Saturday, 11 January 2020
On a long haul flight recently I got the chance to watch an odd double bill - Terminator 2 and Gemini Man. There was basically no other option that I felt a remotely sane person would want to watch - it was Frozen and a few other Disney/Pixar type things (in which a fish/toy/video game character/cute robot/lion/bear/princess/Scottish princess/alien learns that the important thing in life is just to be who you are), or some variant of The Hangover and its ilk, or some variant of The Holiday and its ilk, or some variant of New Year's Eve and its ilk. Face with these or the alternative of staring blankly into space for 8 hours and waiting in hope for sleep's sweet embrace to descend despite it being the middle of the day, I know which one I would choose.
Taken together, Terminator 2 and Gemini Man are hardly what you would call twins. But there are some similarities. Both are made by intelligent directors (James Cameron and Ang Lee) who make films which are visually interesting, and often show a preoccupation with the human body. Both have lots of gunplay and indeed have an almost pornographic relationship to firearms. Both are at times aggressively stupid. Neither are masterpieces. The main difference is that Terminator 2 succeeds in spite of its flaws, while Gemini Man is the duddiest of duds.
Why do I say these films are aggressively stupid? With Terminator 2 it is partly just to do with the silliness of the plot, which even setting aside the problems with the basic premise (if on both occasions it sent a Terminator back in time Skynet came within a whisker of killing either Sarah Connor or John Connor respectively, why doesn't it keep sending them on a weekly basis, or just send 100? You're not allowed to say "Well, this is explained in the 6th episode in the franchise...") asks the audience on too many occasions to kick their brains out of the window.
I don't really mean the picky questions. (Why does the T-101 not know what crying is? Why is he completely impervious to rifle bullets but vulnerable to being whacked with a big steel pole? Why does he care about the destruction of Skynet? Why is he able to understand situational nuance ("They'll live.")? Why does he still allow himself to be destroyed despite John commanding him not to?) I mean the braindead, crude, medieval morality-play way in which the characters are presented. Some characters are bad, lazy, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, or buffoonish, and they get killed. Some are the good guys - resourceful, daring and knowing the truth - and they survive. Cameron's films are always paint-by-numbers in terms of morality, but Terminator 2 really gives the audience no credit whatsoever for having the capacity for independent thought. In order to show John Connor's foster father is a bad 'un and hence deserving of death, we have to see him being lazy (sitting around on the sofa watching TV while his wife tries to discipline the kids), oafish (in the way he talks to her and John) and even abusive to animals (in the way he acts towards his dog. In order to show the mental hospital guard is nasty, we have to show him licking Sarah's face. In order to show the psychiatrist treating Sarah is a meanie, we have to see him stringing her along, making sarcastic comments when he thinks she's not listening, and giving only the most perfunctory attempts at treatment. We're then invited to cackle and bay for blood as these people get their violent comeuppances. In Cameron's universe, there are goodies and baddies and you can tell within 5 seconds which is which, and what the baddies deserve is cruel, violent death, and what the goodies deserve is to win in the end. It's that simple and that cartoonish.
With Gemini Man it's difficult to know where to start. It's not so much that the morality of that film is stupid. It's that everything about it is. The script is dreadful. (At one point you have to sit through Mary Winstead painstakingly explaining to Will Smith that the assassin trying to kill him has exactly the same DNA and what that means. The audience already guessed it was a clone 10 minutes previously. In this conversation it is made unmistakably clear. We still have to them have the line spelling things out at the end: "It's a clone." Because the audience, in the film-makers' minds, can only be idiots.) The characters are drawn in crayon. (Mary Winstead looks waif-like and sensitive, but we know she's tough because her dad was in the FBI and therefore of course she drinks boilermakers; Will Smith is Will Smith and we're shown at the beginning that he doesn't want to risk killing a child so he's a good guy). The plot can be summarised as: it's basically the first three "Bourne" films condensed into one, but much, much worse, full of completely ridiculous and OTT set-pieces, and it's not other assassins trying to kill Bourne, but his clone. And shot in a high frame rate which makes it look like 2 hours of cut scenes from a video game. Events depicted in it are just plainly daft: the opening sequence, featuring Will Smith firing a bullet from a sniper rifle into a high-speed train from a distance of 2km and hitting a target passenger is silly enough, but to imagine it happening in Belgium, for fuck's sake?
Perhaps worst of all, though, is that its setting is incoherent. What genre is Gemini Man? If the audience feels as though it is watching an SF film, it is more ready to give leeway in terms of the suspension of disbelief. If it feels as though it is watching a gritty espionage thriller, it expects the director to at least grope towards something vaguely realistic and plausible. Gemini Man somehow manages to create the impression it aims for the latter while striking the tone of the former. It sets itself up as being a gritty espionage thriller - that is its furniture, so to speak - but the plot is pure whimsy and the events depicted in it are absurd outside of the context of soft SF. The film is ludicrously badly conceived.
