Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles Review

Originally posted on February 20, 2008. Reprinted with permission.

One of my favorite memories of going to the movies as a kid was when my father took my brother and me to the drive-in to see T2: Judgment Day. In a time before the Internet and video blogs, we didn’t know anything about the movie. The only commercial I saw (before I learned they were called trailers.) for the movie showed an assembly line of Arnolds being created. I remember that my father had already seen the movie first, presumably to decide if his children should watch it, but my dad did not parent like that. Ask him about Full Metal Jacket. So, we were constantly bugging him, asking “Is Arnold a good guy or a bad guy, Dad?” I will love my dad forever because he kept the secret from us, letting it unfold for us on the drive-in screen and I can’t forget how excited we were when Arnold pulled a shotgun out and told John, “Get down.”

By now, the films series has generally been acknowledged as modern classics. Everybody has quoted the Terminator movies with either, “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby” or my favorite pick-up line, “Come with me if you want to live.” I believe that the new generational gap recognizes John Connor as our savior from the robots and not Keanu Reeves. I myself often ask friends if they would rather live in post-apocalyptic world after a virus outbreak, zombie uprising or robot takeover (Probably zombies). And once, when Robert Patrick was verbally dressing me down on the set of The Unit, I almost wet myself at the fear of his finger poking through my brain. I love The Terminator movies so much I want to take them behind the middle school and get them pregnant! What’s so great about the new show then? Well, I’ll tell you. In a word, everything.

The show, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, is truly one of a kind. It takes the entire world of the film franchise and builds upon it in an extremely clever and believable fashion. Beginning a few years after the events of T2, Sarah and John have tried to assimilate into society, but go on the run again, because they have to. A new T-800 Terminator, Cameron, guides them to a time travel unit to bring them to the present year of 2007, where they continue to fight SkyNet and Judgment Day. It’s a rather simplistic concept, but it is all in the execution. Firstly, by the very premise of the show, it is greatly expanding on the different capabilities of time travel that became so commonplace in the films. In the future, John Connor is not only sending back people to protect himself, but begins to send back Resistance fighters to set up “cells” in order to try to prevent Judgment Day or at least prepare the world for it and minimize the loss of life. When the machines learn of this, they send back Terminators to hunt the Resistance cells. So, the Resistance has already begun in our own time and it is not just being fought by the Connors anymore. It is a great concept and thus enables the shows to expand beyond the core characters. But, visitors from the future are not the only new people introduced in the series. For in the past, Sarah has left behind a fiancĂ©e, played by an actor who is never in a bad show, Dean Winters (Oz and Rescue Me) and an FBI agent who finds that the longer he tracks Sarah, the more he begins to uncover evidence that her story about robots from the future might not be wrong.

Let’s return to the core characters for a moment. Lena Headley plays Sarah, still as tough and protective as ever, but we begin to see her more as a woman and not just a mother. She has her own needs that she continues to put aside for the safety of her son. Of course, she is still conflicted between believing in her son and trusting her son. John, played by Thomas Dekker, finds himself isolated from other people and wondering how he will be able to be a great leader if he doesn’t even have any friends in high school. However, he does show the promise of the future John Connor by taking risks and sometime forcing his decisions on his mother, which usually turn out to be the right ones. I really like the mother-son dynamic in the show, especially when they are just mother and son and not the Twin Terrors to Terminators. Speaking of which, Summer Glau plays the hottest Terminator yet, but like Arnold in T2, she is learning from her human companions and adopting mannerisms and speech patterns from them. This provides some laughs, but also some serious moments and serves the greater theme that the movies only hinted at. It is the idea that the machines are the invention of their creators and therefore, are enabled or limited by us. To put it another way, would the machines have decided to exterminate humankind if we did not have a self-destructive history? They could not have learned to create or terminate by themselves; it had to be taught by their programmers. Of all the characters, John is the only one who sees them for what they are. Terminators are tools and John was the one who used them to help humans and fight the machines. While Sarah still has a resistance to anything metal, John finds ways for Cameron to help them even when neither of the women can see a solution.

Last week’s episode showed us the future and introduced more ideas about the machines and humans, hinting that not everyone is what they seem. This is a classic story telling device to create suspense and it is working, but only for the fact that I want to see HOW they work it. For the Terminator universe does have some rules, which this show is abiding to.

1. Nothing goes thru.

2. There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves.

3. John Connor is infallible. In the future, John does not make mistakes with time travel or the fate of humanity.

So, if the show’s creators are presenting the idea that the people from the future might have ulterior motives in the present, I’m not worried. Because John Connor sent them back, so John Connor must know what they would do. A few episodes ago, Sarah spoke of how much John learned from chess. While she mentioned it in a different context, it stands to reason that John Connor is in the future, moving people through time like pieces on a chessboard and thinking five moves ahead of the machines. Not that this idea of mine about John has anything to do with car chases or robots throwing each other through walls, but I wanted to share with you how well done the show is that can sustain an idea or conversation such as this. Even 24 (a favorite) is pretty straight forward after awhile, but Terminator plays with a pre-existing universe even better than say The Clone Wars cartoons. The show could have easily been a weak continuation of the movies with a sexier robot, but they are doing something much different. The characters inhabit James Cameron‘s world, yes, but they also inhabit a our world and face real issues such as depression and suicide, unfulfilled sexual desires and the most honest reflection of 9/11 that I have ever seen. It is really a show about a dysfunctional family unit. However, unlike most families, they aren’t concerned with their own lives, but with the world around them and making sure that they’re lives are spent trying to make it a safer world. In a time when the widely popular Presidential candidate tells us that we can change the world, if we have the will and hope to do it, those keywords are what motivate the Connors every week to try to save a world that is heading to extinction and is not even aware of it. John and Sarah are not fighting the machines to save their own lives, but in order to save all of ours. There’s something noble about that which appeals to me and makes for great TV.

Since the original posting of this blog, FOX has confirmed that the show will return in the fall for a second season and that Brian Austin Green will be a series regular.


Roy said...

I haven't seen any this yet, but the word is it'll be coming out on Blu-ray soon (and that's usually sooner than it appears on Singapore television networks). BI'll probably check out BD release.

Michael J. Mendez said...

It's worth checking out, especially if you're a fan of the Terminator films.

Thanks for the comment.