On this week’s episode we’re digging into some action movies with a sci-fi bent. The current era of action movies are known as all flash and no substance, shallow and mindless. But both of these films are thoughtful, they have things to say. It’s a shame we rarely get action movies like this anymore. Today’s films are:
Paul Verhoeven – RoboCop (1987)
James Cameron – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
These are both all-time classics from legendary directors. I’ve never covered either of these directors before, but I’m a fan of both, and of course, I’ve seen both of these films several times before.
Quick note before we start, I am not watching the theatrical version of either of these films today. For RoboCop, I am watching the unrated version that was released on Criterion Collection in 1998. For Terminator 2, I am watching the extended version from the Skynet Edition. For RoboCop, this means more violent scenes, and for Terminator 2, it means a few additional scenes that add to some characters, and one scene that makes the film actively worse. But we’ll talk about that later.
Let’s get into it.
RoboCop is set in a near future Detroit with the city on hard times. They have recently contracted a corporation, OCP to run their police force. Detroit is a city on the brink, filled with crime, and a beleaguered police force. OCP decides police robots are the wave of the future. But when their autonomous prototype goes bad, another plan is put into motion, to put a fallen police officer into a robot body. When Alex Murphy, a decorated police officer is killed in the line of duty, they set the plan in motion, creating RoboCop. How will the new robot police officer work out? And will OCP be able to control him?
The film is directed by Paul Verhoeven, and stars Peter Weller, Nancy Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox and Kurtwoood Smith. Peter Weller is wonderful as Alex Murphy turned robot. Nancy Smith isn’t as well known, but does a great job as Murphy’s police partner. Miguel Ferrer plays Bob Morton, an up and coming executive in OCP, whose main rival is Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones.
But let’s talk about Kurtwood Smith. Most people now know him as Red Foreman, the prickly father figure of That 70s Show. It’s a testament to how memorable that character was that it could possibly overshadow Clarence Boddicker, the crime lord of Detroit. Boddicker is ruthless, defiant, and having lots of fun murdering anyone he feels like. Violence is his default position, but he’s not a raging maniac, he’s fun, relaxed, and totally confident that he’s the strongest person in the room. Nothing can stop him. Side note, one of his gang members is played by Ray Wise, a few years before Twin Peaks made him more recognizable.
Verhoeven is a master of world-building, and this film is no exception. The film starts out with a news program, the anchors telling the viewers about how OCP has taken over the police department, and another story about how a military satellite misfired destroying Santa Barbara. We also see some advertisements, including one for a mechanical heart transplant. We see these news reports several times throughout the film, and they give us important background exposition in a shorthand way. We don’t have to have one of our regular characters stop the film and explain carefully the things we need to know.
They also tell us a lot about the world. The media gives superficial news from pretty people. There’s no hard hitting reports, no questioning. It’s easy for us to imagine that we’re not getting anything close to the whole story, and our suspicions are confirmed when we see how OCP operates behind closed doors.
Their board meeting is run by Dick Jones, who introduces their newest robot police officer ED-209. They plan to use it on the streets of Detroit, then get the military interested. However, the first test goes wrong, and one of the executives is killed.
This scene is telling because it shows us how OCP operates. When the man is brutally murdered by the robot, no one worries that they might be arrested, or face legal consequences, they’re just concerned that the project is being held back. When Morton sees his opportunity and get the CEO to approve his RoboCop idea, he leaves the meeting still unconcerned with the dead man, just thrilled that he was able to move up in the organization. We also learn that OCP has specifically moved the candidates they want for this project into dangerous areas in the hopes they might be killed.
This scene pairs nicely with the scene just before it, when we’re introduced to Alex Murphy. He has arrived in a dangerous precinct on his first day. The cops there are downtrodden, losing officers constantly on the street. They’re talking about striking while Murphy tries to get his bearings. Verhoeven doesn’t have a ton of screentime to humanize Murphy before his transformation, he’s only in a few scenes as fully human, but he manages it through the eyes of Lewis, his partner. Lewis has been in this precinct for awhile, and is a good cop. We see this in her first scene when she subdues a much larger male suspect.
The early scene between himself and Lewis give Murphy a few notable traits that will allow Lewis to identify him later. For example, he is trying to learn to spin his gun to impress his son. These scenes come to a head quickly, as Murphy and Lewis are called to chase down a group of bank robbers, Boddicker and his gang. After shooting it out on the highway, they track the gang to an abandoned steel mill. They call for backup, but are told none can come. They decide to go in.
