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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
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Guest Authors

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Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Posted by Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 03:11 PM

[I’ve pulled this review from its decent obscurity, taking Bill’s earlier hint about the Valve being a place where love of SF dare, indeed, speak its name.]

Well, yes, good, fine, bang-bang, yes, visual effects, splendid (actually, and in many ways, it’s a rather desolately beautiful dystopian visual text), broody, yes, action-y, yes, clumsy religious typography (crucifixion,* atonement, sacred heart) yes. This movie is just what you expect it to be, which may not be wholly a bad thing.

What’s wrong with the picture? Not that it’s particularly badly rendered, except in one central way; but that one way happens to ruin the whole. It misconstrues the symbolic logic of its franchise.

What is the Terminator? The Terminator is death; his grinning titanium skull the latest incarnation of an ancient western tradition of iconic momento mori. The first film dramatised, straightforwardly and therefore effectively, life’s struggles and attempted flight from the implacable pursuit of death. The simplicity of the narrative served the story perfectly, because our own mortality is, on one level, wholly linear and perfectly simple: it will come; it will come straight, it will come straight for you; it will not stop. Without exception, that’s the fate of everybody in the world. This unsettling existential truth is at the heart of the original movie’s enduring resonance. In a nutshell, the first Terminator movie said: death is singular, implacable and after you. That’s true. (What I mean when I say this is that although we know, intellectually, that death is general, not singular--that although we die individually others live on--nevertheless that’s not how it feels. Our impending deaths, as the end of our world, feel like the end of the world).

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) told the same story with one wrinkle. It was a text that said: death is still singular, still coming for you personally, still implacable. But it is also protean. That still works, as a core metaphor; and the chase-narrative line of that film was as linear as the first, which is good. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) parsed the metaphor the same way as the second film, and although it inevitably felt second-hand, or after-thunk, as a result, at least it had enough by way of courage-of-convictions to go with an appropriately downbeat ending.

Terminator: Salvation ditches the eloquence of its own core metaphor. It can’t resist the opportunity to throw all manner of ingenious terminator-types at the screen: robot jets, giant robots, robot motorcycles (which are also the giant robot’s knees), robot half-men-half-biscuits, robot mini flying saucers, robot 1984-vintage Schwarzeneggers, robot conga eels, robot Helena Bonham Carter hologrammatic heads, robot gun emplacements and robot concentration camps. A lot of these realisations are ingenious, and fun to watch, but they mean that the film is, at its heart, saying: death is a whole bunch of stuff, and the notable thing about death is that it is cool. It is saying: death is a futuristic obstacle course. It is also, incidentally, saying: death isn’t personal; it is, on the contrary, spread all over the place, and happens to other people. This accords with the bitty, overlong narrative trajectory of the film, and it gives the filmmaker opportunity for staging both thrills and spills. But none of it is, as an observation about death, true. And because it entirely lacks the individual existential resonance of the first film, Terminator: Salvation feels like just another forgetable summer movie.

What happened to the death’s-head momento mori? This is what happened: it became a pizza. Of course it did.
----
*Marcus, the blandly handsome chap with the Evangelist’s name, starts the film on death row. Why is he on death row? Because he killed ‘his brother and two cops’ apparently. What’s his brother’s name? Abel, presumably. The two unnamed cops? I’m guessing they were called Dismas and Gestas. How is he executed? He is strapped to a cross, with state centurions, er, policemen standing beside him, and an audience watching. Is this actually how murders are executed in the USA? Of course not. Will he rise again? Yes. And save the world? Yes. Will he sojourn in the desert? He will. Will he carry stigmata--in the palm of his hand, say? Yes. And will he be tempted by the devil, but resist the temptation? You bet your sweet religiously-symbolic bippy he will.
----


Comments

And whilst we’re on the subject of decent, or otherwise, obscurity, I’ll take the liberty of promoting Rich’s comment on the original post to this more prominent position.  Hope he doesn’t mind:

I’ve only seen up through Terminator II, but I think that your summary misses the most powerful moment of it—the time when Sarah Conner has a vision of the post-nuclear-holocaust world and decides to try to prevent it, rather than settling for the survival of her son within it. It’s powerful precisely because it acknowledges that death affects more than an individual life, and that while individuals must die, it is possible that entire societies need not die, at least not suddenly and painfully.

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Exactly. I could come up with more ways why the movie sucks, but yours is more eloquent and interesting. Mine mostly revolve around the fact that the writing, acting, and pacing is atrocious.

Actually I would also add that the interesting time conundrums of the first two movies (haven’t seen the third) are glaringly absent in this one, with nothing to replace them. But that was a huge part of what made those movies interesting, the strange vertigo of the recursive future that created the past that created the future, etc.

Also, sorry to pre-empt your post again! It’s never on purpose, I swear.

By on 06/03/09 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Also, sorry to pre-empt your post again! It’s never on purpose, I swear.

Don’t worry.  I’ve sent a robot version of myself back in time to kill you before you can evem write the Star Trek post.

...writing, acting, and pacing is atrocious...

It is badly written, and very baggily and poorly paced, I agree (blockbuster can no longer be 90 minutes long, apparently).  I thought the acting wasn’t too bad, though, given that the director had evidently told the entire cast to emote darkly and intensely all the time.  In fact, I hope they give Schwarzenegger an oscar for this film.  Other than that, the Terminator franchise and I are fucking done, professionally.

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”...before you can evem write...”

Sadly, my robot self’s bionic fingers aren’t so good at the typing thing.

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve sent a robot version of myself back in time to kill you before you can evem write the Star Trek post.

There are such a wealth of resources from which to make recursive-time style jokes that I can’t tell whether you’re troping on Star Trek or Terminator here!

