Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘James Cameron’

Let me tell you a story about the power of a great movie. It was late summer 1991 and my family had gone away en masse, leaving me alone in the house. I was in my mid-late teens and they were a bit twitchy about leaving me to my own devices for so long, so they had arranged for someone to look in on me . This was Doris, a senior citizen of our acquaintance, not exactly family but closer than ‘friend of the family’ implies; the mildest, nicest, kindest person you could imagine. Fond though I was of her, I was a bit narked at being under supervision (even of the gentlest and least intrusive sort), but as she was driving past the house of a friend of mine to come and check on me I made the most of things and got her to pick up a VHS tape I was particularly keen to see.

She duly arrived with the tape, we said all the usual things, and then I said I was going to watch the movie on the tape. Doris didn’t fancy driving back home just yet and decided to stay and watch the start of the film. I wasn’t sure it would be her cup of tea but, as noted, I was particularly keen to see the movie, as the sequel opened a couple of days later and I wanted to watch them in the right order. The movie was, of course, James Cameron’s The Terminator.

107 minutes or so later we stopped and sat back. Doris had found herself unable to contemplate leaving before the end of the film and had coped with the violence, profanity and sex scene with admirable aplomb. ‘That was very good,’ she said. I agreed and promptly forgot about it for a couple of months, until we were having lunch with her one Sunday.

‘Do you remember that film we watched, about the man who came back in time,’ she said.

‘What – oh, yes, Terminator,’ I said. I remember my father looking slightly thunderstruck as I had neglected to mention our movie night to him on his return.

‘Well, I noticed there’s another one, and I wanted to go and see it – but none of my friends will come with me,’ she said, looking slightly pained.

Well, septuagenarian members of the Women’s Institute are hardly James Cameron’s target demographic. Gallantly, and also because I quite fancied seeing Terminator 2 again myself, I volunteered to take Doris to see it. And so a tradition was forged, where every time Arnold Schwarzenegger had a new movie out either I or my sister would take Doris to the cinema. A poster of the big man appeared on her bedroom wall, and she was able to talk quite knowledgeably about the different entries to the canon – Predator was ‘a bit gruesome’, for instance. I recall a very congenial evening round at her house watching Raw Deal on VHS over a plate of sausage rolls (hospitality was one of those things she never neglected). Her interest never quite extended beyond Arnie’s work, though – I lent her Highlander, and I think she enjoyed it, but not to the point of wanting to take it any further.

By the time Terminator 3 came along, Doris wasn’t really able to go to the cinema any more, and she had moved on to the next plane of existence when Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys were released. I saw them all, of course, and I always wondered what she would have made of them – not very impressed by Salvation in particular, given it is the most Arnie-light entry in the series, I would imagine. Perhaps it is for the best that she never saw them, for the consensus is that the quality of the Terminator series dropped off a cliff after James Cameron departed following the first sequel.

But now, of course, Cameron is back on board, as producer and storyliner at least, so could a revival in the franchise’s fortunes be on the cards? The answers lie in Terminator: Dark Fate, directed by Tim Miller.

The first thing to be said about the new movie is that it doesn’t fall prey to that problem whereby the whole plot ends up in the trailer. The film opens with a game-changing sequence which none of the publicity even alludes to, which certainly made me sit up and wonder if, against all odds, this movie was going to do something genuinely surprising and distinctive with the Terminator mythos. After this, we basically go back to a bit of history repeating, but done effectively. A young Mexican girl, Dani (Natalia Reyes), finds herself the target of a robotic assassin from the future (Gabriel Luna), with her hopes of survival largely dependent on a cyborg protector who has likewise come back in time (Mackenzie Davis).

Soon enough the various parties come together, and the fight/chase sequence that ensues is an absolute cracker, rolling through a factory and out onto the local freeway. However, Dani and her guardian soon find themselves hard-pressed, not least by the new terminator’s ability to be in two places at the same time, and things look bleak for them. But wait! Who is this turning up to help with a dizzying array of heavy-duty weaponry? It’s Theresa May!

