Have audiences moved beyond the Terminator?

The Guardian examines why Terminator Salvation received such a critical bashing. In an interesting article, David Cox suggests that the threat of cyborg invasion has been watered down significantly since Arnold Schwarznegger’s T-800 blasted onto cinema screens back in 1984.

When you consider the intervening 25 years have bled stories of artificial intelligence and post-apocalyptic human slavery dry – check The Matrix, I, Robot and many, many more – perhaps the one thing the Terminator is vulnerable to is the jaded cinemagoer.

Perhaps the most important point Cox makes is that movies became flooded with knock-offs and variations on the same theme. The franchise itself is responsible for four movies now and a television series that ran for two seasons. When you factor in the amount of attempts on John Connor’s life, SkyNet seems to be spectacularly inept. I think particularly with the Sarah Connor Chronicles, the time travel that was such a feature of the first couple of movies had become common as muck – teleporting across time was almost like catching a bus. Resistance fighters were regularly being sent back on missions.

A quarter of a century ago, when The Terminator hit the screen, things were a bit different. Then, advances in computing were a disquieting novelty to many. Hal’s terrifying takeover of the Discovery still haunted cinemagoers’ imaginations from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a time for murderous cyborgs. Now, however, we take artificial intelligence for granted. It’s become humdrum rather than chilling.

Future global conflict was an all too real prospect in the era of the cold war. Post-apocalyptic, Mad Max worlds, like the one in which Terminator Salvation is set, were far from fantastical for a generation living in genuine terror of imminent nuclear holocaust. Today, our fears lie elsewhere.

The other aspect that this new Terminator movie fails on is that it brings us into the Terminator’s world for the first time ever. The threat of the movies was most accute when the nuclear holocaust was on the horizon and the Connors were fighting to avert it. The grim, post-apocalyptic scenarios get wearing after a while, and even a victorious humanity would have centuries of rebuilding to get back to our previous levels of accomplishment.

In all, Cox makes some great points about the general malaise with science fiction franchises. Big budgets, elaborate special effects and unimaginative sequels are spelling the end for this genre of movie.

Explosions are, of course, a large part of the problem. Action, effects and CGI spectacle have been allowed to squeeze out ideas. Geeks and popcorn-munchers may not have minded, but the reception of Terminator Salvation suggests that others may now be minding rather a lot.

New technical opportunities are often a mixed blessing. Some of the cheaply made sci-fi B movies of the 1950s may still hold lessons for the over-endowed movie-makers of today. One might be that science fiction needs more than whizz-bangery to succeed. This shouldn’t be a surprising message. Action tends to be most effective when it clashes with the constraints of the real world. The terminators’ near-invulnerability saps interest in their onslaughts.

Read David Cox’s article here.

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