As for the acting, I guess my major complaint was the decision to make Bale reprise his entire affect from the Batman movie, only absent the wildy-over emoting villain characters and narrative framework that made it work. But that’s really more the fault of everyone else, I guess; Bale just is what he is.

By on 06/03/09 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, but the other element of the second episode(maybe the third) is that there is a good terminator as well as a bad one, a good and bad death. (Of course, the good terminator was reprogrammed to be good (to serve man) but all of the terminators were originally programmed). I haven’t seen the latest but perhaps the “obstacle course” of deaths arises out of the fact that the kinds of death in the future have rapidly multiplied by then, like demons—the future is hell. To proceed into the future is to descend into hell.

[Relatedly, I was just reading the other day the second book of Paradise Lost: there death was born by Sin as opposed to what is described here, by man.]

By on 06/04/09 at 01:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The first film dramatised, straightforwardly and therefore effectively, life’s struggles and attempted flight from the implacable pursuit of death. The simplicity of the narrative served the story perfectly, because our own mortality is, on one level, wholly linear and perfectly simple: it will come; it will come straight, it will come straight for you; it will not stop. Without exception, that’s the fate of everybody in the world. This unsettling existential truth is at the heart of the original movie’s enduring resonance. In a nutshell, the first Terminator movie said: death is singular, implacable and after you.

Did you stop watching before the end of the films? Because - and I’m sorry if I’m giving anything away - the first film ends with Death being defeated. The Terminator is stopped. It’s destroyed. In the end, it seems, it’s actually rather placable. Judgement Day, meanwhile, is still on the way - and the actions that both sides have taken in fact ensure both that it will happen and that it will ultimately be followed by a defeat for the machines.

The second film takes this two steps further - not only can the specific Death be defeated, but it can be subverted - and the general Death of Judgement Day can be prevented. Death, in three forms - the CPU chip that will be the ancestor of Skynet, the agent of general Death; the specific Death of the T-1000; and the subverted Death of the T-800 - is destroyed. Death is swallowed up in Victory (and molten steel).

The third film returned to the attitude of the first: yes, the specific death can be destroyed or subverted (in both directions) but the future is inevitable again, and attempts to change it (this time by the humans, not the machines) in fact ensure it will happen. And I would disagree that it has a downbeat ending. Yes, Judgement Day happens, but it does so under much more advantageous conditions for humanity - with John Connor not a faceless victim of the death camps, as in the first film’s backstory, but the prepared leader of the resistance, in the best possible place for that leader to be. And we know already that, even from the original unpromising start, the humans will win - because we’ve seen that film already.

By on 06/04/09 at 06:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s an interesting point Ajay, but I’m not convinced that the fact that death can be defeated makes it any less inevitable. The “I’ll be back” catch phrase resonates through the franchise for at least two reasons, but it definitely gives an air of temporary-ness to any victory one might have over death (as in real life, where we are all dying slowly, to put it as grimly as possible). For one thing, because the terminator comes from the future, John Connor *will* meet him or his brethren, this being the premise of the entire narrative. Even more importantly, though, because the terminator comes from the future, destroying him in the first movie has absolutely no effect on whether or not Skynet will try again, as the second movie demonstrates. When you start playing with time-puzzles, as the movie does, you open the door not only to sequels in the literal sense, but also in a conceptual sense; why not send a million terminators, one after another, until one succeeds?

I think you do have a point about the hope for humanity that the movie sells us by giving us a future victory over the machines, but this, to me, feels like the sort of thing a movie *has* to do, rather than the sort of thing it *shouold* do. Which is to say, somewhat subjectively, the most interesting things about those movies are the stuff Adam points out, while the least interesting stuff is the necessitated-by-convention Hollywood ending.

By on 06/04/09 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The “I’ll be back” catch phrase resonates through the franchise for at least two reasons, but it definitely gives an air of temporary-ness to any victory one might have over death (as in real life, where we are all dying slowly, to put it as grimly as possible). For one thing, because the terminator comes from the future, John Connor *will* meet him or his brethren, this being the premise of the entire narrative. Even more importantly, though, because the terminator comes from the future, destroying him in the first movie has absolutely no effect on whether or not Skynet will try again, as the second movie demonstrates.

No, the premise of the entire narrative is that the future can be altered - that’s what the terminators are trying to do, remember? If the future’s inevitable, then Skynet wouldn’t bother trying to kill Connor in the first place: Connor is already there, in Skynet’s present, so its attempts have in a sense already failed. Skynet’s trying to edit history.
Even though Judgement Day eventually happens, it happens differently from the original scenario - a lot later, for one thing, and, as I said, a lot more hopefully.

why not send a million terminators, one after another, until one succeeds?

It’s clear in the first film that this is a last-ditch attempt by Skynet to stave off defeat at Connor’s hands. Maybe it doesn’t have more than a few terminators left, or the resources to send them all back. It is, as is made clear, on the edge of total destruction - it’s not the all-powerful threat that we see in the flashforwards in T1.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that you can’t say that the Terminator - any of them - are a symbol of implacable, inevitable death without addressing why they are always depicted as defeatable or subvertable or avoidable.

And saying “it had to be that way because it’s a Hollywood film” is not really an acceptable answer. In a way, it had to be that way because back in 1980 or so James Cameron had a nightmare (really) about a metallic skeleton climbing out of a burning car wreck and built the whole film round that.

By on 06/04/09 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What Aaron said.  More, at the end of the first movie, the male protagonist is dead.  The woman lives on, but really only (according to the symbolic logic of the film) because she is pregnant: she temporarily evades death (since, yes, the terminator comes right back at her; and she dies between movies 2 and 3) because she isn’t a DNA cul-de-sac like the bloke.

I like Paul’s ‘the future is a descent to hell’ notion.

By Adam Roberts on 06/04/09 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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