Oh, hang on, no it’s not – it’s Sarah Connor, another woman of a certain age with a history of finding herself trapped in endless, futile battles. On-the-ball readers may recall that in recent instalments Sarah Connor has either been dead or Emilia Clarke, but now she is once again Linda Hamilton (the continuity has been rebooted, for whatever that’s worth). Soon the trio are on the run from the terminator, following a trail of clues which leads them to an unlikely ally whom Sarah kind of has history with…

The last couple of Terminators have been so dismal that it really wouldn’t take much to improve upon them, and so to suggest that Dark Fate is the best film in the series for quite some time isn’t necessarily saying very much. Certainly, the plot is of the breathe-on-it-and-it-collapses variety, the writers operating on the principle that if you start at speed, then keep going and accelerate, no-one will have time to notice the various contrivances and implausibilities in the storyline. The fact that it is generally very good-humoured and you’re never very far from another top-notch action sequence also helps a lot.

There are a couple of noteworthy creative choices along the way – the plot entails a sequence where the characters are obliged to sneak across the border between the US and Mexico, tangling with the relevant authorities along the way. This can’t help but come across as feeling a bit politically charged in the current climate, but you can sense the movie working hard to stay on the fence (or possibly the wall) about this. Any suggestion of implied pinko-liberalism is surely offset by the general Second Amendment-friendliness of the film (characters trundle about with automatic weapons and rocket launchers and no-one bats an eyelid).

Needless to say, the Progressive Agenda Committee also appear to have had some input into the shape of the film, which presumably explains why your actual biological human males are entirely peripheral to the story. I know I’m probably slipping into thunderous misogynist mode, but one of the distinctive things about James Cameron’s scripts is that he’s always written strong and resourceful female characters, without the films seeming heavy-handed or on-the-nose or trying to push any kind of agenda. Compared to them, Terminator: Dark Fate feels leadenly reductionist in its gender politics.

And one consequence of this is that the eventual appearance of Arnie almost feels like it’s unbalancing the film. You can’t do a proper Terminator film without the big man, after all, and there is a sense in which the film doesn’t completely feel satisying until he turns up. But when he does, it’s so late on that he barely counts as a main character – yet he is still given lots of important stuff to do.

One mustn’t grumble too much for this is Arnie’s best outing in ages. Not only can he still body-slam someone to the floor and then machine-gun their face off like nobody else in the business, one is reminded of his underappreciated talent for comedy – he turns up in the unlikely role of Carl, a T-800 terminator who has now reformed and spent the last couple of decades living a quietly domestic existence while working as an interior decorator. There is, obviously, vast potential for humour here, which Arnie plays to the hilt, making the most of delivering lines about hanging curtains and bringing in groceries, but also quieter and more reflective moments where he does not let the film down.

I don’t think you’re ever going to make a sequel as good as the original Terminator; all that these subsequent films have done is to play with the component parts of that film, occasionally buffing them up or reorganising them, but never quite managing to have the same effect. (The success of this film stems largely from the fact it has identified the most easily reproducible element of the best sequel – Sarah Connor’s transformation into an unhinged bad-ass – and run with it.) Maybe it’s time to just bite the bullet and do a straight remake. And while Dark Fate does not disgrace the memory of that first film, it’s hard to see where else they can take this particular riff on the story that won’t feel contrived and repetitive. Still, on its own merits, this is an effective and enjoyable SF action movie – I think it would certainly have won Doris’ seal of approval, and that’s good enough for me.

Read Full Post »

The legend of Robert Rodriguez began with the circumstances surrounding the making of his first film, El Mariachi, over twenty years ago now. Rodriguez said he only had a guitar case and a tortoise and so was obliged to make the best of what he had available. One suspects he was being somewhat disingenuous but it was generally accepted that the whole film was made on a budget of about $7,000, some of which the writer-director supposedly raised by allowing experimental medical research to be done on him. The path from a $7,000 micro-budget thriller to a $200 million special-effects blockbuster is probably not a well-trodden one, but here Rodriguez is, in charge of the long-gestating film adaptation of Battle Angel: Alita. (This project was overseen for a long time by Jim Cameron, who eventually departed as director when the umpty-tump Avatar sequels in the works demanded too much of his attention, and Rodriguez apparently insisted on a change of name to Alita: Battle Angel because Cameron’s last two films beginning with an A were massive critical and popular successes.)

