It’s a Classic: ‘The Terminator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Come with me if you want to live!”

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Arnold Schwarzenegger is the iconic killer cyborg in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Year:  1984

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henrikson, Earl Boen

Director:  James Cameron / written by:  James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd

What’s it about?

An unstoppable cyborg is sent back through time from the year 2029 to murder Sarah Connor, a waitress who will be mother to the leader of the human resistance waging a future war against the machines…

In review: why it’s a classic

Prior to 1984 it would be hard to believe that James Cameron would become one of modern cinema’s greatest auteurs.  Having previously worked as an art director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (and later increase his profile by co-writing the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II with Sylvester Stallone), Cameron had made his directorial debut with the dreadful horror sequel Piranha II: The Spawning.  Yet his fever-induced vision of a robot killing machine would spawn not only a successful filmmaking career but also a pop culture phenomenon.

Setting out to create the definitive technological science fiction terror tale, Cameron would drive The Terminator above its perceived B-movie trappings and create an all-time classic.  Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role, The Terminator sees a formidable and seemingly unstoppable cyborg sent back in time to the then present day of 1984 from the year 2029, where mankind faces extinction in a war against Skynet – an advanced form of A.I. – and its army of war machines, to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the human resistance’s leader, John Connor, before he is born and can lead the human race to victory.  There’s hope for Sarah in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn – later to star in Cameron’s Aliens), a resistance soldier also sent back to 1984 with a mission to find and protect her from Skynet’s ‘Terminator’ at all cost.

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Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting abilities, but his balance of subtlety and intensity created a truly terrifying adversary, a shark-like robotic predator driven relentlessly to fulfil its programming in a career-defining role that would propel him to superstardom and a performance that is a crucial component in the success of The Terminator.  The film is a tense, exciting and often terrifying sci-fi action chase-thriller that posits a frightening scenario in which the advancement of technology and humanity’s hubris results in its obliteration.  Its dystopic elements are levied by the romance that builds between Sarah and Reese and together with the hope of humanity’s survival, creates a sense of hope amidst the bleakness.  Michael Biehn is great as Kyle Reese in a performance that conveys more depth than the average action hero.  Biehn is certainly adept at handling all of the required physicality but there’s a vulnerable quality to Reese that brings a lot of humanity to the character and a believability to a man out of time who has only ever known a life of hardship and struggle.  Linda Hamilton is perfectly cast as Sarah Connor with a fine portrayal of the everyday girl-next-door who has the fate of humankind literally placed in her hands.  Despite the fantastical aspects of the story, Sarah’s arc and her growth unfold naturally as she begins to unlock her inner strength and ultimately accept her destiny.  She is the heart of The Terminator and Linda Hamilton helps to create one of the most iconic screen heroines, inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

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No escape? The Terminator continues its relentless pursuit (image credit: MGM).

The film’s special effects have aged extremely well and bely the $6 million production budget.  Younger viewers may scoff at the more practical nature of The Terminator but the ambitious blend of miniatures, puppetry, stop-motion animation and rear screen projection are a testament to Cameron as a pioneer in filmmaking.  Of course not all of the credit should go to Cameron, sure, through his tenacity the film’s grand vision was realised but it mustn’t be forgotten that the film’s groundbreaking effects and design would never have been achieved without the works of effects company Fantasy II and Hollywood legend Stan Winston (who would collaborate with Cameron again on Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as well as creating the deadly alien hunter in Predator).  The Terminator is the successful sum of numerous parts and would not have been complete without Brad Fiedel’s score, undoubtedly one of the greatest revelations in motion picture music.  As strong as the film’s concepts and visuals, the metallic clunks and thrumming beats infused within Fiedel’s electronic score bring the killer cyborg and ravaged future Los Angeles to life.

Whilst the franchise may have faltered in recent years, James Cameron’s The Terminator remains forever a classic piece of science fiction cinema and with its laudable technical achievements, thrilling action and a captivating story it’s a film that will continue to endure.

Standout moment

Homing in on its target, the Terminator tracks Sarah Connor to the Tech Noir nightclub – making its way through the crowds on the dancefloor, drawing a handgun as it approaches Sarah and prepares to make the kill.  But Kyle Reese is already there, waiting to spring into action…

Geek fact!

Initially under consideration for the role of the Terminator were Lance Henrikson (who would go on to appear as LAPD cop Vukovich, alongside Paul Winfield’s Lt. Traxler) and O.J. Simpson.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was also originally put forward by his agent for the part of Kyle Reese.

