The Long View 2003-11-17: Arnold's Apocalypse

Unfortunately, the planned Governator series was canceled following [another] revelation of martial infidelity by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which is a pity, because I thought the whole idea was quite funny. 

Schwarzenegger's career, and the Terminator movies, represent largely ignored parts of American culture and political history. Absurd! you say. Yes, it is absurd if you only look at the popularity of the movies or media attention Schwarzenegger gained as Governor of California. What is interesting here is how Arnold's rise to stardom and political power has a lot to do with the largely unexamined role of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Since steroids have played a big role, but we haven't really admitted they have played a big role, so we don't really want to talk about it. When I was a kid, I heard a lot about how any day now, women's records for the 100M dash were going to be the same as men's. Then drug-testing came to the Olympics, and the trend lines stopped converging. No one every talked about it again.

If you look, you can see this same pattern elsewhere. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example of how it works.


Arnold's Apocalypse

It's unlikely that I would have rented the video of Terminator 3 - Rise of the Machines if the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had not been about to be sworn in as governor of California. The film was short on political subtext. Arnold the Good Robot does say, "We need a new vehicle," when the roof of the stolen hearse is swiped off in a chase scene, but it would probably be over-interpreting the text to read that as an allusion to Candidate Schwarzenegger's promise to repeal the vehicle-tax increase.

Nonetheless, the movie was strangely charming. At one point, the Arnoldbot remarks that he is an obsolete model, and the film does not flinch from showing that the actor and the franchise are too old for this kind of thing. There are moments of genuine wit, as when Arnold reaches into the pocket of his newly stolen leather jacket in search of sunglasses, and extracts a pair that Elton John might favor. The multivehicle collisions were too complicated for me to follow, but no doubt they were good of their kind. The major fight scenes are between Arnold and an evil dominatrix robot (played by Kristanna Loken), who is also from the future. They rip up whole floors of office buildings, and they are as funny (and non-threatening) as Punch-and-Judy puppets.

The story, however, continues to be about John Connor (Nick Stahl), the future savior of the human race who is now a young man, and his future wife, Kate (Claire Danes). In any other plot summary, Kate would be called a love interest, but in this film Arnold simply arrives from the future and announces that these almost-perfect strangers are destined to have children. The voice-over commentaries by the Connor character express his visceral repulsion at the thought that the future might be predetermined, even as he acknowledges that in fact it seems to be so.

This is the film in which the future actually arrives. Skynet takes over the world's interlinked computer systems and launches its nuclear extermination campaign against the human race. The plot is facilitated by the fact that, today, we easily imagine AI software with no physical location; in contrast, when the first Terminator movie premiered in 1984, the Web did not yet exist. John Connor and Kate are misdirected to a deserted defense center by Kate's dying father, who tells them Skynet is based on a supercomputer there. In reality, Skynet is everywhere, and he just wants to put them out of harm's way. At the very end of the film, pleas for help start to come into the center from civil defense offices across the country. Connor starts to coordinate them. Arthur grasps Excalibur and draws it from the stone, somewhat to his own consternation.

This is a Strauss & Howe moment. Indeed, at the risk of sounding like the folks at Metaphilm, one could expand on the allegorical significance of T3 for the relationship between the generations today. John Connor was raised by his mother, and he points out that Arnold the Robot (or the incarnation of him in the second movie) was closest thing to a father he ever had. That's a parody of a certain kind of Babyboomer father for you: largely absent, even when he has visitation rights, but liable to visions about the future, and driven by inner certainties that scarcely take note of the people around him.

One might also note the timing of the film. The development of T3 was halted by 911, in part because the producers wondered whether there would ever be a market for this kind of mechanical carnage again. There still is, apparently, but it's not what it was; in any case, Mr. Schwarzenegger has taken up another line of work. Nonetheless, T3 could be said to represent the historical moment when the film was conceived. Even as the script was being finalized, a long-foreseen catastrophe arrived, after a decade of neglect and denial.

