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In the 1990s, I became a big fan of action cinema in general and Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular. Some derided this because ‘action movies are stupid/boring’ and ‘Arnie can’t act’. These criticisms were important because I did not accept them, liking what I wanted and developing my argumentative skills in explaining why other perspectives and indeed other standards of quality are available. While Kindergarten Cop, Commando and The Running Man prompted such derision, one film that did not is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, because apparently this one is OK to like. T2 was also the beginning of my love affair with James Cameron’s cinema, and while his work is divisive, T2 is seemingly one of the good ones.
One of the reasons I adore Cameron is his skill at delivering sustained action set pieces, and T2 was my first exposure to this, especially in the film’s final act that begins with our heroes approaching the Cyberdyne building and DOESN’T STOP UNTIL THE END CREDITS! Despite multiple viewings and indeed analyses, like the earlier films mentioned in this list, T2 stands up to repeat viewings, its pioneering CGI as fresh and startling as it was the first time. A 3D re-release in 2017 wasn’t exactly necessary, but it did give me the chance to see this masterpiece on the big screen which was a delight. Terminator 2 remains a blistering action movie and a wonderful investigation into what counts as human and as a person, exploring the fluidity of identity, gender, roles, embodiment, voice and vision, technophobia and technophilia. It’s the finest type of film to me – a blockbuster with brains to match its bombast.
Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…
For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.
Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.
From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post…
Some franchises get better as they continue, and some demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. Terminator Genisys falls firmly into the latter category, as it attempts to rewrite a significant part of the franchise’s history and, in doing so, makes various clunking failures that highlight the film’s own redundancy.
Genisys repeatedly raids the Terminator production line, using footage from the 1984 original The Terminator, complete with young Arnold Schwarzenegger before his grizzled contemporary turns up. Nostalgia can be an effective dramatic approach, as in the rebooted Star Trek, but here the replaying of familiar material highlights Genisys‘ own lack of ideas. Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script recycles various plot points from the first two films (ignoring continuity from Rise of the Machines and Salvation), and attempts to create new versions of established characters. The results, however, are anaemic and insipid. Schwarzenegger has been parodying himself for years and this is no exception, except that he is old and regularly reminds us of this (yes, Arnold, you’re old, not obsolete, we get it!). Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton’s guerrilla warrior, while Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese lacks the feral desperation of Michael Biehn’s original incarnation (and Courtney’s massively buff physique – clearly there are still gyms post-Judgment Day – undercuts Schwarzenegger’s previously exceptional body). Jason Clarke is a bland John Connor, despite the potential for a great inversion of his character, a plot twist infuriatingly exposed by the film’s trailer.
All of these faults would be forgiveable if the film managed to engage with some interesting ideas. The best sci-fi is always concerned with ideas (see this year’s Ex Machina for a recent example), and the original Terminators did exactly this, principally the relationship humanity has with technology. The Terminator showed the omnipresence of technology and Terminator 2: Judgment Day blurred the distinction between human and machine. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did the same thing badly but the unfairly maligned Terminator Salvation managed to go in a different direction by reversing the awareness of what is what. Terminator Salvation managed to refresh the franchise, but Genisys simply and blatantly replays what we have seen before: more time travel, more old Arnie, more unstoppable (although not really) terminator upgrades, more delays to Judgment Day, more ways to change the past and fight the future, and all for the purpose of stretching out a franchise that was completed perfectly well in 1991. The concepts that make the Terminator mythos interesting are simply referenced without engagement or due attention, resulting in a lazy and lifeless experience. Furthermore, director Alan Taylor demonstrates the same shortcomings he did with Thor: The Dark World, failing to create action set pieces that draw the viewer in or offer anything beyond stuff blowing up and flying around, with an unnecessarily clanking soundtrack that emphasises time and time again that THESE ARE MACHINES! Thanks, Alan, I might have forgotten otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest insult to the original films is the abandonment of their interesting gender politics. Far more than being a “strong female character,” Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a woman of vision, voice and agency, who evolved from helpless victim to guerrilla commando, almost to the loss of her humanity. Clarke’s Sarah, however, mostly complains about her lack of choice over her future before accepting the dictates of the father and husband figures around her. Worse still, her voiceover is replaced with that of Kyle, making it his story rather than her’s and sidelining one of the most iconic women of action cinema. Depressing.
James Cameron gave his blessing to Genisys and described it as the true next installment. Much as I love Cameron, I have to disagree with him here, as Terminator Genisys is a wretched, retrograde regurgitation that fails to even have enough nostalgic value to maintain its running time. At least someone’s smiling.