If you like this then check out:

RoboCop (1987): the ‘other’ iconic 80s techno sci-fi action classic, director Paul Verhoeven executes a violent and satirical film with a superb central performance from Peter Weller as the titular part-man, part-machine future cop.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995)

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Just a whisper.  I hear it in my ghost”

Ghost in the Shell 95

‘Ghost in the Shell’ – a true anime classic (image credit: Kodansha/Bandai Visual/Manga Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

 

Year:  1995

Starring (voices – original Japanese cast):  Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Tamio Ohki, Iemasa Kayumi

Director:  Mamoru Oshii / Written by:  Kazunori Ito

What’s it about?

In a future where technology and humanity have become intertwined and cyberterrorism runs rampant, counter-operative Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team investigate a new threat that emerges from cyberspace…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Based on the manga by Shirow Masamune, director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is an essential classic of the genre and a standout piece of science fiction cinema that fuses elements of RoboCop and Blade Runner (and in turn becoming influential itself – The Matrix trilogy being a good example) with an enigmatic and cerebral tale of humanity’s inseparable relationship with technology.

Taking place in the year 2029, where technology has advanced to a point that the human brain – and one’s essence, or ‘ghost’ with it – can be transplanted into an artificial body, Ghost in the Shell is a futuristic ‘cyberpunk’ thriller that focuses on Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg and lead operative of the counter-cyberterrorism organisation known as Public Security Section 9 (her teammates comprising loyal right-hand, Batou) who become tasked with investigating the appearance of a suspected super-hacker going by the name of ‘Puppet Master’.  As the case unfolds and with the discovery that the Puppet Master is actually a sentient form of Artificial Intelligence, Kusanagi begins to question the meaning of existence and whether this new form of life is a threat or a link in the next step of human evolution.

Like a lot of anime, Ghost in the Shell has a ponderous, existential quality to it (made all the more evocative by Kenji Kawai’s beautiful music score) with dense, philosophical dialogue that may make the film’s concepts difficult to grasp initially.  It’s best approached with an open mind and a willingness to simply surrender and be captivated by the mesmerising nature of Ghost in the Shell and the ideas it poses about the evolution of technology, human existence and the blurring of the line between the two.

Almost a quarter of a century on and the animation for Ghost in the Shell continues to astonish, the level of detail and craftsmanship produced with precision and great care.  Whilst there’s an awful lot that can be achieved today with CGI, it’s a reminder that this – now sadly underutilised – art form can yield equal, even superior results.  The characters are believable and realistic, the technology design intriguing and the cityscapes as intricate as they are expansive.  Complementing all this is the fluid and visceral action, which, though ultraviolent, is executed with energy and skill, providing numerous exciting moments (the highlight of which is undoubtedly the climactic battle between Kusanagi and a heavily armoured tank) that outshine some of the more overly noisy, endless world-crumbling set-pieces seen in various simple-minded popcorn blockbusters of today.

The success of Ghost in the Shell has resulted in a popular franchise that beyond manga and video games has spawned not only a sequel (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, released in 2004) but further iterations in television and original video animations (known as ‘OVA’) including the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series.  An inferior live action feature film starring Scarlett Johansson was also released last year.  Its themes becoming more relevant than ever, Ghost in the Shell is likely to endure and be revisited and reinterpreted for some time to come.

Standout moment

Intersected by the opening credits, we witness the ‘birth’ of the Major as her android body is created…or is it just a dream?

Geek fact!

The voice cast for the English language version of Ghost in the Shell includes Richard Epcar as Batou, who would go on to voice the character in both the sequel, Innocence and the Stand Alone Complex series.

If you like this then watch…

Akira : that ‘other’ cyberpunk classic that formed part of the western ‘Japanimation’ craze of the 1990s, Akira follows the rise of a dangerously powerful psychokinetic teenager amidst the biker-gang torn streets of post-World War III Japan.

Patlabor 2 : also directed by Mamoru Oshii, the second Patlabor film is a complex and politically charged tale in which a mecha police unit fight to uncover a conspiracy as Japan verges on civil war.

TV Review: ‘Altered Carbon’ – series premiere

A Blade Runner for the smaller screen? 

Spoiler-free review

 

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Joel Kinnaman stars in the dazzling and intriguing Netflix Original ‘Altered Carbon’.