Quite early on in Alita: Battle Angel one gets either a comforting sense of being in familiar territory or a sinking feeling that the film is just a load of repurposed old spare parts. We are in another one of those post-apocalyptic futures, some time in the 26th century, with most of the Earth laid waste by interplanetary war. One vast floating city has endured, and living in its shadow a grimy, lawless sprawl has sprung up, the population trapped in poverty, kept docile by watching violent combat sports, and all dreaming of a better life in the sky-metropolis.

One of the locals is cyber-surgeon and part-time bounty-hunter Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who while picking over the junkheap beneath the sky-city discovers a preserved human brain in a cybernetic skull. He pops this into a full-body prosthetic chassis and the result is Alita (Rosa Salazar), a saucer-eyed waif with (naturally) superhuman reflexes, agility and ass-whupping skills. Alita has movie amnesia, presumably as a result of spending many decades as a brain in a can.

Well, it eventually turns out that someone is after Alita, who finds herself involved in various bounty-hunting exploits and a big set-piece sequence concerning the sport of Motorball, which is basically a gladiatorial variation on roller-boogie. Alita gets a love interest in the form of the non-threatening Hugo (Keann Johnson), and together they recycle many favourite old lines from the Big Book of Old Sci-Fi Chestnuts – ‘Does it matter that I’m not human?’ ‘You’re the most human person I know’, etc – during lulls in the plot. But what is Alita’s mysterious past? Who is her enigmatic nemesis? What is his beef with her, and just what is she prepared to do to stop him?

There are many things to be said about Alita: Battle Angel, but probably the most significant one is that after 122 minutes, with the closing credits rolling in front of me, I still really had no clue about the answers to most of these questions. The screenplay doesn’t contain a plot so much as a collection of scenes roughly connected to one another, without much sense of focus or direction. Obviously this is a comic book adaptation, and it does feel like one – in some of the more cartoony elements of the story, but also in the way that the writers have clearly taken a huge corpus of stories, concepts, ideas, and characters and tried to include every single one of their favourites in a single script. The film strains to accommodate all of them, and one of the things that gets pushed out is traditional narrative development and structure.

A good point of reference for Alita would be Ghost in the Shell from a couple of years ago – both big-budget effects-driven American-made adaptations of Japanese manga, with a cybernetic heroine having an identity crisis, although Alita seems to have dodged the usual wave of venom about whitewashing (the word ‘adaptation’ just doesn’t register sometimes, it would seem). Ghost in the Shell is apparently considered a box office bomb, and regular readers will recall I did predict the same fate in store for Alita, a forecast I am not inclined to alter having seen the finished film. If you’re going to spend $200 million on a movie, you need to be pretty sure that audiences are going to turn out in force to see it (ideally several times each), and there doesn’t seem to be that much excitement about Alita: Battle Angel.

(Given that Jim Cameron’s career has often revolved around his gambling large sums of money making projects that industry insiders and commentators were vocally dubious about, which then went on to be immensely successful, one wonders if this has been a factor in his being able to get Alita funded. If so, I suspect the backers are in for a nasty shock this time.)

Certainly the film is light on all the things that a film needs to have in order to justify such a large budget – the story is not well-known outside the cult ghetto, and the well-known faces who appear in it are really character actors in supporting roles (in addition to Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali turn up in unrewarding, mostly-villainous parts). Ghost in the Shell didn’t make an impact despite the fact it prominently featured Scarlett Johansson in a body stocking (if they’d actually called the movie Scarlett Johansson in a Body Stocking I suspect it might have done better business), and I am not sure a heavily CGI-modified version of the comparatively little-known Rosa Salazar will have quite as much appeal.

