My spoiler-laden thoughts about Terminator Salvation and Terminator in genreral

Okay, first a disclaimer: This post contains major spoilers about all 4 Terminator movies, so if you haven’t seen them yet but still want to, you may want to leave now.

Before talking about Terminator 4, I’d like to spend some time talking about T3 and T2. When asked about Terminator 3, James Cameron said that he had finished his story with Terminator 2. This also seems to be the majority of fan opinions: T2 was a stellar sequel to a good movie, concluding the story. Two Terminator movies, Cyberdyne destroyed, Sarah and John Connor alive, all is good. But the Terminator universe had more potential. I remember playing Bethesda’s First Person Shooter games – Terminator: Future Shock and Terminator: SkyNET – in the mid-90’s, and I was fascinated by the dark atmosphere and the way the game builds suspense by the simple fact that not much happens at times, but you still have to expect a sudden robot attack at all time. While those games are non-canon, they prove that the man-machine war has a lot of potential for good storytelling. I always look at the Star Wars franchise, where the Expanded Universe – stories by authors other than Lucasfilm – has brought us some great characters and stories, sometimes on par with the original movies. So just like George Lucas’ Star Wars universe was brought in many new directions, so could the Terminator universe be. The potential is certainly there.

I do not know the exact reason why T3 was made, but from watching the movie, I see a sole purpose: Make sure that T2 was not the end and lay the groundwork on which future films can built. Yes, T3 was not as good as it could have been. Yes, to some people it feels like an irrelevant movie. But with the purpose in mind, T3 could never have been a movie on par with T1 or T2, because there was just no chance to really add something new. The movies job is to save John Connor and start Judgement Day, and the movie does that job. Terminator 2 had an ending, Terminator 3 had a new beginning.

So while T3 had an excuse to just be an “Okay” movie, Terminator Salvation (T4) has no excuses whatsoever. Quite the opposite, it’s just rightful to expect T4 to be near T1 in terms of quality, because it is a) mostly free of any story constraints and b) starting a new series. When doing T4, the creators had the choice which characters to focus on and which part of the story to tell, and actually they made a decision that I support: They did not create it as a prequel to T1. This is not really the story of John Connor, this is not about sending Kyle Reese back into time. They went to a point before that, and this is a decision that I applaud. Sadly, it’s one of the only things I really applaud about the movie, but more on that later.

So at the beginning of the movie we learn that SkyNET is about to produce it’s new Terminator, the T-800. We learn that John Connor is not the leader of the resistance, because some see him as false prophet. We also learn about a guy called Marcus Wright who is executed in 2003, but allowed Cyberdyne to use his body afterwards. This is where the first of many ridiculous events happen, as Marcus agrees on the condition that he gets a kiss by the doctor. That really looked stupid and forced, mainly because we do not know the doctor at this point. Later when Marcus is in the SkyNET HQ, we see an illusion of the doctor giving a speech, and here I see a lot of wasted potential because the character is just not developed at all. I hope that T5 adds just a bit more life to her character, otherwise this is just wasted.

Seeing Marcus reincarnated after the discovery of the T-800 of course already makes everyone in the audience believe that Marcus is a Terminator. I liked this part mostly, because the idea of an Infiltrator who does not even know about it is good, although of course not very original (Sleeper Agents and such). I just had the feeling that they tried a bit too hard to re-create the Terminator 2 effect where everyone was believing that Robert Patrick is the good guy and Arnold the bad guy. But Marcus acts too much like a machine to really have the audience feel with him. Also, the second really ridiculous scene happens around Marcus again, this time it’s that love plot with Blair Williams. I mean: They barely met, he is beating up some guys who tried to assault her and she is instantly falling in love. Seriously, it’s not like there are not enough men left in this world to take the time to pick one, right? That felt really stupid.

Ridiculous Scene number 3 is everything involving the transporters. Seriously, seeing that huge Machine taking prisoners is one thing, but then it stands up and launches two Mototerminators from it’s legs? WHAT THE F***? I actually had to double check that I’m not accidentially sitting in Transformers 2 instead of Terminator 4, because this felt so out of place, like another forced homage to T2, this time the motorcycle chase. Oh, and don’t get me started on the USB-Ports that those Mototerminators have…

Speaking of forced homages: So Kyle Reese delivers his “Come with me if you want to live” line, and John Connor gets a chance to say “I’ll be back”, but both occurrences are out of place and badly timed. In John Connors case, it was just completely obsolete, and I don’t see any chance for him to deliver that line anywhere in the movie without it being stupid. On the other hand, Kyle had more potential. In the movie, he is still very young and inexperienced, so they could have given him the “Come with me…” line as some sort of signature line, but as he is so young, it could have been like a pickup line that needs perfection. That could have worked if they a) used it a bit more often and progressively improved it or b) used it on characters that are properly developed. Instead, he uses it on Marcus at a point where we know neither Marcus not Kyle. I would have placed it just a little bit further, maybe after the Hunter-Killer destroys the building. That would be a good place to have a little talk and then Kyle could offer Marcus to come with him if he wants to live.