Lewis is disabled, and Murphy has some initial success, but is caught by the rest of the gang. Rather than just killing him immediately, Boddicker tortures and mutilates Murphy, letting his gang taunt and torture him as well before killing him.
The violence in this film is horrifying and uncompromising. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. When Verhoeven shows Murphy being riddled with bullets, or losing body parts, he’s not saying “Look at how great this is.” He’s saying “Look at how awful this is.” He’s confronting us with these scenes of violence, and subverting over the top action movie violence. Action films today, particularly comic book films, bend over backwards to avoid the implication that anyone is dying, and blood is strictly forbidden. This gives a romanticized view of violence that I don’t think is healthy at all. Violence should not be portrayed as fun or exciting. Verhoeven shows the violence for what it is. By making the violence so raw and intense, he’s showing the horror inherent in any act of violence. And by putting it in the guise of an action movie, he’s sneaking this message in to the exact people who need to see it most.
We then get an extended montage of Murphy’s transformation, told from his perspective. We see the technicians building him, adding technology, and making decisions. Morton appears here, staying on brand, demanding the technicians remove the left arm they had managed to save. For Morton, Murphy isn’t a human any longer, he’s simply property to be exploited for Morton’s gain.
Since we see things from Murphy’s perspective, we also get a taste of the interface from his perspective. This kind of view was likely originated by WestWorld from the 70s, then further updated by The Terminator, and in modern day, it’s seen a lot in comic book films like IronMan. And of course, our second film today shows them extensively. It’s an interesting way to show the audience what this cold, unfeeling robot might be thinking or experiencing. Occasionally, they’re just decoration. Here, they give us important information, and even add some mystery via plot points. For example, when RoboCop is first introduced, we see his Prime Directives appear on the screen. There are three listed, then a 4th, which is classified. Of course, this comes up later in the film.
And the introduction of RoboCop is masterful. While he is being built, we see everything from his perspective, we never see what he looks like until he is ready for duty. Even then, we see his entourage appear before he does. We first see him behind frosted glass and hear him walking, a heavy thumping that we hear. The cops in the precinct crowd around him, blocking our view. We see him from the back, peeking over the heads of crowds, until finally we get a clear view of him. In a modern film, we might have a major reveal, but Verhoeven goes a bit subtler. We still get the good close looks at the costume that we expect, but it’s not as big as it would become in later years. And that’s ok. Verhoeven keeps the focus on the cops who are reacting to this character rather than on RoboCop, who at this point, is mostly an empty shell, rather than a character.
As the film goes on, RoboCop begins to remember who he is, regaining his memories slowly. Lewis notices the robot spinning his gun and begins to help him remember. This kicks into high gear when Murphy encounters one of the criminals who participated in his murder. Weller plays the robot very well. He does this thing where he leads with his head. He’ll be walking in a direction, but before he turns, he’ll turn his head first, and then his whole body will follow. It feels very unnatural, and is a nice touch.
The plot continues on, focusing on RoboCop fixing crimes, mostly by punching them, and then getting tracking down the criminals who killed him. The cop that comes back from the dead for some reason to avenge his own death is something that comes up sometimes in B-movies. It would have been easy for this film to devolve into B-movie satire. But Verhoeven has something to say. The film is actually about corruption and greed, and the danger of abdicating government responsibility to corporations as a way to save money.
We see this play out in the rivalry between Dick Jones and Morton, with Jones hiring Boddicker as an assassin to kill Morton. When RoboCop catches up with Boddicker on an unrelated crime, Boddicker spills his guts, thinking that RoboCop won’t be able to harm him. But Jones knows that RoboCop’s memory can be accepted as evidence in court. So he sends Boddicker to kill RoboCop. This leads to the final confrontation that is very satisfying, and maintains the audience expectations of an action movie.
Robocop is one of the most interesting action movies of it’s era. It embraced the ethos of the over the top action movies of the time, but also commented on it. At the time, it was decried for it’s terrible violence, but most people didn’t understand the message. I think looking at it now that message is a lot clearer and the film is more powerful.
In addition, it essentially predicted the government abdication of responsibility, letting private corporations take on prisons and hospitals, and all of the problems that come with that practice. And of course, in the late 80’s, no one could have predicted the decline of Detroit. And while Verhoeven’s version of Detroit is a bit more extreme than the real Detroit in 2018, it could get there.
It’s a pretty harsh indictment of the modern era of film that there is a remake of this film made just a few years ago that had no idea what to do with the issues this film tackles head on. The remake is so forgettable that I actually watched 10 minutes of it a second time before remembering that I’d already seen it.