Starring:  Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Kristin Lehman, Will Yun Lee, Chris Conner

Series created by:  Laeta Kalogridis (based on the novel by Richard Morgan)

Written by:  Laeta Kalogridis / Episode directed by:  Miguel Sapochnik

What’s it about?

250 years after his death, Takeshi Kovacs awakens in a new body to find he’s been enlisted to solve the murder of a wealthy industrialist…

Episode review

A Netflix Original, Altered Carbon is an intriguing and stylish piece of dystopic cyberpunk science fiction that takes themes of identity and society and infuses them into a futuristic murder mystery that, in its first episode – titled “Out of the Past” – gently absorbs the viewer into this rich and visually astonishing world.  It’d be fair to cite that for seasoned fans of classic SF, Altered Carbon doesn’t necessarily offer anything completely new and original – the lavish, expansive cityscapes, existential ponderings and societal examinations are well worn tropes that have been represented in various cinematic classics including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but it’s more a case of homage and acknowledged appreciation than outright uninventive riff.

Following a violent and bloody opening, we’re transported 250 years into the future as the ‘terrorist’ (as he’s perceived at this point at least) Takeshi Kovacs is ‘re-sleeved’ into a new body – introducing series lead Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop, Suicide Squad) – thanks to bureaucrat Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) who wishes to enlist Kovacs to investigate his ‘murder’ 48 hours prior.  You see, in the world of Altered Carbon the human personality is digitally stored in a ‘cortical stack’ that can be transferred to a new body and Bancroft has survived thanks to a regular backup of his stack to an orbiting satellite…albeit any memory of his ‘death’ lost due to the murder being conveniently timed before the next backup.  This appears to form the central narrative of the series and “Out of the Past” plays out as more of a tease for what is to come, instead serving to establish the main players of Altered Carbon together with its visual aesthetics and the ideas it wishes to emulate, the notion of the human body as something that’s disposable, like an old mobile phone, proving the most evocative (and the re-sleeving of a seven year old girl into the body of a middle-aged woman the most alarming).

Initially, a little attention is required as Altered Carbon makes efforts to explain its future jargon with terminology akin to Ron Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica but it’s soon easy to grasp if one focuses on the more or less self-explanatory basics of ‘stacks’ and ‘sleeves’ and the concept of the ‘Protectorate’ as a state or ruling entity.

In terms of the cast, Joel Kinnaman is clearly the focal point and does a decent job of presenting a weary and brooding (yet darkly comic) persona uninterested in redemption and second chances, instead favouring a blast of excess before going back on ice for an indefinite period.  The supporting characters are a little sketchy to begin with, with a particular air of mystery and ambiguity surrounding James Purefoy’s Bancroft (together with his wife and son) who draws the suspicions of Police Lieutenant Ortega (Martha Higareda), whose presence facilitates some of the establishing exposition.  With this being merely the opening chapter, it’s surely a given that the series will delve more deeply into the characters as the story progresses across this ten episode first season.

The bottom line:  Slickly presented and with some substance to go with its style, Altered Carbon opens with an interesting and visually absorbing premiere.

All ten episodes of Altered Carbon season 1 are available to stream now on Netflix.

Film Review: ‘RoboCop’ 2014 (spoiler-free)

Starring:  Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish and Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by:  Jose Padilha / Written by: Joshua Zetumer (based on the 1987 RoboCop screenplay by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner) / 118 minutes

What’s it about?

Gravely injured, Detroit City Cop Alex Murphy is reborn as the future of law enforcement – the part man, part machine cyborg known as ‘Robocop’…

In review

It’s probably safe to say that you can count the number of worthy film remakes/reimagining’s (John Carpenter’s The Thing and Peter Jackson’s King Kong immediately spring to mind) on one hand.  It’s also just as safe to say that many hold Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop in high regard, endearing audiences of a certain generation with its cutting social satire, lashings of X-rated ultra-violence and an absorbing story about the loss of humanity and exploration of the soul – all set against the futuristic backdrop of a gritty crime-ridden city with a greedy decadent corporation holding the economical purse strings.

Sequels and television spin-offs have failed to capture the spark of the classic original and finally a new cinematic iteration of the Robocop franchise has emerged from the gates of development hell.  I approached this new version with caution yet was quietly optimistic that studio MGM would have a hit on their hands that would refresh the franchise without straying too far from its roots.

