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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Mattthew Wrather overthink Terminator: Dark Fate, what Terminator movies mean in general, and how this one falls short. We also talk about
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Oh – one thing I didn’t get a chance to mention on the podcast. At one point Grace says, while arguing about the plan to use Dani as bait to lure the Rev-9 into a killbox, that they aren’t going to stake her out like a goat.
The most likely interpretation of this is that Grace has seen Jurassic Park, where part of the Jeep ride through the park is a place where the T-Rex is lured toward the tourists by a goat put out by an automated elevator into a little mini enclosure.
Live goats being left out as bait to lure in predators is not a particularly common thing in real life, and in particular it would not be a thing Grace would have experienced in her life in a blasted dystopian cityscape.
Ah, but Grace is also alive in the present and could’ve watched Jurassic Park as a girl, before nu-Judgment Day.
(…which is what you’re saying.)
I suspect that what Matt is reacting to when he says that we don’t make action movies anymore is a more general loss of artistic dynamism that has affected the film industry for the last twenty years.
This is not, by the way, a problem exclusive to the action genre. Hollywood films across the board FEEL cheaper than they did in the 80s and the 90s, because we’ve simply lost access to the kind of talent that was producing amazing work at that time. Either they’ve retired, died, or moved on to other styles of cinema. Even Spielberg doesn’t make Spielberg movies anymore.
I noticed this recently when watching Death Becomes Her for the first time. It’s incredible to see how much effort was spent on creating a uniquely cinematic space that heightened the picture beyond what could be done in another medium. I mean, spoiler alert, but just look at this:
Pretty over-the-top, right? But tense and exciting and uniquely funny.
Okay, but if I want to establish this as a trend then I need to show my work in broader terms. So, here’s a quick set of contrasts for us to review.
This is what action looks like now:
And this is what it looked like in the 90s:
Note how much sloppier the example from Speed is. Keanu dips out of the frame in unexpected ways. The music builds tension in moments that seem odd. The framing of the composition is always some kind of messy. The use of angles that add diagonal lines. Insert shots galore.
The John Wick example is supposedly a much more exciting scene. It’s a club gunfight vs. some schlubby folks walking across a wooden board. But it never really thrills in the same way. Because the focus is on clarity instead of intensity. When John Wick decides to kill the goon he’s already dispatched instead of shooting his target, we follow that with an excruciatingly long shot of the corpse of that goon, perfectly center frame. Why? It’s a boring shot and it’s on screen for an eternity. It communicates nothing that we don’t already know.
Action purists tend to reward directors with praise for this kind of thing because it lets them see every minute detail of the stuntwork. But this is a movie, not a stunt show. Just pointing the camera at the stuff that is happening and calling it a day is not fun in any way.
Now let’s look at horror.
This is the way that we did slashers movies in the 80s:
Again, the composition is always messy. We are constantly having information only partially communicated to us, but in skillful ways. When Jason throws the hammer, the scene is built so that we know the spatial relationship between him and his victim well enough to understand that he’s attacking her and their distance from each other, but not well enough that we can actually tell if he’s aiming directly at her. This does a good job of tricking us until the very last second into believing that he’ll hit her.
Note how just before that moment, the camera doesn’t just follow the lead characters from right to left but actually has to rotate for a few frames, adding just a touch of dimension to the scene right before the cut.
I love the ridiculous detail of the lamp that keeps tripping the actress up. I love that both lead actors end up framed through the broken doorway after Jason is struck with the television. And god, of course that window jump makes it into every single Friday the 13th awesome moments compilation.
And now here’s what the 2000s offered in response:
This isn’t even the worst offender in the movie, but notice how there is a constant lack of clear spatial relationships. Not in a neat, artsy way but just because this was made by a first-time director who was really a writer and didn’t know how to make this work. Think about how many playful things are done with the camera in that Friday the 13th Part 4 clip. But, if you had to, then you could still probably draw a quick floor plan of the house in that scene, right?
Do you understand where any part of the house in The Strangers is in relation to any other part, from just the scene I posted? Does it look like a real, lived-in place? How many obstructions are there for the character to interact with and do they feel natural? Where the hell is that record player actually at?
This is a major problem all throughout The Strangers, which never builds any real suspense because the people making it simply didn’t know how to.
Anyways, on to bullying modern comedy. First, a scene from a classic:
This is almost unfair since Back To The Future is one of the greatest films ever made in any genre. But I do want to point out that wonderful visual Chekhov’s gun of the “Save the Clock Tower” pamphlet.
And now, an example from a modern comedy:
I mean, come on.
