The Last Sci-Fi Blog: "Kaaaaaahn!" and "Eeeeeender!" and "Teeeeeeeerminator!"

The Last Sci-Fi Blog: "Kaaaaaahn!" and "Eeeeeender!" and "Teeeeeeeerminator!"

Dec 09, 2011

The Sci-Fi News: Starship Troopers is Being Remade, Transformers 4 Nuggets and Other Things That Will Make You Go "Blergh!"

I'm hesitant to call Transformers science fiction, but if I'm allowed to write about giant robots I do like, I should do the responsible thing and write about the giant robots I despise with every fiber of my being. Anyway, it's not surprising that Paramount wants a fourth Transformers film because the first three made them approximately one hundred kazillion bucks, but Michael Bay is playing hard to get, refusing to commit to the next film until he's finished Pain and Gain, his "passion project" that features zero robots punching skyscrapers. However, Paramount likes Bay and wants to stay in the Robots Punching Skyscrapers business with him. Expect a lot of money to change hands and expect Bay to sign on a dotted line sooner rather than later.

In news that is somehow more upsetting than the thought of fourth 150 minute migraine re-enactment, producer Neal Moritz is looking to remake Starship Troopers. Since Moritz is the mind behind films like XXX, The Fast and the Furious and Battle: Lost Angeles, we can be sure that the sharp, vicious satire of Paul Verhoeven's original masterpiece -- yes, I used the "m" word -- will be missing from this version. Robert Heinlein's original novel was a more straightforward science fiction war story, so expect something along those lines. Except dumber. Much, much dumber.

Now, let's take a step away from the brain-smashing negativity of those pieces and note that young Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld (of True Grit fame) may be joining the cast of Gavin Hood's Ender's Game adaptation. The role? Petra Arkanian, the girl who befriends young Ender Wiggin at Battle School and eventually becomes one of his chief allies as they train to combat the alien menace threatening Earth. Hood's track record remains spotty, but with Asa Butterfield, Steinfeld and a rumored Harrison Ford joining the cast, at least we know he has an eye for talent.

The Sci-Fi Debate: The Best Terminator Film

This is normally the spot in The Last Sci-Fi Blog where I'd review a new release, but late 2011 has not been kind to science fiction fans. While there have been plenty of terrific movies hitting theaters, very few have dealt with speculative concepts concerning the future of the human condition. Heck, even fewer have dealt with robots that go boom and shoot lasers. These are dark times, ladies and gents.

However, the show must go on! Instead of the typical review, let's have a little conversation. I'm going to tell you why The Terminator is a better film than Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Your job will be to agree whole-heartedly with me. I will not accept any opposition to these scientifically proven opinions, thank you very much.

For a number of years -- namely the ages ending in "teen" -- Terminator 2 was one of my favorite films of all time, an intense science fiction action film filled with smart writing and a powerful message about trust, family and the importance of averting nuclear war through time travel. I'm a little older and a little wiser and Terminator 2 is still one helluva motion picture, but when you compare it directly to its predecessor, there's no contest: The Terminator is the better film.

There's a pretty simple explanation as to why. When James Cameron made the first film, he had something to prove. He was young, hungry and ready to escape from being the guy who made Piranha 2: The Spawning. Working on a small budget, Cameron had to think on his feet and fight to make The Terminator happen. This struggle can clearly be seen in the finished product. This is a dirty, nasty  and intimate little movie that takes a huge concept (time traveling robots!) and boils it down to the raw essentials. This is not a movie about big action scenes, massive explosions and stirring messages. This is a movie about the sheer terror of being pursued by something that wants you dead and can't be killed.

Unlike the other films in the series, The Terminator is scary. After its first act, it becomes 90 minutes of close-calls and heart-stopping struggles. Cameron never lets you breath, he never lets up and he's not afraid of collateral damage. The goody-two-shoes Terminator in the sequel has managed to grab a bigger piece of the pop culture pie, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is a stronger presence here, playing what is essentially a cybernetic slasher villain. The Terminator is the science fiction version Michael Myers from the Halloween films. He has a mission, he sticks to it, and he'll kill anyone who gets in his way without a shred of remorse. He looks like a human, but there is no soul in there. He doesn't stop. He'll never stop.