Sadly, 2014’s RoboCop fails to deliver on numerous fronts, although it does retain some of the elements that made the original great.  There’s an almost unhealthy dose of political satire and social commentary (mainly delivered via Samuel L. Jackson’s Media Break-esque vignettes peppered throughout) that certainly resonates and offers debate on issues of the times and of course the soul-searching exploration of Alex Murphy’s lost humanity as he comes to terms with his new ‘condition’.  However, heavy focus on the latter draws out the pacing and whilst there are still some meaty action sequences the film arguably suffers from its tame 12A (PG-13 in the U.S.) certification.  Unfortunately, Kinnaman seems to be the weakest link delivering a rather static and lifeless Murphy/Robocop (compared with Peter Weller’s understated yet nuanced performance in the original) and the script’s expansion of Murphy’s home life and family relationships are ultimately uninteresting and emotionally flat.

Crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) is also a fairly weak villain who lacks gravitas and undermines Murphy’s quest for vengeance against his attempted murderer.  Thankfully, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman and Samuel L. Jackson all turn in reliably great performances.

2014’s RoboCop is technically superior given the evolution of effects technology over the last 25 years, Murphy’s jet black Dark Knight style Robo-suit I thought to be a generally exciting (although the flip up/down at will visor a big mistake) update of the iconic shiny silvery blue original and the ability to tap into CCTV feeds a neat addition as well as Robo’s sleek new bike.  Albeit, Detroit City itself is far too clean, crisp and orderly, lacking the physical and social decay we’d expect (and thus providing a reason for the existence of a Robocop).

Director Padilha delivers some well-staged, pacey and frantic action sequences (including Murphy’s ‘training’ and the climactic showdown between Robo and a couple of ED-209’s) and it’s a real shame that there weren’t a few more to tighten the overall flow of the film.  As I’ve cited above, the script certainly attempts to capture the soul of the original RoboCop yet it feels empty and its riffs of those afore-mentioned elements of the original never quite hit the mark – a cheesy reworking of the RoboCop theme music and clumsily handled nods to the original notwithstanding.

The bottom line:  2014’s RoboCop more or less offers the same ingredients as the 1987 original but the recipe isn’t quite the same, more often than not leaving a sour taste in the mouth.  With a stronger central lead, a tighter script and a larger measure of action it could have been great – approach with caution!

RoboCop is in cinemas across the UK now and is released in theatres in the U.S. on 12th February.

What did you think of RoboCop?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!

The future of law-enforcement is given a cool visual  make-over in the remake of 'Robocop'...

The future of law-enforcement is given a cool visual make-over in the remake of ‘Robocop’…

Have Yourselves a GEEKY Little Christmas…

Hey folks!  With Christmas well and truly upon us, I thought I would drop you all a (fairly) quick note wishing you the very best for Christmas, the New Year and beyond!

I’d also like to thank you all for your support over the last few months and for taking the time to check out this little blog of mine.  I’m humbled and forever grateful and must apologise for the lack of updates over the recent weeks, stay tuned for some fresh geekery in the New Year (I’ll also do some catching up with your wonderful blogs).

2014 looks set to be (at least potentially) a phenomenal year for geek fandom, with some tantalising treats in store.  Prepare to empty your wallets and purses, declare bankruptcy and form orderly queues for the likes of highly anticipated big screen releases including Robocop (please be good), Godzilla (have you seen that trailer?), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (CANNOT wait for that), The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past (Stewart! McKellen! Jackman! McAvoy! Fassbender! Oh my!), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the first post-Bat offering from Christopher Nolan, Interstellar.

On the small screen we’ll have the continuation of current seasons of Arrow (and a pilot for the impending Flash series), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hopefully we’ll see some improvement) and RevolutionSherlock will live again and the time-hopping (profanity lacking) adventures of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor shall commence in Doctor Who.  Hopefully it won’t be too long until the UK television premiere of the J.J. Abrams produced, Karl Urban starring Almost Human which I’m hearing good things about and the next season of Under the Dome will intrigue without ‘jumping the shark’ (that first season finale was a little worrying) and Falling Skies will continue to excite.

Plus there’ll be ongoing geekery in the world of comic books and gaming as Sony and Microsoft plough ahead with the new generation (I’ve waited long enough, just give me Metal Gear Solid V now) but I’ll leave it there, come up for air and just sign off by saying wherever you are and whatever you do (hopefully playing on your PS4’s and X-Box One’s in between bites of turkey, sips of wine and viewings of many a Christmas classic), eat, drink, be merry and most of all – be safe!

See you in 2014…

Hopefully you won't catch this guy in the act on Christmas Eve...

Hopefully you won’t catch this guy in the act on Christmas Eve…