One homage that I really liked what the fight between John, Marcus and the skeleton T-800, because that was mirroring the T1 climax (with some T2 elements thrown in) very well, but it was placed in the proper place in the movie and properly integrated. This is really a homage that worked. Also, the T-800 that looked like Arnold from T1 was great, although his introduction (smashing the door of a holding cell) was unnecessary weak.

And then, there is the ending. I have seen many bad endings, illogical endings, ridiculous endings, out of place endings, downright stupid endings. But this here takes the cake. So John Connor is stabbed by the T-800 and barely rescued, lying on the table, more or less dying because his heart will not make it. And then Marcus offers to take his heart. Seriously, not even a double facepalm is strong enough for this. I was expecting two different outcomes after John was stabbed: a) He dies, and then Marcus takes over. That would be kind of a plot hole but could still be stretched a bit to fit. In his dying words, John could have given Kyle the photo of Sarah and tell him to go to the past once the time comes. Kyle could then have decided not to tell Sarah about the death of her future son, which could also be used to resolve the resulting anachronism. Overall, the death of John Connor would be one solution, but maybe not the best one. Then there is b) John is killed without anyone noticing, and then replaced my a Terminator, similar to Marcus. Maybe even Marcus could turn out to be evil and involved in the death of John. That would have some serious potential for the future.

But killing off Marcus to give a heart transplantation? I mean, let’s forget about things like organ-incompatibilities and the fact that sterile operating rooms are unlikely to exist. No, the ending is such a big fail because it highlights the fact that both Marcus and John are seriously underdeveloped and the audience is unlikely to care about even one of them, certainly not both.

So while T4 added some interesting story bits, and while the scenes in SkyNET were quite good, it is ultimately a disappointment because of all the wasted potential. Underdeveloped characters, badly timed and executed homages, a forced love plot and action scenes that would fit a Transformers or Matrix movie really bring down the movie. I mean, it’s one thing if your movie does not have a lot of potential from the beginning (Like T3), but it’s another thing to really mess up if there is so much room for excellency. There is sadly not a single character in the entire movie who really goes through some character development, which is possibly it’s biggest fault. At the beginning I was saying that I like the decision not to have John Connor as the focus point, but to look at other characters. Unfortunately the character they picked as the main character – Marcus – is killed off at the end without leaving anything behind, which means he is just a throwaway-character. They should have focused on Kyle Reese in my opinion, because he should be the main character of Terminator 5 and could have used some more focus to turn from a naive and inexperienced boy into the man he is in Terminator 1.

Conclusion: Terminator 4 is just irrelevant, because it adds absolutely nothing new to the universe. The movie has simply no purpose, no goal, no mission, no lasting value – which puts it at the opposite of Terminator 3 which at least had a clear goal and executed it.

Trash Trailer of the Day #3

Todays entry in the irregular series is once again German, it’s the Trailer for the Movie “Top Mission”. On one side, the cast doesn’t look to bad, with Heiner Lauterbach having a role. But if you hear some of the people talk, it’s just ridicoulous, and the line “The first German action movie to set a new standard” is priceless, especially this is movie is virtually unknown. But the icing on the cake is that last sequence of Cayhume turning his head to the camera…

Trash Trailer of the Day #2

Today’s entry in the Trash Trailer of the Day series I’ve started yesterday is a video game promo trailer released on the game’s website – Red Alert 3 by Electronic Arts. The game is deliberately cheesy and B-Movie style, with an All-Star cast featuring Tim Curry, Peter Stormare, George Takei and some annoying women. I absolutely adore this trashy style, but this trailer goes much too far.

If I were only to pick out one standout scene, it would be the everybody dance now segment starting 1:23, but George Takei declaring that all our base are belong to them is also memorable.

