damaged by cool cyborgs from the future as mine was you can surely appreciate these ten other reasons:

1. Clare Danes
What's a pistol of her caliber doing here? How did we get so lucky? Angela Chase... "Go... now," whispered as she races to class; visions of Jordan Catalano slouching through her deep dark red-hair; endless eyes welling with tears in perfectly modulated familial reconciliations. Here she's a put-together veterinarian with a rule-worshipping animus and a petit-bourgeois fiancee, the kind of guy who willingly goes to Bed, Bath and Beyond to make out a bridal registry, so you know we'll be glad he dies. She has her doubts about him too but her Skynet launching, barely-around Air Force officer dad is sure his little girl is smart enough to make the right decision. Naturally she looks at mangy mutt John Connor with a mix of horror and concern upon learning she's supposed to marry him instead, in da futuah... but most wondrously, she also kicks his ass after she catches him robbing her tranq stash: "I use these to chemically neuter dogs!" she says, her voice warbling with concern, disgust, and unconscious gonzo admiration.

2. Nick Stahl as John Connor
Say what you will, Stahl is awesome. He was great in Bully and brings a real sweaty method bewilderment to John Connor, and why not? This time Connor's a junky! If he doesn't end up shaking with withdrawal later on it's only because of all the adrenalin pumping through him. I don't think he falls asleep in the entire film, it all practically unfolds in real time --and he looks and acts the part, shaky, sweaty, eyes wide, you can see him thinking right there in the moment. Danes seems to be coasting by contrast. Hard to believe they didn't want him back as Connor for Salvation but maybe that was the trouble --he was too busy acting and feeling and making the pain and reality of the situation felt (according to Wiki, perhaps he had a drug problem of his own). It's their loss. He brings a tortured break to his voice that reminds me of James Dean. His reaction on first seeing Arnold, his boyhood buddy from the previous film, is like a hurt kid: "You don't remember me?" That Stahl had to be hurt later by not being asked back makes me want to side with Skynet as far as human extermination. Just because he has that weird roach-sag lip and those huge, desperate eyes and junky pallor, you think he made Connor suddenly sketchy?

3. Kristanna Loken, Airbrushed
The idea of having the hot but vaguely blank Kristanna Loken kind of fake tan airbrushed to look halfway to CGI is a genius post-modern touch that heralds the make-up and botox choices of so many future films in the Marvel and Scream-verses. And I'll tell you what else is a great touch...

AND FROM HERE ON IN SPOILER ALERT... I'm writing the rest of his mainly for people who've seen the movie -- so see it if you haven't first, and don't ruin it for yourself, then come back. (PS - as always, enter with a nice buzz and low expectations, so just forget I said anything.)

4. The Presidential Bomb Shelter at Crystal Peak.
Kubrick-esque retrofuturist couches, the mod chandelier, the very 60's NASA mural, the presidential TV podium with old school TV camera, the DR. NO-style super villain command center-hewn rock walls, and--most of all--the sense of being underneath the world, bomb-proof, nothing to do but reproduce, rummage through the larder and liquor cabinet, and DJ the post-apocalyptic resistance. As a drunk I am beholden to basement bars in suburban homes. At Max's Princeton basement he and I would pound heroic measure whiskey shots, sing and record Blind Blake songs, and round out the night watching International House and Eraserhead and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with one eye shut until suddenly it was the following afternoon. I dream about descending in rickety old elevators down deep to basement hide-outs very similar to Crystal Peak's. It's a place where I don't need to worry about running out of bourbon or where I'm sleeping. I don't even mind the vague smell of mold and dog hair.

All I'd need to make T3's bomb shelter my own is a place to set up my old DVD player and my WC Fields and 1950s giant bug films, some guitars (so Claire and I could jam on the emergency broadcast presidential podium network) and some assurance there's a huge bourbon stash so I could relapse like Jack Torrance (since the shelter was constructed and decorated back when Nixon was in office, I'm presuming there is, though the drugs may be expired by 30 odd years or so) and I'd be set to lead the human uprising and send my own future dad back in time. Betcher sweet... ass!

5. Arnold's final catch phrase to Connor: "see you later"
(he says that since in the future this very same Terminator kills him) almost makes up for lame quips and catch phrase reduxes, the bows to juvenile audience member demands that he recall the past films by saying "I'm back" and fussing over which sunglasses to wear. The whole bit with the coffin connects to this future death in subconscious metaphorical overdrift, suggesting Connor is already dead and from now on merely traversing some elliptical journey through the circles of Hell. Sure there's tacky moments, such as his late-inning reprogramming by the enemy model, but nothing so obvious as "Bad to the Bone" in T2, which most fans love better than T3. Not me, though. T2 is fine but marred by its hand-wringing morality (after noting to his ginger mulleted friend that his mom's in the psych ward for blowing up a computer factory, little John Connor calls her "a real loser" -this while robbing an ATM via a stolen bank card with tricks she taught him! What a hypocrite - that line almost seems like the producers wanted us to know blowing up computer factories is not cool.

6. The sense of mounting dread as doomsday approaches.
For the last two films, plus most of this one, we've seen terminators coming back from the future warning us about Skynet...  Now,  finally... the future is "all used up" (like Hank Quinlan's), and Skynet is about to go live and that's all she wrote and; as time progresses the momentum speeds up rather than slowing down, and the effect is as similar in a way to only two films I've seen since: The Black Swan and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Present and the future are truly connecting here on the Moebius strip. It all of a sudden gets really real, like suddenly it's almost here, then it really is here, then it's begun. No amount of slamming on the breaks or reloading guns in the back seat, or converting to electric cars, or shooting black programmers, or blowing up corporations can stop it.

