Terminator: Salvation was a fun movie but, as I observed in my review, the director had changed the nature of the resistance subtly so that they were more militaristic and much, much more heavily armed. This militarisation is a two-fold thing, and in both of its aspects it annoys me. I think there has been a creeping militarisation of action movies over the last 10 or 15 years, and I think it represents primarily a failure of imagination, though there are (of course!) some political reasons, I think.
Some of it, of course, is just because directors have to find something new to do; but this militaristic stuff is hardly new anymore. Movies like Mad Max, Terminator 1, even Predator didn’t really have a very militaristic feel to them; while more modern movies like Transformers, Terminator: Salvation, the latest Star Trek, had a real military flavour. Sometimes it’s only the bad guys, or its done with a twist like in The Hulk. But I think it’s there. Now, I like shit blowing up and bad-arse jets and tanks as much as the next nerd, but I don’t like it when they come with a big associated package of throbbing pre-teen dick-slapping macho, and I don’t like it when they are put into movies in place of actual tension ‘n thinking ‘n stuff, and I really really hate the speeches that go with it. What really bothers me is the possibility that the militaristic macho crap will spill over from the war scenes and into other genres – particularly fantasy and horror – and spoil their particular characteristics. So, here are my two explanations and why they shit me.
1. We’re at war. There’s a war on folks, and often when there’s a war on culture tends to turn a bit militaristic. Can’t be helped, it’s just part of the backdrop. In this case, though, we’ve got cgi and big movie budgets and experience, so it’s easy to put militarism where it wasn’t before. Even if the soldiering is low-key, the temptation for macho posturing is there. It’ll pass, it’s annoying to be reminded that we’re in a war of choice that I think is completely wrong and pointless, but hey! It’s better that I’m being reminded of it than being in it (or worse still, being bombed by it).
2. Militarism is an easy option for crap directors. I think it’s really easy for crap directors to think “this conflict doesn’t have dramatic tension, I’ll throw in some explosions”. Particularly if – because they’re crap directors – the characters, plot and setting are all crap, so you have nothing invested in the final conflict. The best cover for this is to make the fight bigger. It’s been happening for years, but the availability of cheap cgi has led to a blown’-shit-up death march, where the military scenes just keep getting bigger and more action-y. But they aren’t real action: real action is the intense, believable conflict between a small number of unique and named antagonists, who feverishly try to outwit and/or kill one another. This is why the end of Star Wars doesn’t seem very militaristic at all, because it’s really just a tense chess match between DV and Skywalker. But when Lucas’s directing went to shit we got Return of the Jedi, where he threw 88000 more ships at the final battle, to hide the fact that he’s not a very good director. But in that case they were the backdrop for the real battle, between DV and Skywalker, in whose final confrontation we already had a great deal of emotional energy invested.
Number 2 bothers me a lot more than number 1, because number 1 doesn’t have to hamper good directing, but number 2 does. The temptation to cut corners is huge. I think it happened in Terminator:Salvation, which would have been a different, more intense personal conflict between a man and a machine if the screen wasn’t being stuffed full of jets, submarines, jeeps, helicopters, rocket launchers and soldiers being given rousing speeches. And the Terminator series is fundamentally not about stuff blowing up (though there is an obligatory scene where the machine rises from an explosion) – it’s about a greek tragedy, where a mortal strives against fate knowing he’ll fail. It’s about a desperate skinny guy from the future against a big, nasty machine. It’s hard to get the feeling of that when you’re too busy watching the jet fighters blow up the massive hovercraft. And it’s particularly hard to get the feeling for that when the guy who directed it probably wasn’t up for the task, and threw in all those heavy battle scenes to keep you from noticing that you didn’t really care that much about why John Connor was doing what he was doing.
It’s also frustrating when you get this feeling like the only reason you are meant to have any sympathy with a group of characters is that they are soldiers. This is what happened to me in Transformers. I knew the soldiers were good guys and I should want them to live, but why? Simply because they were soldiers. I knew Mad Max was a good guy who needed to live because Mel Gibson made me believe it. I don’t like it when movie directors leverage military conflict opportunities to achieve low-cost emotional outcomes. i.e. when they use my residual feelings for the rightness of guys in uniform to make me believe that otherwise cardboard characters deserve my emotional attention. It’s not the soldiers’ fault, I just wish the Director would try to make a good movie. It would be less insulting.
fn1: Wierd, I know, but Predator was basically just a bunch of guys hanging out in the jungle and getting shat on by a beast; even their interactions were more like a bunch of mates than the army, and they were pretty low-tech compared to your average futuristic rebels.
fn2: with or without my attempt at being self-effacing, this paragraph makes me sound like a right little snot. Too bad, I didn’t ask for this war and, like most of the rest of the world, I knew it would go pear-shaped and I didn’t want the people (of either side) who are there to be there. So I think it’s fair enough that just once in public I complain about it infecting my entertainment choices.
fn3: Not that I didn’t like any of these movies, but I could have liked them a lot more.