Trash Trailer of the Day #1

Okay, I’ll start a new irregular series: Trash Trailer of the Day. There are so many hilariously bad Movie or Video Game Trailers, I think it’s just fair to pick one every day. Today we start with the German Trailer for The Ninja Mission, a movie from 1984 about a Ninja fighting against the evil russians. The English trailer may be hilarious, but the German translation really takes the cake. Highlights include “If the Terminator was russian, we would not stand a chance” and “He mows his enemies down like weeds in the garden of freedom”.

If you want to create something, just start doing it – but have a plan

One of the most common things I’ve heard since we’ve started working on The Filthy Pumpkin Show is “Nice! I’ve also had the idea of doing something like this, just never got round to actually doing it”. Interestingly enough, that was my own situation as well until July 2008. It’s not like I haven’t tried to create something before, but for various reasons, not much came out of it. Now that we are working on the second Filthy Pumpkin Show (abbreviated as FPS from here on), I’ve decided to write down some tips that worked for me very well. This is not only about movie making; it also helped me with software development and in some other areas.

Ideas alone don’t do anything

I have blogged about this before. So you have this great idea? Cool, so do I. With all these ideas in my head, I have a movie that could win more Academy Awards than Return of the King, make more profit than Terminator 2 and be more culturally significant than Star Wars. But you know what? That movie will likely never exist, because it is only a set of ideas. Ideas on its own don’t do anything. The first step to actually create anything is to get the idea out of your head as fast as possible. I always carry a small notebook with me to write down ideas. This is important because it makes sure I don’t forget about it. But getting them out of your head and onto paper (or a Text file, an Evernote note, an e-Mail, whatever) is the first step to realization.

Have a written goal

Closely tying in with this: Set a goal and write it down. Again, stuff that only exists in your head is unlikely to ever get realized. By writing down what you want to do, you do two things: First, you make a commitment to the idea. And second, you start filtering and evaluating ideas. Some idea that you had yesterday may be really stupid now that you look at it again. On the other hand, maybe there are two or three other ideas that can be combined? Suddenly, all those random, seemingly unconnected and sometimes weird ideas come together to start forming one piece.

Essentially what you do here is a list of requirements: What do you want your final product to be? What features do you want to have in it?

Plan how to reach the goal, but don’t overdo it

This is the hard step: Start actually realizing your project. This is where most projects fail. So you now have a list of ideas/features that you want to see, and you roughly know what your final product should be. You know the end, so now you can plan on how to reach it.

Often I see people trying to plan too much. They spend hours or even weeks to do all sorts of research. They spend hundreds of Euros to buy all the stuff they might need. They make Excel sheets that have thousands of rows for every tiny bit of the project. And then they run into their first obstacle and the whole project falls down.

Actually, the main thing you want to do in this phase is to decide what NOT to do. Especially if you have only little experience in whatever you are doing, your ideas are often a bit too ambitious for a start. As an example: The original screenplay of the FPS features a climactic battle on the second platform of the Eiffel Tower, featuring about 60 video game characters, with big explosions and all sorts of epilepsy-causing effects. The thing is: That was too much for a start. I would absolutely love it, but we had almost no experience in special effects, no equipment and not much of a budget. So we removed this and many other “too ambitious” parts.

The end result was a screenplay that was still ambitious based on our skills and budget, but that was within reach. After trimming it down to something manageable, we could now make a plan and do research and purchases in the areas we knew we would need. You certainly do not want to rent the Eiffel Tower for a day and then discover that your idea is not feasible.

Get the product out and the feedback in!

Another big point of failure is after the project is finished: Release it! We worked on the first FPS for about 6 months, and we almost decided not to release it. In those 6 months, we learned a lot about movie making. So much that we now look at it and see its failures. That’s dangerous thinking. If I remember what I had in mind in July 2008 and what we released, I should be (and am) very satisfied because the final result is a lot better than my original expectation. But now, we can do so much better, FPS1 doesn’t “feel” as great anymore.

Many people have their own projects (be it movies or software) which they never release because they are ashamed of them. Being a bit ashamed is a good sign: It means you actually learned something! If you create something, look at it and think “This is it, this is the best I will ever being able to do”, you should possibly quit. Instead, think: “This is the greatest thing I have done so far! But with all the stuff that I learned – I wonder how much better the next one will be?”. Also, don’t fall into the trap of “This is okay, but if I knew what I know now 6 months ago, this could have been so much better”, because that reduces the value of your creation.

Try to take a little time to reflect over your creation. Look at what is not so good, but also look at what is good. Compare it to your initial expectation, think about what you have learned, and how you can make something even better, but by all means: Love your creation. Know its shortcomings, but always keep in mind why you made it in the first place.