7. Pacing
The movie flows almost in real time, taking place in an approx. 12 hour-stretch from late night and into the following day, with events speeding up faster and faster towards the ominous stretch, ala great films like HALLOWEEN. There's also a great cut that spares us the entirety of the good guys having to break in / drive to / enter / get past security with their guns --to visit Danes' dad. My favorite time saving cut next to the one in KING KONG that goes right from the Skull Island beach to the NYC premiere.

8. Giant crane truck chase! - Great non-CGI metal, and the chase occurs at dawn, the best time for trashing downtown LA.

9. The relatively un-cliche'd music and great foley work 
Love those crunching, buckling windshields and that squeaky bouncy castle. Marco Beltrami's score doesn't telegraph anything, and a lot of long sequences go by without any music at all; it nods to his original theme without overstating or telegraphing, nothing remotely as trite as T2's use of George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone."

10. The End
They don't even have time to look at each other as they become the myth they were born to emody. Suddenly available to them is something that no one involved in the sprawling mess of our global village ever gets: they are truly bound to each other as the last woman and man on Earth, more or less. They can no sooner reject each other than Adam and Eve, or Robinson Crusoe and Friday. The past three films, the good terminators vs. bad, it all has led them to this moment. Hand in hand they enter the realm in which there are no days, no sun, no dark, no ghosts nor weird kid with a talking finger.... In a very primordial way, theirs is the only perfect freedom... long as there's bourbon.

I'm sure Nixon packed bourbon.
If it wasn't forced to compare with the awesome first two Terminators and was instead a John Carpenter film, and he had excised some of the more embarrassing Arnold one-liners, T3 would  be recognized as a whole different classic in its own right. John Carpenter rules!

7 Reasons WHY T2 isn't that great (compared to T3):
In T2...

1) At least two kids at the arcade narc out Connor to the posing-as-a-cop terminator model. Did second-guessing producers want to make sure kids are given the message always cooperate with law enforcement in the arresting of your classmates.
2) Two juiceheads come to young JC's aid, "you all right, kid?" they ask, trying to be supportive without belittling him (it's natural to assume Arnold might be a threat) and John --learning Arnold must obey him--says "take a hike, Bozo" - resulting in the two guys being nearly killed when they call him a dipshit - it's a very unflattering portrait of the brat - to insult guys answering his plea for help from a moment ago.
3) "You can't go around killing people" JC says to Arnold: fine, but you don't have to make such a big deal of it. "Casualites: Zero" oh thanks for that, worried parents say in James Cameron's head (note same initials).
4) The steel mill climax: how convenient that the highway chase should end crashing into a place with a giant central pool of liquid metal fit to dissolve a Robert Patrick.
5) The tacky voiceover - "if a machine can understand the value of human life, maybe we can too" - Oh thanks, JC, you really taught us all a lesson.
6) The "three billion people killed" number - that's less than half the global population now - three billion could die and we'd still be overpopulated, back at the number, which would help the planet immensely. Twice as many die, I presume, for the apocalypse at the end of T3 - a number we can still live with comfortably, even live better, collectively, than we do now. 2-3 billion living on the planet at any one time, that would be a workable figure, to my estimation. Earth would sigh in relief.
7) "Bad to the Bone." Jeeze - the 80s is over James. It's time to stop being so 'on the nose'.

--Oh well! It's still great - the scene with Sarah's mental hospital escape is vividly felt that we feel and admire every step, how can you not swoon when her pony tail hangs in the air as she does that little jump up from reaching down to pick up the security guard's dropped baton? And the blowing up of Cyberdine and subsequent helicopter / car chase, etc. all bitchin' to the max.


  1. This one rocked in my book as well, for the same reasons you state here. I thought it did a good job of still presenting us with an action film of Gargantuan proportions, even after the near untoppable T2. You could almost feel the filmmakers tryign to top T2, they didnt top it, but still pulled off both an amazing action flick, and a good story. Agreed, the ending really pulled me in as well.

  2. Great review; I couldn't agree more. I always felt the mounting dread very strongly, in a far weightier and even melancholy way than anything akin to it was in the earlier films, and that it may have been done this way because we'd just experienced the dreadful horror of 9/11 a year or two before so those emotions were already close at the audience's hand going in. It made me love this film more than it deserves, in a way.

    This take on Connor being a junky certainly provides an excuse to the borderline idiocy of this actor's portrayal of him. He does a great junky but the writing is atrocious: that "remember me?" bit is dumb; the T2 John Connor knew and watched what happened with the Terminator when he lowered himself into the vat of molten metal and gave Connor the "thumbs up" as he disappeared. Why would Connor think the same machine came back from the future? That was my only real quibble with this film and, while it's pretty outsized failure on the writers' part, it pales before the overall great job they did with a novel take on the franchise.

    1. hah thanks - not to be all geeky but I don't think that's quite fair to poor JC. He doesn't have the strength of having T2 on DVD for repeat viewings, suddenly his bro is back, he's fucked up on adrenalin and ketamine, and let's not forget time traveling means he could very well be the same terminator coming from an earlier point in his own future timeline.

      It doesn't make sense in a logistical way, but in an intuitive druggie way, yes. I hope this quibble is resolved so you can love this film with the same inreserved, illogical, druggie fever I do!


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