Thursday, July 21, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #27: THE TERMINATOR / ALIENS
I could write at length about both of these films... but I won't. John Kenneth Muir recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of ALIENS with an in-depth post that I can't expect to top. I imagine he'll be equally thorough in his forthcoming post on THE TERMINATOR, due the week of August 8th as part of his summer-long celebration of filmmaker James Cameron. Instead of repeating his analyses, I'm simply going to reminisce...
I became aware of THE TERMINATOR shortly after it was released into theaters in the fall of 1984, but not because I saw the film or even the previews for it. Instead, I heard the entire plot -- scene by scene -- from a teenage girl in the neighborhood who used to babysit me and my brother when we were kids. I remember sitting in a makeshift "fort" (an old table with a huge blanket tossed over it) in the basement of my childhood home, listening intently while Samantha spun a wild yarn about a robot from the future who travels through time to carry out a violent abortion. She had just seen the movie the night before, and she spared no detail... But I didn't believe a word of it.
It was a great story. No question. I think I held my breath the entire time, eager to hear what came next. But I didn't believe that she'd actually seen all of this on a movie screen. I figured she had to be making it up... I thought the story was WAY too far-fetched to be an actual movie.
Years later, when I finally saw THE TERMINATOR, I was amazed that the film lived up to the hype I'd generated in my own brain. What really blew me away was the final act, when the Terminator sheds his Schwarzenegger skin and becomes a stop-motion animated skeleton (an upgrade on the old Ray Harryhausen movies)... I remember being utterly horrified by the thought that this thing simply could not be killed. That final act was a nightmare, pure and simple... There was no logic, no reason, no hope.
Watching THE TERMINATOR the New Beverly Theater a few nights ago, I realized how much it has in common with Cameron's subsequent film ALIENS. Both take place almost entirely in the dark (the noir aspect), both revolve around a super-human threat, and both feature androids (which get ripped in half at the end). In ALIENS, the android is benevolent... so you could perhaps view ALIENS as, among other things, a test run for TERMINATOR 2.
The first time I saw ALIENS was on the small screen. My father rented the home video a few years after it was released. This was a big deal for me because I was still too young to watch R-rated movies. I was surprised that he had picked it out. I think he might have had a thing for Sigourney Weaver, though I never asked. Whatever the cause, I wasn't complaining. Dad rarely wanted to watch the kind of movies I was interested in (action, horror, sci-fi), so the memory of that lazy summer afternoon stays with me.
As I saw it, he had Sigourney Weaver and I had Bishop. Lance Henriksen's character is the kid in the story. The story focuses mostly on Newt, the surrogate daughter for Sigourney's character, but I didn't care about her because she existed only to serve the Ripley's arc -- to set off her mothering instincts. Bishop was a self-contained character. He wasn't part of the tribe. He was the one who was trying to prove himself, trying to earn the approval of the adults around him. I could relate to that, and watching the movie with my dad made the experience even more poignant.
It's different watching the movie as an adult... I still identify with Bishop more than the human characters, but now it seems to me that he shouldn't have to try so hard. From the very beginning, he's more human than the humans. When the New Beverly screening was over, I was left wondering how James Cameron was able to make the leap from the Terminator to Bishop in just two films, spaced only a year apart. In the first film, the technology of the future is a source of profound fear. In the second film, the technology of the future is the light in the dark. Watching these two films back to back, it seems like there's an evolution going on in the storyteller's mind - like he's learning to trust hope. Or maybe that was just me.