If you have a positive opinion about your creation, you are ready for the hard part: Getting external feedback. Show it to your friends. Or to strangers. Upload it to the internet and get feedback from 6 billion anonymous people. Listen to what they have to say. And filter their feedback.

Don’t be personally insulted by criticism. Every comment you receive is a good comment at first. Yes, trolls on the internet can be very insulting, but also the reaction of your friends can hurt even if they don’t mean to. Don’t sit in a corner and cry just because someone made a negative comment. Instead, read Jeff Atwood’s blog post, which quotes Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture:

And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, yeah, Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn’t he? I said, yeah. He said, that’s a good thing. He said, when you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up. And that’s a lesson that stuck with me my whole life: when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.

If you receive criticism that means someone still cares. Even an internet troll who is just there to make you cry cares enough to take the time to write an insulting posting. Congratulations, you have just created something that impacted the life of another person, and that means you already achieved more than millions of other people on this planet.

Change that you believe in

But of course, not every criticism is meant as an insult. You should carefully listen to all comments, but then take the time to think about it. I have changed a few scenes (and cut about 10 minutes) from FPS after some feedback. At first when people said that a particular scene is boring or how cool it would be if X happened during that scene, I was naturally reluctant. I mean, this is my baby after all, and I want people to praise it, not to say bad things about it! But after thinking about it, I realized that they were right and made some changes which ultimately turned it into a better product.

On the other hand, do not blindly take all feedback. Always keep in mind: This is your project, and at the end, you have to be satisfied and love it. If you just made Star Wars but your friends would have preferred Batman, you should certainly not start giving Luke Skywalker a black cape and Leia some clown makeup. On the other hand, maybe (reading between the lines) they felt that the atmosphere should be darker to fit with the plot. Try to find out what they would like to see in your project, but constantly evaluate it against what you would like to get out of it.

You may be surprised how much improvement you can gain from other people’s feedback, without actually sacrificing your project to them.

Don’t be afraid to involve other people – if you’re serious

You want to be a One-Man-Army? Writing, Producing, Directing and playing the lead and all supporting roles? Think twice about it. If you are already determined to make a product and willing to take feedback, don’t be afraid to involve your friends. My concern with involving external people is obviously their reliability. You want to shoot on Tuesday night at 2 a.m. because you’re on vacation, but your friends are working and unavailable, so now things get more complicated. But think about what you can create if you actually have supporting characters or people who can hold a light or operate the camera!

The other big benefit is that now you are putting pressure on yourself to realize the project. As long as you are the only one involved, you can always procrastinate or cancel it because of some minor reason. But when other people are involved, you cannot just turn around and say “haha, sorry, that was only a big joke, but thanks for wasting your time with me!”. Do not underestimate the positive effect of this pressure, but keep in mind that the other people naturally have their own ideas and feedback. Read the previous paragraph for how to deal with that, except that in this case, the people are actually directly involved in the project.

Think if you want them to help realize your project, or if you want to turn it into a collaboration project of all people involved. The second option may mean you sacrifice some of your ideas, but it could also mean that the end product is a lot better. Or worse. In any case, as long as you stand behind the project as a whole, go ahead.

Just do it! Start small, but start!

With all the advice on the right amount of planning, on how to deal with feedback and how to involve other people, the most important rule should never be forgotten: Just do it. If you are enthusiastic about creating something, use the momentum and start working on it. James Cameron did not get famous for staying at home just thinking about stuff, and George Lucas’ THX 1138 was not a huge success. Kevin Smith’s movie Clerks had a Budget of $27,575 and I certainly recommend checking the Production Notes on Wikipedia which are a great example of realizing something great with modest resources, as long as you are committed.

For comparison: The first Filthy Pumpkin Show had a “budget” of about 400 € and involved 4 people. The second one has a budget of about 3000 € and will involve at least 12 people. We could not have started with the second one, because most of the budget is spent on equipment that we did not know we needed before. We bought lights because the lighting in FPS1 sucked. We bought a blue screen because we saw how great this turned out in FPS1 Part 3 (which was shot in a movie studio that we rented) and because we learned how to properly use it. We bought more costumes because we wanted to make the characters more believable. We bought a steadycam because the static camera angles are boring. We bought HD Cameras because… Well, because 1920×1080 is just so damn sexy.

We did something, we learned from it, we are doing something bigger. We will learn from FPS2 as well, and when we make FPS3, that one will be even bigger and better. But it all started in July 2008 when we started doing something. Without the beginning, there is no end. And now, stop reading this posting, grab an idea from your mind that start creating something.