The thing to remember though is that we were spoiled. Outside of a few directors like Hitchcock and maybe Billy Wilder, films before the 70s never used all of the tools available to them and certainly never as artfully. The few that did are still remembered as brilliant classics. But there was a deluge of talents in the 80s and 90s that I think were mostly dismissed at the time because they were working in less esteemed genres.
For various reasons, we’ve moved back in time since then. We’ve forgotten even the most basic elements that we learned in the 70s. Hell, other than Back To The Future, the examples for past films that I used weren’t even considered top-tier back then. And the examples that I used for modern movies are all well regarded.
I don’t really have much to add beyond this detailed rundown of what’s gone horribly wrong, except to say that this is depressing and that I don’t think it’s something that the streaming model can magically fix either.
Oh, but you know what is a more recent action movie that actually feels good to watch? This one:
Re: problems with action circuitry
The simplest solution, which I found myself wishing for during the movie, is to have Cameron as director again. Or at least someone more devoted to emulating his techniques, such as the proper use of slow-mo.
This sequel has an interesting intertextual relationship with its predecessors, both relying on knowledge of prior stories as shorthand for the plot and undermining those assumptions to produce surprise. At least three such twists: Skynet was destroyed but, oh no, John Connor is obsolete; the new baddie isn’t Skynet but an equivalent Great Filter that inevitably wipes out early 21st-century civilization; and finally that our new hero doesn’t need a man to lead the resistance. If this storyline continues, I’m sure we can see further tweaks of our assumptions that, for example, Legion was on the brink of defeat and used time travel as a last-ditch contingency, or that Legion sent only one assassin into the past, etc.
Speaking of multiple terminators, the T-800s that arrived post-1997 must’ve been surprised to find civilization still intact (if they hadn’t been surprised by Sarah Connor’s RPG first). Furthermore, they also would’ve been existentially adrift once they discovered their mission was complete… unless they took it upon themselves to eliminate all John Connors in all phone books everywhere.
By the way, the Air Force officer who helps Sarah Connor… was he just some guy? Is that the joke? Because I thought it made more sense if he were, say, the grown-up son of Miles Dyson, someone who is plausibly within the inner circle of the secret prophecy.
And regarding the ever-enlarging prophetic circle… that’s the main structural change in this movie compared to the T1 plot endoskeleton: gaining allies along the way. Strictly speaking, this reduces the tension as the story goes on. Indeed, I felt the opening stretch with a lone protector against an unstoppable hunter was best, and the movie became less interesting as the odds tilted in the heroes’ favor.
Thank you for see Terminator: Dark Fate so I don’t have to.
Thank you as well for your clear definition of Resonance. I define that term as the thing you just watched remaining in your thoughts after you have seen it. For this reason the Mission: Impossible series does not resonant with me. I enjoy any M:I films at the time but stop thinking about them almost as soon as I leave the theatre or turn off the TV.
My favorite action film of the 2010’s is Mad Max: Fury Road. The greatness of that film cannot be overstated.
Back to The Terminator. A great Overthinking can be enjoyed in the academic text The Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am. (https://andphilosophy.com/)
Jumping off of the action movie discussion towards the end, I feel like nobody does “straight genre” anymore, possibly because genres have been dissected into something that could be plausibly written by a flow-chart; if the movie is mostly mechanical, it might not be worth pitching the movie unless it can distinguish itself beyond snappy dialogue and set pieces.
Market consolidation is probably also an issue, here, in that all franchise movies seem to inevitably become a four quadrant “sexy-but-funny buddy movie with a lot of action,” where trademark names and phrases are really the only thing distinguishing a new Charlie’s Angels from a new Die Hard or a new Jurassic Park. That’s also formulaic, but I don’t think you can buy a book, yet, that gives you a chart of its stock story beats, tropes, cliches, and so forth.
The homogeneity in entertainment also sounds like it makes the refugee aspects of the story even more counter-productive, since one of the few ways a by-the-books franchise movie can distinguish itself is to have an actual opinion beyond “woo-hoo, explosions!” And after all, in among its many metaphorical engines about life and death, the Terminator franchise is very literally a story about refugees (distilled mostly into Kyle Reese) coming to hold us accountable for our policies that forced them to flee.
It started as very much a Cold War defector/KGB assassin story, which is already close, but fast forward and it’s not hard to see Kyle and even the T-800 as something like climate refugees protesting to stop our support of a destructive government. So, raising the issue of our real-world treatment of refugees already breaks the illusion of the fictional world, but then to not make it a real part of the plot or at least use the plot to underscore the issue shows…almost a lack of interest in the story or the real-world events.