Seriously, one of the questionable decisions Cameron and Rodriguez have gone for is the one to put Salazar’s performance through the computer and turn her into something not entirely unakin to Gollum, but with better skin and hair. Quite apart from whether the CGI is photo-realistic or not (I still don’t think we’re quite there yet), someone with eyes quite so big is just intrusive and distracting, and a constant reminder that you’re watching a big effects movie – it just makes the film less immersive. Salazar’s actual performance is functional – she possibly overdoes the breathless innocent bit in the early part of the film, but copes reasonably well with many scenes where they weigh down a bit too heavily on the exposition and back story pedals. The central romance remains thoroughly unimpressive, though.

The film is not outright bad, but it only really shows signs of life and energy when it comes to the action sequences – the highlight is probably the Motorball match, which manages to be genuinely exciting despite all the CGI, even in 3D. But even here Alita is seldom really exceptional, and once again I just can’t see it cutting through to make much of an impact on the cinema landscape today. Every time I go to an SF film with this much hype around it – as previously noted, the publicity for Alita has been inescapable – I’m hoping for that extraordinary, giddy sense of being taken to a world totally unlike any I’ve seen before, and the accompanying feeling of breathless delight. This almost never happens – obviously it happened with the first stellar conflict movie, and also with The Matrix and to some extent with Inception. But most films inevitably fall short, and just prove to be a bit too obviously derivative or lacking in the basic storytelling virtues. Alita: Battle Angel is obviously the work of people with a high level of technical proficiency, but it isn’t the work of original, visionary brilliance that its publicity appears to be suggesting it is – certainly not to the point where it excuses poor storytelling. It’s okay – but no more than that.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 28th 2002:

[Originally following a review of Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.]

Well, what are the odds? You wait weeks without a single monster movie getting a mention and then suddenly two come along at once. Yup, let’s look at James Cameron’s 1986 classic, Aliens.

Looking back at Cameron’s filmography as a director, it’s clear that originality is not the man’s strong point. It’s a collection of reworkings of other people’s material (The Terminator, True Lies) and sequels (Piranha 2: Flying Killers, Terminator 2, the film in question) and, of course, based-on-fact disaster movies. The sole exception to this is The Abyss, which I’ve always found to be his weakest movie for a major studio. [Anyone heading for the comments section framing a remark featuring the word Avatar, don’t bother. – A]

But anything he lacks in terms of inventiveness he makes up for in his ability to deliver a high-octane head-banging action movie, and that’s exactly what Aliens is. 57 years after the events of the original film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her cat Jones (a cat) are rescued from their deep-space deep-freeze. Her employers refuse to believe her story concerning the fate of the Nostromo… until contact is lost with an outpost on the planet they originally found the alien creature. Along with an amoral company executive (Paul Reiser) and a squad of marines (Cameron regulars Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and Jenette Goldstein amongst them), Ripley sets out for the remote colony, where nastiness inevitably ensues…

I think Aliens is a better film than its predecessor for one simple reason – James Cameron may not have Ridley Scott’s unique visual flair, but he has an instinctive grasp of storytelling, and he knows that a great action film is all about tension, characterisation, and ultimately delivering the thrills. There are no pointless 2001 homages in Aliens (well, maybe there’s one right at the start), nary a wasted shot or redundant line. There’s suspense in bucketloads (largely achieved by simply not featuring the monsters until nearly halfway through the film), and a small cast of readily identifiable, if not always likeable, characters (with the exception of Reiser’s wretched yuppie-scum). And of course, the climax of the film has the remarkable, iconic Alien Queen as its killer punch – though this isn’t to dismiss the other superb set-pieces (my favourite is the escape through the ducting culminating in Vasquez and Gorman’s trick with the grenades).

Cameron knows how to make a great sequel, too: virtually all the elements of the original film reappear, but his approach to them is sufficiently different to keep them fresh and engaging. The one real change is quite subtle – where Alien was on a deep level a psychological horror story about rape, Aliens – for all its testosterone-fuelled frenzy – is about the alarming power of the maternal instinct. But it still manages to make the original film look like nothing more than a low-key prologue, and at the same time sets an impossibly high standard for the subsequent films in the series.

Read Full Post »