That makes RoboCop one of the most interesting films ever made, and one worth revisiting as the years go on.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2 begins about 10 years after the events of the first film. Sarah Connor, the heroine of the first film, is in a mental institution, no one believing her that she was telling the truth. In the future, Skynet has sent back another Terminator to kill the young John Connor, before he becomes the resistance leader after the robots take over. In the present day, John is in foster care, not believing the future his mother has told him of. However this time, John has been able to send back a protector, another Terminator. Which will get to him first, and will his protector be able to keep him alive?
The film is directed by James Cameron and stars Linda Hamilton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, reprising their roles from the first film. Also in the cast this time are Edward Furlong, playing the young John Connor, and Robert Patrick, playing the evil Terminator.
The structure of the film is set up beautifully, and mirrors the first film in a lot of ways. First of all, we aren’t told initially who is looking to kill John Connor, and who is looking to protect him. Just like the first film, when we just see two people looking for Sarah Connor, we’re not sure who to trust. Now of course, the marketing has told us who the hero and villain are, but without that, the film doesn’t make it clear. The introduction of both Terminators is fairly brutal, with Arnold the T101 brutalizing a biker for his clothes and bike, and Robert Patrick as the T1000, killing (or at least injuring) a police officer for his clothes.
We John as a young boy. The film suggests he’s 10 years old, but the character always read as a little bit older to me, maybe 13-14. Regardless, his childhood has clearly not treated him well. He’s in foster care, estranged from his mother, assuming she’s insane, hating her for putting him through so much pain and filling his head with what he assumes are lies. He hates his foster parents, and makes it a point to not listen to them, using the survival skills he learned to hack ATMs to steal money.
Meanwhile, we see what Sarah Connor is going through. She is treated as a psychotic, and it’s not hard to understand why. She rants and raves, screaming at everyone that the end of the world is coming. She sounds like a crazy person.
Let’s talk about Linda Hamilton for a bit. Schwarzenegger is basically playing the same character as he was in the first film, just with more emotions to work with. But Hamilton is playing a completely different character entirely. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is a fresh-faced girl, looking for something fun to do on a Friday night, working in a diner. But in the second film, she’s embodying the spirit of the resistance fighter that she’s been told her son will become. She has been teaching him how to fight, work with guns, survive in a post-apocalyptic world. She has totally bought into her role in the future, and she will sacrifice anything to make John into the leader he has to become.
Her transformation from the first film to the second film is startling, and fascinating, making her one of the most interesting, yet frustrating characters in the film. In this version of the film, there’s even a scene where she dreams about the nuclear war starting, she watches a playground screaming at them to take cover, but no one pays attention. She sees herself as a younger woman playing with a young John, imagining the life that was taken away from her by fate. The bombs explode, burning them all.
This film is one of the few sequels that is truly better than the original. The first film was interesting, and clearly made by a talented filmmaker, but it was a low budget, and could have easily veered into b-movie territory. But Terminator 2 has a polish that the first just couldn’t achieve. The characters are better realized, more rounded, and the action scenes are more impressive, with higher stakes. But there are also a lot of parallels between the two. Cameron is almost remaking the first film with better resources, while still creating a compelling sequel.
The film essentially works as a long chase scene, with various moments to rest and give the audience a break. Initially, it’s a race between the two Terminators to find John Connor. Like the first film, they both reach him at the same time. From there, it’s a chase, John gets away, and is rescued by the T101 while being chased by the T1000. They then go to attempt to rescue Sarah Connor, with John realizing that she’s been telling the truth this entire time. Of course, the T1000 is in lockstep with their moves at every turn.
Edward Furlong plays John Connor, and he’s excellent in the film. Cameron has a way of directing child actors, which we’ve seen in Aliens. The dynamics between John and the Terminator and John and Sarah are fascinating. With the Terminator, he starts out mistrustful, then realizes that the T101 must follow his orders, turns into a bit of a mini-king, ordering him to do his bidding, but when he sees how far the Terminator will go in response to a command, learns a harsh lesson in power. From here, he treats the Terminator as both father figure and little brother. Someone he can count on, but at the same time someone he needs to help make his way in the world. He confides in the Terminator about problems in his life, and also tries to teach him to be more human, leading to both heartfelt and funny scenes.
With his mother, John tries to be a son. He desperately wants her approval and pride, but she sees him as both helpless child, and unrealized leader. She criticizes him for taking a risk to save her, scolding him, and embracing him only to ensure that he hasn’t been injured. John is clearly lacking the motherly love that many children receive. As he spends more time with her, he begins to see her as someone that he should be protecting, thereby making him more of the leader he is destined to be.
