Plus, what went wrong with the 'Terminator' franchise?
This week, the mailbag runneth over. So first of all, thanks to all of the readers who have taken the time to submit questions and helped turn this little Ask the Critic experiment into a franchise that I hope becomes more Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man than Marc Webb’s Spider-Man. And speaking of sequel properties that have become watered down husks of their original incarnations, this week’s batch of inquiries kicks off with one about the Terminator saga, followed up by some more general questions about Dustin Hoffman’s recent rant against studio moviemaking that lit up the internet and a fun little Oscar What-If game. So let’s get to it…
“Where do you think the Terminator franchise went wrong? Was it even good to begin with?” —@iamkimmi12
Kimmi, let’s take the second part first because that’s a softball question: Yes, the Terminator franchise was good. Very, very good. So good in fact that they managed to turn a wooden Austrian bodybuilder (nicknamed the Austrian Oak one imagines not only for his physique, but also his acting style) into the biggest box-office star on the planet. I was 15 when the original Terminator came out in 1984, so it’s hard for me to imagine it through the eyes of someone younger who could have first watched it out of the context of its time. (It’s not unlike the incredulity I feel when I hear people call Ridley Scott’s Alien “slow” now). So I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it that the original Terminator truly was revolutionary and thrilling and new and cerebral when it came out. The combination of its pretzel-logic time travel narrative, Ahnuld’s leather-clad badass T-800, and James Cameron’s emergence as a fully-formed action maestro out of the gate (the less said about his true debut in 1981’s aborted Piranha 2: The Spawning, the better) signaled the birth of a new kind of cinema. Alongside The Road Warrior, it marked the beginning of heavy-metal sci-fi action flick — a subgenre that had a glorious (to me, at least) run with RoboCop, Aliens, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and eventually The Matrix.
Seven years after the original, Cameron’s 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, fulfilled the “I’ll be back” promise and took everything that made the first Terminator awesome and jacked it up on steroids. It turned Schwarzenegger into a good guy, tarted up its demolition-derby story with sugar-shock special f/x (Robert Patrick’s liquid-metal T-1000), and added a feminist twist thanks to Linda Hamilton’s newly ripped Sarah Connor. The former waitress with the burden of carrying on the human race had now hardened into an icy avenger with a thousand-yard stare and biceps torn from the pages of a Joe Weider catalog. There are very few movies that I can remember not only the day I saw them, but where I saw them. I saw Judgment Day on July 3, 1991 at the McClurg Court Theater in Chicago. And I’ll never forget it. So yes, Kimmi, the Terminator movies were very, very good indeed.
The second part of your question is tougher to answer. But only slightly. The Terminator franchise went wrong the moment that Cameron moved on. Kind of like those James Bond novels not penned by Ian Fleming that they keep cranking out, the Terminator movies sans their creator were pale imitations. Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines from 2003 was the first crime against the franchise. Granted, it was a misdemeanor (the felony would come later with McG). But still, it was a crushing disappointment, especially when you consider that Mostow seemed like he might have even been the right guy for the gig. (If you haven’t seen his 1997 Kurt Russell sleeper Breakdown, rent it, stat!) Sadly, the movie is a mess and the cast (Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken) is a million different kinds of wrong.
McG’s Terminator Salvation was even worse. The world of the Terminator just felt off. Not only was there no (non-CG) Schwarzenegger for the first time, the entire project felt pointless. It wasn’t smart, there was no joy, it’s only reason for being was to make money — and it didn’t really even do that. Honestly, you have to go back to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to find a film where Christian Bale was so lost without a map. As for Terminator Genisys, well, you can read my review here.
“What do you think of this Dustin Hoffman brouhaha?” — @jilltataraworld
For those of you unfamiliar with said brouhaha, a quick primer: On July 3, The Independent ran an interview with Dustin Hoffman in which the two-time Academy Award winner had some critical things to say about the current state of the film industry, in particular about the major Hollywood studios. “I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been,” he said, “and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been — in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.”
In other words, he was basically saying: “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And you know what, he’s right, especially when you consider the decade that Hoffman cut his chops in — roughly 1967 to 1977, the era of New Hollywood when directors gained enormous power, made some timeless films with remarkably downbeat endings, and naturalistic performances by actors who didn’t necessarily look like movie stars. People like, for instance, Dustin Hoffman. In that 10-year span alone, Hoffman starred in The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Lenny, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and if you want to stretch it a couple of years longer, toss in Straight Time and Kramer Vs. Kramer. That’s a pretty nice run. And it wasn’t just him. Look at Jack Nicholson’s filmography from that time. It makes your head spin. There’s also Redford, De Niro, Duvall, Newman, Burstyn, Dunaway, Diane Keaton… the list goes on. But for some reason, Hoffman’s statement of the obvious spun the Twitterverse into a tizzy, as if Hoffman had become Abe Simpson screaming at the clouds and telling the kids to get off his lawn.
Look, there are plenty of great movies being made by the Hollywood studios in 2015. As a critic, I have absolutely no problem finding enough movies to fill out my year-end Top 10 list. It’s just that when you go a bit deeper, the cupboard starts to get a little bare. Do I think the bygone time that Hoffman pines for were the good old days? You’re damn right, I do. Do I think there’s a bit of ageism involved in this shut-up-old-man tempest? Yep. I’m pro-Hoffman all the way on this one.
“My friends play this Oscar game where the only point is to suggest Oscar winners who should be able to swap their statuette for one rewarding another, better performance/work. For instance, Al Pacino has an Oscar for Scent of a Woman. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if he had one instead for The Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon? Ditto Martin Scorsese, who finally won his Oscar for The Departed — a fine film, no doubt, but hardly in the class of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, or Raging Bull. Who would protest if Scorsese sent his Departed Oscar back to the shop and had Raging Bull engraved on it instead? What are some of your picks for actors or filmmakers who did win an Oscar, but for the wrong role? And which performance should they be allowed to swap in?” —Hoo-ah
Well, I can think of at least one person who might complain if Scorsese took his Departed Oscar back to the shop and had Raging Bull engraved on it: Robert Redford. I don’t think he believes that his Best Director Oscar for Ordinary People is tainted or ill-gotten. I bet it’s right up on his mantel next to his replica Wonderboy bat from The Natural and his turtleneck collection from Three Days of the Condor. Seriously though, I love this game. So here’s my top 10 nominees…
Join us again next week and don’t forget to email your movie questions and opinions to me at CriticsMailbag@ew.com or send me a tweet at @ChrisNashawaty, or just comment below.