After a summer of action films, many of them rather indifferent, it's useful to consider two classic movies having their 20th and 25th anniversaries.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out in 1991; Aliens in 1986. Both directed by a guy best known in some circles for a movie about an old boat that sank and some other picture about a planet filled with nine-foot tall blue people, T2 and Aliens stand in very sharp contrast to latter-day action flicks.
T2 has a polish and, yes, a beauty that makes it appear timeless. Aliens, now 25 years old, looks rougher than that. But the movie is a flavorful mix of the creepshow suspense of the original Alien and the martial virtues of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, with an anti-corporatist twist and tremendous narrative drive.
What do each these movies have that the action movies of today generally don't?
The heroine of Aliens uses attitude and intelligence to take on one of the most intimidating foes in movies.
* An intriguing and charismatic lead.
Sigourney Weaver as action heroine? What a wild idea that was. What a grand idea that was. The smart, rather sardonic and somewhat soulful heroine of Ridley Scott's visually sumptuous original turned into a smart, rather sardonic and somewhat soulful woman of action in James Cameron's classic of military science fiction. Weaver's intrepid Officer Ripley flipped the notion of the action hero on its head, proving that gender need be no obstacle to attitude joined with intelligence, paving the way for future iterations of the concept, including that of a certain sweet waitress-turned-resistance fighter in a movie about a killer cyborg from the future.
Who would have guessed that a lanky Stanford-educated beauty with a name right out of The Great Gatsby would establish a new action film genre, and a gritty blue-collar one at that?
Speaking of flipping established notions on their head, what about the great twist on the Terminator character? The moment in which Arnold Schwarzenegger flips the switch on the duality of his image as intimidator and protector might be the key to his career in all its still unfolding aspects.
"Come with me if you want to live," he declares to Linda Hamilton's amazed, and amazingly feral, Sarah Connor. Classic stuff.
We're in the midst of a spate of remakes/sequels to Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles, with a raft of Predator, Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, Total Recall (in production now, but why remake what is a perfect movie in, er, its own deranged yet logical way?). They mostly haven't worked well, if at all. Why not? While there's more than one answer, there's the one big obvious answer: No Schwarzenegger. In T2, Schwarzenegger has the humor, the warmth, the machismo, the vulnerability, and the fundamental incongruity that comprise his persona. They're not in all his other movies.
The former California governor, incidentally, who has booked three films in his movie comeback, delivers a speech at the United Nations in New York on renewable energy and climate change on September 20th. "I'll be back" indeed.
* Interesting and flavorful off-leads.
Most characters in action movies are cardboard cutouts. Not so in T2 and Aliens. They boast a wealth of memorable characters more than worthy of attention and even investment.
I don't want to do injustice to actors and their performances by calling out some and not others in these movies. Linda Hamilton's extremely active mother of the revolution in T2 is obvious, but there are several in each film who are extremely memorable. In fact, it's hard to think of a single scene in either T2 or Aliens in which the lead doesn't have competition for the viewer's attention. Contrast that to your average action flick today, in which even the lead is frequently unmemorable.
* A truly intimidating antagonist.
Robert Patrick's sleek, vicious, more advanced liquid metal terminator (that launched the morphing craze). An antagonist that turns Schwarzenegger's intimidating cyborg from the future into a surprisingly underdog fugitive along with the resourceful Sarah and John Connor.
And in Aliens, of course, the implacably vicious and ultra-relentless xenomorph.
Both movies are fundamentally chase films, with the inherent tension in the form perfectly handled by Cameron.
* Action that is comprehensible.
I'm a great fan of the Bourne movies. And I love handheld camera. But enough is enough.
At first, the choppy, ultra-fast action scenes felt very cool. But now they usually seem confused. You know things have gone too far when you watch a James Bond film, and can't really tell what is going on in the fight scenes.
In T2 and Aliens, even in the midst of chaos, especially prevalent in the latter, you can see what is going on.
The antagonist of the first Terminator film becomes the protagonist of the second.
* A real story with real stakes for compelling characters.
The current Conan remake plays like a video game. So do the Transformers pictures. (Though the first and third have their moments.) The action looks pretty good, and certainly costs one hell of a lot of money, but does anyone really care about what's happening?
With T2 and Aliens, I defy you not to care. About the woman driven nearly mad by her need to fight the future, the cynical boy who learns just in time of the need to trust, the increasingly aware fighting machine who must be lowered into the molten steel. And about the woman who overcomes her fear to go into the menacing dark one last time and time again, the marines who find out the hard way they aren't anywhere near being the biggest badasses in the galaxy, the cyborg with more humanity than his makers.
T2 has a real elegance to it, as well as a sense of historicity. It has nihilism and hope, and a great sense of high-tech as representing both. And the iconography is classic, the big truck, the shotgun, the motorcycle, the microchip from the future consuming the present, the nuking of LA.
There's an undeniable beauty in its apocalypticism.
Aliens, with its horror films roots grafted onto a sturdy seedling of scifi, is not beautiful. It's grungy, the lower end of a corrupted corporate wonderland. Or, as one of its Colonial Marines might put it, the shit end of the stick.
But it achieves elegance and uplift as well, through spirit and heart.
Action movies that matter. What a concept.
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