Robert Patrick as the T1000 is great. It would have been easy to just do an impression of Schwarzeneggers movements and mannerisms as the Terminator, but Patrick makes it his own. His run in particular is unnerving and threatening.
After Sarah is rescued, the film changes focus from the T-1000 as the villain to a new foe, Miles Dyson, who built the chips which made Skynet possible. Sarah becomes obsessed with killing him, thus destroying Skynet before it is even created. Miles is played by Joe Morton, in probably his most recognizable role, although he’s been in a ton of movies, one of my favorites being John Sayles Brother From Another Planet. But Miles isn’t the cackling villain Sarah is looking for, he’s an engineer with a wife and two kids, just working at a job trying to create something spectacular. His company Cyberdyne, has managed to salvage the Terminator from the first film that Sarah Connor crushed in an industrial press, and all of Dyson’s work is built on that.
The film does a really interesting thing with Sarah Connor here. As things settle down, she begins to ask the Terminator for information, she wants to know everything about Dyson, where he lives, what he looks like, everything. When Sarah goes off on her own to kill him, she becomes a Terminator herself. Her only purpose is to kill, and she believes she will stop at nothing to complete her mission.
But as Sarah faces Dyson herself, and sees his wife and son begging for his life, she can’t do it. She reengages with her humanity in that moment. Also interesting here, John is the character that knows she shouldn’t be killing Dyson even if it might ultimately save lives.
John takes a different tactic. He tells Dyson the future, proving it in one of the movies most shocking scenes, having the T101 take the skin off his arm, revealing his metal skeleton underneath. Dyson recognizes it as the arm that is in his lab, and agrees to help them destroy his work.
This sets the plot in motion to the final climaxes, with their attempt to destroy the lab at Cyberdyne, and find some way to kill the T1000 which will hunt them as long as it is functional.
Let’s talk briefly about the effects in the film. This film was an early example of computer graphics in a film, mainly for the T1000’s liquid metal form, and it generally works. One advantage is that the silvery material that is the T1000s natural state is something of a strength of 3D graphics, and the ability to morph and reshape 3D models helped a lot as well. It’s not quite as impressive as it was in 1991, when it was revolutionary, but it still holds up well. The model work is still pretty great, although the stunt performers are a bit too obvious, and there are a few scenes when it’s clear an actor’s head has been replaced with a model. It’s not a problem, but something to note.
Between this film and Die Hard, I’m hard pressed to choose one as my favorite action film of all-time. I think I lean toward T2, mainly because the degree of difficulty in creating a film that works as a sequel and a standalone product is almost impossible, and Cameron does it beautifully here. Although Die Hard essentially created a genre, so it’s no slouch either.
We also have to recognize that James Cameron is one of the greatest directors of all-time. He just has a knack for taking these incredibly complex stories, and making them crowd pleasers. I think in some of his more recent work, some of his methods have become a little clearer, reducing their impact, but it’s always worth sitting down to one of his films, it’s going to be an enjoyable experience.
As it stands, Terminator 2 is another of the most interesting action films ever made, that doesn’t just use it’s characters as props to get to the next action scene, but really examines them in their space, and honestly portrays them.
The Double Feature
Seeing both of these films together just highlighted how great action films used to be. Action movies have devolved into formulaic garbage 90% of the time. There are a couple of comic book movies that have done a little work rebuilding the genre, but it’s almost impossible for me to watch an action movie released now. I still watch them sometimes, but I almost never find it worthwhile.
People seem to have this impressing that big budget films have to be shallow and terrible, but these two films show that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make interesting, deep films that also have explosions. It’s a shame we rarely get those films anymore.
Things are rolling along. I’m starting to look for summer internships. It would be nice to get paid this summer, as my PhD program doesn’t actually cover me for the summer. It’s interesting, because I’ve been doing design for quite awhile now. It’s been 5 years since I started my Master’s degree in interaction design, and 3 since I earned it. But I’ve never been hired as an interaction designer. It creates this tension for me, where I feel strongly that I have good design skills, but without the validation and trust of a paycheck, it feels like I might not have much to offer at all. But that’s probably not true.
So what about next week’s films. It will be my 50th post, and I could do some all-time classics, maybe my favorite films of all-time, or pull something off the AFI’s list, or the Sight and Sound list, but instead, I’m going to do something else. Next week’s films are:
Scott Sanders – Black Dynamite (2009)
Dean Parisot – Galaxy Quest (1999)
That’s right, we’re going straight into parodies. But because it’s the 50th post, it will be some of the greatest parodies of all time.
See you then.