Thursday, 13 November 2008

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Lowdown: The ever greatest action movie.
Terminator 2, or T2, is by far the most historically important film ever. One can argue that with the exception of The Empire Strikes Back there are no other historically important films to talk about. The history I’m talking about here is my own personal history, of course. Isn't that all that matters in the first place?
In order to explain myself I will let the stats do the talking:
- I have watched T2 an estimated 80 times. Nothing else comes even halfway. Granted, most of those 80 were not start to finish viewings, but still…
- I have owned T2 in four different versions: The original laserdisc twice (the first got destroyed by a malfunctioning player), the special edition laserdisc, and the ultimate DVD edition.
- Back in the early nineties, after reading articles about home theater in general and T2's performance there in particular, I set out to spend the little money I’ve had as a soldier on assembling my own home theater mostly so I could watch T2 the way it should be watched. It took about 8 years for my audiophile passion to start subsiding with the realization there is no end to this pursuit; you could say T2 has earned me a nice lesson on the meaning of happiness.
- T2 has even made me buy a pair of Persol sunglasses. The model name was Schwarzenegger, and at the time they had a cool new design that was very imitated since with round curved lenses.
With all that has happened, I still remember the first time I watched T2. It was 1991, I was on weekend army leave, I was very tired, but it was the only opportunity I have had so I met Moshe Tandlich (with whom, I am sorry to say, I have lost touch since) and we watched it together sitting on the first row of Chen 1 cinema. It felt like I needed a new neck afterwards, but it was an awesome experience.
The key thing about that particular experience and the way T2 was meant to be experienced in the first place is to do with something we all take for granted now; but we only take it for granted because T2 was a damn good film, a sequel that demonstrated that sequels can be better than their prequels even if the plot and the formula are generally the same. That key thing I’m talking about is the positioning of the previously evil terminator as the goodie that saves the day, while the seemingly innocent and policeman like dressed counterpart turns out to be a particularly nasty and an unimaginably capable evil terminator.
As T2 starts, it tries its best to convince us Arnie’s bad. He ruins a game of pool for a bunch of bikers, fries one of them on the stove, and steals his bike. A Harley Davidson at that! Shot from below and wearing motorcycle attire, no helmet and cool sunglasses, Arnold’s terminator is indeed bad to the bone. The evil terminator, on the other hand, is rather skinny and seemingly polite; you only hear a hint of him hitting someone. That is, until he has John Connor up his sights.
Once the two terminators collide with Connor in between, T2’s handling of its adverse terminators changes. Schwarzenegger is shot more and more from above and in warmer light while he is learning to be more human, smiling and all. His counterpart, on the other hand, goes through a role reversal that renders him dark and nasty.
In between, we have ourselves a fast flowing action film with some of the best action scenes ever. Unlike most of today’s action crop, T2 doesn’t resort to jerky camera movement; you see it all and see it pretty clearly, allowing you to marvel at the shots. Indeed, there is a lot to marvel at: the attention to details is just amazing. Take, for example, Arnold firing a grenade at a car; you don’t just see an explosion, you see the car’s window breaking with a small round hole at its center and then you see the car explode. Not only that, it’s imaginative but not stupidly so; Arnold’s casualty count is 0.0, the shape shifting evil terminator doesn’t turn around but shape shifts his front to his back, etc. If that’s not good enough for you, take the way he hijacks a helicopter instead. Yes, T2 was one of those first films to visibly use CGI, but unlike more contemporary films CGI doesn't outlive its welcome. It is clear that a lot of money has been poured to make T2 run so smoothly, but at least it is also clear by the results that money was well spent.
Praises aside, T2 suffers from several inconsistencies, some of which are addressed by the special edition (for example, Arnie’s very crooked smile, as in – why does he smile when he picks up a Vulcan chain gun?). There is also an obvious point to be made that by just a slight bit of running the evil terminator could have killed John Connor some ten times during the film, yet for all of his processing power he chose not to do so (and gave us more than two hours of pure joy for that).
Traditionally, acting has been pointed to as T2’s weak spot. Edward Furlong’s John Connor is, indeed, weak; but I argue the rest of the cast fits perfectly to their roles. Schwarzenegger was never an actor, really, but it is his inability to act that renders him the perfect robot; and Linda Hamilton is so effective as Sarah Connor you never recall seeing her anywhere else (sadly, not even in the new Sarah Connor Chronicles series).
