Monday, 3 March 2008

The Sarah Connor Chronicles

The idea of a psychotic computer in the future sending cyborg assassins back in time to pick off its enemies may be a silly scenario, but $700 million worldwide box office receipts for the Terminator movies show it is a compelling one. The sequel, Judgment Day, is an excellent action romp, and the third film - The Rise of the Machines - isn't as bad as some critics suggest. But neither are a patch on The Terminator. Not only is the action and suspense unremitting, it was released at just the right time when a series of pathological tropes were working their way through popular culture. 1984, the year of The Terminator's release was haunted by the threat of nuclear conflict, and computers were increasingly an unavoidable reality of everyday life. Leaving aside the time travel, the idea of a sentient supercomputer subjecting the human race to nuclear genocide did not appear too implausible. The new cold war of the 80s may have avoided the McCarthyite excesses of the 50s, but like the B-movies that came before it, it found a fantastic expression in enemies that were invisible or indistinguishable from ourselves. The Terminator was able to tap into an undercurrent of apocalyptic paranoia and uncertainty, a tendency uneasily co-existing with popular cultural outpourings of strength, confidence, machismo, and power.

American science fiction in the 90s made a bit of a move away from this territory. True, the X-Files dealt with themes of infiltration, but most of the time Mulder and Scully eschewed violence for plain old fashioned sleuthing. The second wave of Star Trek franchises - The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager - spanned the decade with its tales of space faring humanitarians and liberals . Captains Picard, Sisko, and Janeway much preferred jaw-jaw to war-war. The much darker Babylon 5 combined corny humour with a foreboding sense of looming war and conflict, but it never did glorify violence. All of its characters were morally ambivalent to a greater or lesser extent.

But in the post-9/11 world, the 80s came back in muted form. Militarism, shorn of its boys own glamour, infected the ill-fated Star Trek: Enterprise series. The re-made Battlestar Galactica is a plain allegory for the war on terror, where the remnants of human society are left reeling by a massive sneak attack and forever watchful for Cylon infiltrators indistinguishable from humans. The post-apocalyptic Jericho, set after a massive terrorist nuclear attack on the US, works through not dissimilar themes. This seemed a precipitous conjuncture in which to launch a Terminator spin-off series on the world.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles are set five years after the events of T2. Having seen off the shape-shifting T1000 at the end of the film, Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her messiah-to-be son, John (Thomas Dekker), spend the intervening time skipping from town to town, swapping identities along the way. The artifacts out of which the Skynet computer system was developed - the CPU and arm of the original Terminator - may have been melted down and the original date for Judgment Day (August 29th 1997) came and went, but best drop off the radar of official society, just to be sure.

The pilot of the episode sets up the plot lines for the nine episode run. Upon attending class at a new school, John is assailed by a muscle-bound terminator. By happy coincidence it turns out his classmate, Cameron Phillips (Summer Glau), is a terminator sent from the future to protect him. She puts herself between John and the terminator, and they are able to escape. Meeting up with mum they decide that rather than avoiding their nemesis they're going to attempt to stop Skynet before it goes online. Cameron leads them to a vault constructed by a resistance fighter sent back to the 1960s, and in a final showdown with the terminator it is seemingly destroyed as the trio leap forward eight years to 2007. And so the hunt for Skynet begins.

The following episode establishes that the future war against the machines is being projected back in time. Both Skynet and the resistance send forces into the past to secure various objectives and to fight one another. No doubt these will become key plot devices as the season wears on.

Overall The Sarah Connor Chronicles have got off to a good start. The first two episodes managed to pull off the creeping tension of the movies, the special effects were up to standard and the actors are well cast. Importantly for the fans, the feel is faithful to the franchise (though some will be miffed that events taking place in the series timeline stands in contradiction to the unfolding of Judgment Day in the third film). However, viewers looking for an antidote to post-9/11 will not find it here.


Anonymous said...

Please don't use the word 'romp', it invalidates everything you write afterwards.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that Lena Headey had criticisms chucked at her due to being from the UK and her body esp. her lack of muscle was very un-Linda Hamilton like(who played Sarah Connor in the first two films)

But can't believe everything you read..

Phil said...

Well I think Lena Headey sounds pretty indistinguishable from the other cast members. Yeah, she's slimmer than Linda Hamilton, BUT, in the second film Sarah Connor had loads of time to work out in her hospital cell. In the series she's running around, so maybe she hasn't got too much time for bench presses and the like. I'm surprised no one's batted an eyelid on casting a 20 and a 26 year old to play characters that are supposedly 15!

Also a couple of geeky quibbles.

1) In the opening sequence, Sarah Connor talks of Skynet being "programmed to kill". No it isn't! As a sentient artificial intelligence, it's no more programmed than you and I.

2) How is the series - of whizzing the Connors forward through time - going to link in with the forthcoming 4th Terminator film?

Right, I'll put my anorak away now.