Contrast him with the sequel's Terminator, who is downright cuddly. The T-1000 is a nice attempt to capture the horror of the original's villain, but he doesn't seem like a real threat when our heroes have their own robot bodyguard played by Schwarzenegger. If Schwarzenegger wants you dead, you roll over and die (or explode). Nothing stands in his way. If Schwarzenegger wants to protect you, you'll be fine. His missions never fail. Schwarzenegger has played heroes (and won the day without breaking a sweat) so often, that you can watch Terminator 2 and know that he'll win the day in the name of all that's Good and Happy. In The Terminator…well…how do you kill Arnold Schwarzenegger?

There is one other major, vitally important difference between the two films that must be noted. While Terminator 2 is a glossy, populist blockbuster, The Terminator is a b-movie. It's not just low budget, it's not just a small film, it's a b-project, belonging in the same bin as cheap 1950s sci-fi flicks and 1970s Italian post-apocalyptic rip-offs. And that is not a bad thing.

With such a large price tag and a star who had transformed himself into a role model, Terminator 2 couldn't afford to take risks. It had to play it safe. It had to be at least somewhat morally responsible. A decade of success also meant that James Cameron felt the need to inject the film with a heavy-handed anti-war message (which is not the kind of thing that needs to be slapped upside my head in the middle of a movie that is otherwise about things blowing up).

On the other hand, The Terminator has no responsibilities. It doesn't owe anyone anything. It exists as a nasty, gruesome, irresponsibly violent piece of work. It's in your face. It makes you want to take a shower. It's not afraid to get down and ditty and shock you. Without the reputation of a studio on the line and a massive budget to worry about, The Terminator is the best kind of b-movie. It's sleazy pulp, but it's sleazy pulp with a pulse.

The Terminator is a b-movie in the same way that early Samuel Fuller films were b-movies: it's so good that you don't notice the rough edges. You just accept it. You just get sucked in.


I wish I knew why JJ Abrams and company want to make Kahn the villain in Star Trek 2.

The first film did the impossible: it rebooted a beloved (and overly complicated) universe and did it with enough style and directorial grace to make us ignore the seriously lunkheaded screenplay. All baggage was gone: the Trek universe was completely open and the new crew could boldly go wherever they damn well pleased.

So why go back to Kahn, a villain who was so iconically portrayed Ricardo Montalban in the original original Star Trek II (this could get confusing)? The main reason Kahn was such a great adversary for Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise was his history: he was stranded on a planet for decades, where all he could do was plot his revenge, seethe and go a little nuts. And then he nearly destroys the Enterprise. And then he KILLS SPOCK. People remember Kahn because he really, really screwed things up for everyone. He's the rare franchise villain who actually made a true impact on the universe he inhabited.

What can be done with a Kahn who doesn't have this history? Abrams could revisit his original incarnation as seen in the "Space Seed" episode of the original series, but it's obvious that they're going for Kahn because people know his name. Without his history, without that continuity baggage, Kahn could very well be just another standard villain (possibly played by Edgar Ramirez since Benicio Del Toro dropped out).

In other news, Peter "RoboCop/Buckaroo Banzai" Weller has joined Star Trek 2 as a secondary villain, who is being described as a CEO. That's a little baffling since the post-Starfleet Earth doesn't have a standard economy (and no actual corporations), but hey…Peter Weller! Who doesn't love Peter Weller?

On the DVD front, December sees two major science fiction films hitting DVD. Of course, by "major," I mean "recent." The first of them is Cowboys and Aliens, which hit shelves on the 6th. When this project was first announced, it instantly became my must-see movie of 2011. Then the buzz arrived, the toxin set in and I still haven't seen it. I think I'll snatch it from my local Redbox and hope for a passable two hours.

On the other hand, I know for a fact that I'll be picking up Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it arrives on the 13th. Unlike Cowboys and Aliens, I was dreading this film, convinced that it was little more than a bad joke, a movie that would just be an embarrassing chore. Also unlike Cowboys and Aliens, the early buzz was ecstatic and Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved to be the best mainstream release of the summer, mainly thanks to an incredible performance from Andy Serkis as Caesar, the hyper intelligent ape whose descendants would do all kinds of nasty things to Charlton Heston.

Categories: Features, Sci-Fi
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