The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.
I always like to see the positive in movies. Whereas others bemoan the death of narrative cinema (which is nonsense) and complain about overreliance on CGI (which is overly simplistic) or whinge that sequels and remakes have squashed originality, I find plenty to enjoy in mainstream cinema and rarely leave the movie theatre disappointed. But I confess that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the Transformers franchise did that rarest of things – left me bored.
I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was a child (although I was a bigger fan of M.A.S.K. and Centurions – can we get a big screen adaptation of one of those please), and this has made me sympathetic to the current film franchise. In fact, I loved 2007’s Transformers, which combined 80s nostalgia with contemporary aesthetics and delivered some of the most blistering action sequences of that year (which also included The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Since then, the franchise dipped with Revenge of the Fallen (2009) that not only featured racist stereotypes but pointless mysticism and a story that went all over the place before collapsing into incoherent noise (even the director described it as “crap”). Things got slightly better with Dark of the Moon (2011) that was at least more coherent but still suffered from too much in its final (hour long!) battle sequence. Age of Extinction continues the trend of ever-longer films (respectively, the four movies have lasted 144 minutes, 150 minutes, 154 minutes, 165 minutes), and demonstrates the law of diminishing returns as more proves to be less.
I went into Age of Extinction with low expectations because of poor to mediocre reviews, and often find that low expectations are surpassed. I wanted to enjoy the film and it certainly delivers on scale, with huge spaceships looming over Earth and the return of favourites Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee. These are combined with some decent new Transformers including Hound (John Goodman) and Lockdown (Mark Ryan), although I could have done without the horrible Japanese stereotype Drift (Ken Watanabe). An alien robot with a personality out of human samurai culture, including swords and helmet, that speaks in haikus and calls his leader “Sensei”? Really? If anything, this was more offensive that Skids and Mudflaps in Revenge of the Fallen. The much-touted appearance of the Dinobots was pleasing when it arrived, but they only turned up in the last half hour by which time I’d stopped caring.
This was the main problem with Age of Extinction, as, despite my goodwill, the film failed to maintain my engagement. My attention wandered over its 165 minute running time, my reactions reduced to “Uh-huh”, “Uh-huh”, “Yes”, “Um-hum”, “How long have we been here?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Hmm”, “There’s still half an hour to go?!” There are some nice concepts, but again and again Ehren Kruger’s script and Michael Bay’s direction flog ideas to death, resurrect them and beat them to death again, or just abandon them. Early in the film, the Transformers are presented as illegal immigrants being pursued by nasty government agents, and this demonstrates that you can include political parallels in mainstream entertainment cinema. Similarly, the financial troubles of the Yaeger family, father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), allow for real world resonance. But these ideas are quickly abandoned in favour of over-designed alien robots that waste your time messing about. The bickering between the Autobots is tedious and serves no purpose, and the number of moving parts on the Transformers quickly becomes distracting. A robot that transforms into a vehicle is fine, but to have every little piece of them in constant motion actually becomes annoying. Worse, there is a bizarre attempt to humanise the robots and make them somehow biological, which includes blinking, breathing and bleeding. I don’t need Optimus Prime to leak green fluid to know he is injured – he has large holes in his body and has difficulty standing. That makes it pretty clear. This excess reaches its apex during the second act aboard Lockdown’s ship, which features some sort of robot guard dog-hyena type creatures. When those appeared all I could think was “Why, why, why?” Minions fair enough, but savage robot beasts is going way too far.
Repeatedly, the film suffers in comparison with 2007’s Transformers, which featured running battles that kept things moving. In Age of Extinction, battles occur, chases occur, and they go on and on and on and on. It is always very easy for a film critic, or indeed viewer, to say what would make the film better. It’s incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to assume that I know better than a professional filmmaker about how to do his job. But there is a glaring moment in Age of Extinction when the film could have moved into its climax. Instead, that is only the end of the second act and we have a torturous extension into China (which comes off as remarkably benevolent, clearly the producers had an eye on the lucrative Chinese market). I will not go so far as to say the film should have ended in Chicago (like the last one did), but I would have been happier if it had. I was already bored by the Chicago act, but that may have been because I knew there was more to come so the stakes were too low to excite me. More can be more – I will happily watch the three-hour cut of Avatar – but Transformers: Age of Extinction can best be described as a tedious, bloated, messy headache of a film.