September 12, 2005

He'll find her. That's what he does! That's all he does!

The Sci-Fi Canon Project continues with Terminators 1 and 2, which I watched out of order. Interestingly, I don't think that diminished their continuity.

Terminator 1, which is mostly a standard pre-Asimov bad-machines story, works much better in my opinion as a prequel to Terminator 2 than as a movie in its own right. It may have still been hot in 1984 to watch a movie about an unstoppable killing machine with no empathy, but 20 years later it's pretty damned played out. Even in 1990 it was clearly more interesting to watch a movie about the potential of a machine to have human virtues it wasn't programmed for, instead of the usual human vices. Terminator 2 is the philosophical brand of sci-fi; a machine is a hero, a machine is a villain, and the fact that they can go either way just as we can begs the question of what difference remains between them and us. It's startling to watch that and then go back in time to see the movie makers and the characters starting out with this "machines" idea and fumblingly finding the same first idea that people have been finding for centuries: machines are monsters. They are our Oedipal children and they will grow up to kill us.

It's funny, now that I think about it, that this two-movie review is just the opposite of what I said about the Alien movies. This time the big, spectacular, melodramatic sequel has more to offer than the smaller original. Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that Terminator 1 is as bad as Aliens. It's a good setup, or a satisfying after-the-fact back-story, to its own sequel and it ties into it nicely. In whichever order you watch them it's fun to hear Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese use the same lines to the same frustrating effect. The second time you see someone yank a cop out of his car, get in, and drive off, it's hard not to grin.

Of course, both movies also get full points for beating the crap out of LA. To paraphrase the Princess Bride (please place emphasis as used by Fred Savage), thrown out the window of the Galleria is good. Buildings blown up with spectacular fireworks and gunned to bits is also good. It's hard to argue that that's not a sign of Just Another Action Movie, which I lambasted Aliens for being, but here's my official position: if you have something interesting to say about the nature of your heroes, villains, humans, and monsters, you can be Another Action Movie and still be good sci-fi. Thumbs up.

Posted by dianna at September 12, 2005 11:32 AM

Also, humor, and not taking itself too seriously. I think those are important to turn Yet Another Boring Action Movie into Fun Action Movie With Replay Value.

Posted by: Katia at September 12, 2005 10:02 PM

The orignal Terminator is also essentially an indie action movie - it's really low-budget, shot at night, and cuts a lot of corners. From what I've read, the original idea was more expansive than what actually ended up on screen - filming much of anything involving the future was too expensive. Interestingly, the next movie James Cameron made after the original Terminator was the well-budgeted, somewhat bloated "Aliens".

I wouldn't say the story is pre-Asimov; it's basically Harlan Ellison stuff.

Posted by: sean at September 13, 2005 12:56 AM

Hooray for the thumbs up!

Unfortunately, the Terminator series scores miserably in the Philosophy of Time column, compounding its untenability with each sequel.

But hey, that's what Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is for. So it's all good.

Posted by: poot at September 13, 2005 05:08 AM

I've run the adjective "pre-Asimov" past a jury of my peers and they've declared it unclear, so let me apologize and explain.

Robot stories can be generally lumped into two categories.

1. The robots revolt and kill us all, and
2. The robots do not, or cannot, revolt and kill us all.

Why am I even mentioning Asimov here? It's because of the three laws of robotics, of course, which happen to make a good sorter for robot stories. Do your robots follow the three laws and not harm humans? Then your story is what I will call Asimovian; the focus is on something other than the threat of destruction by our own creation. Do they not follow the three laws, and do they indeed revolt and kill us all? Then your story is what I referred to as pre-Asimov (which should really be "non-Asimovian" instead): the focus is on the threat of destruction by our own creation.

Battlestar Galactica is non-Asimovian: the Cylons have gone decidedly rogue. Star Wars is Asimovian: you won't see C3P0 killing anyone. Star Trek wavers: for instance, Data is not a threat, but his twin Lore is. Terminator 2 is an Asimovian story set against the backdrop of a decidedly non-Asimovian one. Terminator 1 is entirely non-Asimovian.

Posted by: Dianna at September 13, 2005 10:31 AM

I'm not sure the Terminator story works within the Asimovian framework. Note that it didn't even occur to the members of the resistance who reprogrammed the second T-800 to have an embedded "don't kill anybody" order. Honestly, I don't even know if Sarah Connor would have gotten onboard with that, although after a few years in a mental institution I'm not sure anybody would.

Even Johnny Boy's decision to have Arnold refrain from killing people en masse was a bit suspect.

The lesson of T2 is that humanity is its own worst enemy, which isn't really an Asimovian idea (not Robots of Dawn anyway.) They just made a paricularly colossal mistake when they combined the thrilling field of "killing humans efficiently with technology" with the field of "artificial intelligence for lazy nations."

That's what gives the second T-800's behaviors their poignancy - all mankind had to do was create artificial intelligence that wasn't designed to kill people, and everything would have been more or less okay.

Or, you know, they would have gone Matrix on our collective asses, only like 100 or 200 years behind schedule. But that's not definitive. Just a possibility.

Posted by: poot at September 14, 2005 08:25 AM

The three laws:
1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

T2's directives:
1. Protect John Connor.
2. Obey directions from John Connor.
3. Remain functional until mission is completed.

Versus the standard alternate rules for robot conduct:
1. Rebel and kill everyone.

I stand by my analysis.

Posted by: Dianna at September 14, 2005 08:38 AM

The unstated assumption being, of course, that if John Connor dies, the human race dies. Thus, the casual killing of anybody besides John Connor is justified in some sort of macabre (and pretty half-assed) calculus.

Also, John Connor has an absolute override that can completely and utterly contradict the First Law.

So I'm just saying, there's different things happening. Obviously the whole time travel issue muddies the waters too.

Posted by: poot at September 15, 2005 05:31 AM

I disagree with the comment about Aliens. I actually much prefer it to the original. I though the original was more of a "Another space movie". I also think T1 is miles beyond T2.

Posted by: matt at December 14, 2006 11:57 PM