The people who have to handle it are of an age with the characters in the movie; and there are few John Connors. No one told them the world could be like this. At any rate, their teachers didn't. Films, sometimes, offer a more reliable sense of the possible.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-12-21: The Two Towers

I find it refreshing to look back to 2002 and remember Peter Jackson's accomplishment in the Two Towers. That movie was just about right, long, but the source material was long and beloved. The temptation of Boromir is masterfully done, and Helm's Deep was even better than I imagined it. Unfortunately, this massive success at turning at 1,000 page book into three long movies has meant that Jackson has moved on to turning a 300 page book into three long movies. Like George Lucas, Tom Clancy, and George R. R. Martin, Jackson has gotten big enough to have it exactly the way he wants it, which isn't necessarily good for his art.

If you want to see how it can be done differently, look at the career of Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle has had multiple New York Times best-sellers, but he still takes seriously the advice he got from Robert Heinlein on his first best-seller: be your own harshest editor. This usually means cutting and cutting and cutting. To be fair, Clancy [100 million] and Martin [60 million] have sold approximately an order of magnitude more books than Pournelle [10 million]. On the other hand, Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, sold 50 million copies, and his books aren't doorstops.

The Two Towers
 
I saw the second Tolkien movie this afternoon. Feeling is just beginning to return to the lower part of my body. Here are a few impressions:
The movie begins very abruptly, so much so that it took a while before I came out of the stupor induced by the half hour of coming attractions. The Two Towers makes just one concession to recapping the story, by having Frodo dream about Gandalf's fall into the crevasse in Moria. Unfortunately, one of the coming attractions was for a film that is apparently yet another remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I was briefly bewildered. I expected Frodo to say: “It was terrible, Sam. I saw Gandalf fall into a summer movie.”
The scriptwriters for all three Lord of the Rings films had an impossible task. Their principal audience consists of people who have already thought about the plot too much. Like me, they can recite dialogue from the books from memory. The screenplay therefore dare not depart arbitrarily from the books. On the other hand, the writers really do have to nip and tuck the story to make the films short enough to watch. And let's face it: key parts of the books are as chatty and actionless as a play by George Bernard Shaw.
Some of their compromises are better than others. For instance, Gandalf says, “The courtesy of your hall has lessened of late, Theoden King,” as soon as he enters the Golden Hall. That's a good line, but no one has yet had an opportunity to be rude to him. It no longer fits into the scene, which has become an exorcism. On the other hand, the writers spared us the trial of Smeagol before Faramir. Instead, they created an entirely new episode involving Faramir and Frodo, one that provides real suspense. It also gives the film a far edgier conclusion than the book has, despite the lack of a cliffhanger ending. (There is a total lack of giant spiders in this movie.) The film version of The Two Towers persuades us that Frodo is desperate, not just because of the external dangers he faces, but because he knows that he himself is unreliable. To the extent The Lord of the Rings is the memoir of a very junior officer of the First World War, that is what the story is all about.
The special effects are so good that you don't notice them. This film's battle sequences are wonders on two counts: they are visually interesting for reasons in addition to gore, and they make it possible to tell what is going on. As for other animations, there are super elephants that are as persuasive as any of the behemoths from Jurassic Park. I found the ents particularly interesting, because they are the only Tolkien creatures I could never visualize. Even the makers of The Two Towers could not make them biologically plausible. Nonetheless, they function excellently as characters, which is all you can expect.
And then there is Smeagol. As other reviews have noted, it's hard to call him “Gollum” after seeing this film. He is more animated in every sense of the word than any of the human actors. The film makers hit on precisely the right way to show which side of his dual personality is on top at any given time.
There are elements of the films which will no doubt endear them to Tolkien buffs for all time to come, but which may grate on the unconverted. Gimli the Dwarf is the designated comic relief, for instance, and it's a heavy burden to bear. Despite all the work that went into the sets for Edoras and Helms Deep, the computer-generated architecture remains the most believable. Also, although that New Zealand landscape remains spectacular even after six hours of film, it's starting to look, well, generic. Except for one green patch in the Shire, all Middle Earth seems to be covered with scrub grass and surrounded by alps.
None of this is a criticism, however. We can have every confidence that the War of the Ring will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion in 2003.
 
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Here is my review of The Fellowship of the Ring. Here is my review of The Return of the King.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site