Overall, T2 is an action masterpiece by a director at his peak, James Cameron. It works hard to look cool, and, indeed, I cannot think of a film that rocks as much as this one. The only thing that comes close is The Matrix, but while that may be a good film it is not half as funny as T2 is (and T2 has a lot of funny moments in it), not as cool, not as original, and definitely not as well made. The Matrix is bantha fodder.
Best scene: With T2 you’re really spoilt for choice. My personal pick would be the truck/bike chase through LA’s canals, which was my regular home theater demo piece for years (till I got myself a life).
Picture quality:
Unlike the laserdisc, the DVD sports a rather grainy look. It could be the age of the master, but it’s more likely to do with T2 being shot in the Super 35 format with the DVD being a more capable platform for showing off the problem of that format.
Okay, you ask: tell us what this Super 35 thing is?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. Most films are shot on squarish 35mm film stock that looks not much unlike the old camera film of yonder. In order to generate scope wide films out of the squarish film, most directors that opt for scope wide production utilize an anamorphic lens that compresses the scope wide picture into the square shaped film; a similar but opposite lens is applied when the film is projected in order to decompress it.
Super 35 is different: It truncates the top and the bottom of the squarish film in order to utilize just a thin strip in the middle. That thin strip is in a wide scope ratio. The disadvantages of working this way is that you lose a lot of resolution: that thin strip of film is not as capable of storing as much information as the full height of film. However, there are also advantages: most notably, you don’t need sophisticated lenses so you save some money, and you don’t need as much lighting so you save some money.
In T2’s case, however, the motivation for using Super 35 was different. When setting T2 up, James Cameron realized the film will be viewed on very wide cinema screens but very squarish TVs at people’s homes. Even today’s widescreen TVs are squarish compared to a scope cinema screen (1.78:1 vs. 2.35:1). In order to fit wide films on TVs before the age of the DVD, films used to have their sides chopped off in a process called Pan & Scan so they would fill up an entire square screen. The price you had to pay was the loss of almost 50% of the overall picture, and with it the loss of the composition the way the director intended it to be.
Cameron came up with a plan to protect his vision. He figured out that T2 is going to spend just a few months of its life at the cinemas and the rest of its life in video, so he compromised with Super 35's picture quality in order to be able to fill up the video at home with height information. That is, the film you watch at home on your square screen may actually contain more information than the one you've watched at the cinema, because while the cinematic version uses just the thin strip at the middle of the film the home version can use the entire film by using the space above and below that thin strip. Pure genius!
Of course, it comes at a price: sets and lighting and all have to be prepared for a much larger area, which means production costs are significantly increased.
When all is said and done, one has to admire Cameron's dedication to quality.
Sound quality:
The vast majority of the occasions I got to watch T2 were on laserdiscs sporting a Dolby Surround soundtrack, a soundtrack famous at its time for being the best (until it got eclipsed by others through time). However, T2 was famous for being one of the first films ever to feature a digital soundtrack. Indeed, the T2 DVD version I own sports a DTS soundtrack, which, with significantly higher bandwidth than the DVD default of Dolby Digital soundtracks, has the potential to provide a more transparent soundtrack.
A comparison between the analog version I remember and the digital one should have been a clear winner for the digital one given its clearly separated 5.1 channels. However, I cannot say that this turned out to be the case here. The old Dolby Surround T2 soundtrack was extremely aggressive and visceral, so much so that I used to make so many people jump at that skull being crashed in the opening scene I probably deserve a hospital wing dealing with heart failure named after me. The new digital version, however, tries to work on atmosphere instead; gone is that in your face feeling, which, frankly, I think is much more suitable for a film like T2.
Overall: T2 is the exact definition of a film that breaks all familiar grounds. 6 out of 5 stars and my vote as for most entertaining film ever.


wile.e.coyote said...

well, you can always keep that connection and a good clean mouth

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thank you very much!