What rescues Terminator 2 and leaves it as the vastly more superior of the two films? First, you have to say that the quality of the female leads makes a huge difference. Linda Hamilton can be histrionic in her performances, but she is also capable of pulling off a really gutsy and emotive scene - witness Sarah's breakdown after the attempt to kill Dyson. And she has the genuine physicality to pull off the action scenes in a believable way. Mary Winstead looks great and she's not a bad actress but she simply fails Mark Kermode's old "Meg Ryan is a helicopter pilot" test - you just can't take her seriously as a hard-boiled secret agent.
Second, it actually matters that James Cameron didn't have much in the way of CGI to play with when making Terminator 2, and had to do his stunts and set-pieces the old-fashioned way. That film was made in 1991. Some elements have dated. But the action scenes mostly still look great. because in the end a massive truck exploding after a frantic chase down a highway smashing cars hither and thither in 1991 is a massive truck exploding after a frantic chase down a hightway smashing cars hither and thither in 2019. Gemini Man, on the other hand, already looks bad, which is a bizarre thing to say about an Ang Lee film; if anything its visuals most strongly remind me of Michael Mann's rather drab Public Enemies, which never looked as if it hadn't been made on a film set - there is something similar going on in Gemini Man, which always feels as though it is on a screen, rather than really taking place.
Third, at least for all the flaws in execution, it is to Cameron's credit in Terminator 2 that he attempts to do something really new and interesting with the T-101 character. Ultimately the transformation from unthinking robot into thinking, feeling cyborg is not convincing (especially if you've never seen the director's cut). But at least he tried. In Gemini Man, we get Will Smith, being Will Smith as an assassin. This is new and interesting in the sense that "Will Smith as an assassin" sounds like in theory it could be a real career-shift. But what we get is, ultimately, Will Smith as an assassin - an implausibly nice, warm, screen presence who surely has never killed a fly, let alone another human being. There isn't even an attempt to give him an edge.
Fourth, though, the reason why Terminator 2 works is that it's a film which actually has a big idea. Its characters are grappling with things that are bigger than themselves - life, death, the universe, everything. Not just nuclear war but family, love, the ongoing capacity for humanity to be truly human rather than simply one side against another in a bitter and possibly endless struggle for survival. Their mission is imbued with meaning. And they pursue their goals at least in a way that shows why we should be rooting for them: because they value life, because they think that it's good that human beings exist and that human societies flourish, and because they want to save the good in such societies even while they are clear-sighted about the bad things within them (crime, lies, pettiness, incarceration, and all the rest). Gemini Man's lens is much more narrow. It's a question of Will Smith staying alive, and presented in such a lacklustre way that the conclusion is foregone from the beginning. Why follow a story to its conclusion when its result is never in doubt, and when the main protagonists have such little depth or consequence?
Monday, 6 January 2020
I have spent the last three weeks back in Japan visiting relatives. The local supermarket has a display of Kamen Rider modular mecha robot/animal things that you can disassemble and reformulate to create all kinds of monstrous forms with human pilots, a bit like Zoids. Customers are free to play around with a range of the toys and every day there is a cluster of small boys creating various crocodile-bird-tiger-triceratops mecha and play-fighting with them. My daughter, currently 2 1/2, finds this all fascinating and always joins in, but in her make-believe world the mecha only ever say hello, hug each other, make friends and then go shopping together. (This can only be because she has been socialised to play in this way by the oppressive patriarchy, or something. I do often find myself wondering if there is mileage in a more cuddly mecha-related TV series, though. You could call it "Let's Mecha Friends".)
Anyway. This has reminded me of a thread I came across long ago on The RPG Site, in which people got very passionate, irate and serious about the unrealisticness of mechs and how tanks would always be better. I sadly can't find the thread now, but here is a more civilised version. If you google "mechs vs tanks" or similar you will discover that this is in fact one of the great arguments of our times, akin to nature vs nurture, left vs right, somewheres vs anywheres, and whether that dress was black and blue vs whether you are INSANE AND AN IDIOT.
Nerds have problems with culture. I have just finished reading Max Hastings' Catastrophe, his thoroughly enjoyable history of the military campaigns of 1914. At that time, it was fairly well understood that cavalry were no longer generally going to be suitable for use in contemporary frontline warfare except for some limited purposes. Yet the Great Powers all went to war with huge cavalry contingents. Why? Because the horse had prestige and that was hard to shake.
Another good example of this phenomenon is Japan's abandonment of firearms in the 17th century. Japanese armies in the 16th century were armed to the teeth with guns. By the time of the 19th century they weren't. This wasn't for lack of guns or the capacity to make them. It was because of culture - the sword had prestige.
Yes, eventually cavalry were abandoned and the Japanese started to use guns in warfare again, but it isn't hard to imagine a far future in which the prevailing culture(s) insist on the use of mechs for, say, the aristocracy and ban other war vehicles as vulgar. Why would people in the year 40,000 be duking it out in giant robots rather than the far more efficient and sensible tank? Because of culture - or, more plainly, because it's fucking cool. Duh.