Film/TV » Film Features

Rage against the Machines

Nothing new in Terminator 3; nature triumphs in Winged Migration.


As I will soon be employed with a salaried position, I have anticipated my imminent disposable income with glee, concocting new and amusing ways of accomplishing the disposal. I have decided to once again collect something (don't laugh, it's nerdy): volumes of The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures. They are hardbound, young readers' books from the 1950s and '60s, serialized like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. The cover art always gives me a charge, with its "atomic age" depictions of futuristic technologies and our hero encountering some strange but defeatable menace. Starting my collection is the second book, Tom Swift and His Jetmarine, which shows our hero in an underwater vehicle, gawking from its window at approaching giant octopuses.

Why do I bring this up? In an age of unbelievable CGI special effects that seamlessly disguise the differences between animation, acting, and stunts, $170 million price tags on movies like Terminator 3, and oppressive national pessimism, there's something awfully intriguing about Tom Swift's Jetmarine. What is a Jetmarine? How does Tom escape the octopuses? Who is Tom Swift?

If anyone still gave a crap about Tom Swift, they'd be making movies about him and his adventures. Nobody does, however, and he fascinates me, I think, only because he is obsolete: a novel antiquity, kitsch.

Speaking of obsolete (insert segue here), another Terminator has been sent back to the past (our present) to protect John Connor, who from T1 and T2 was foretold to be our messiah when the machines rise and take over the earth after first killing off half its populace with a nuclear holocaust.

Roughly the plot: Connor (In the Bedroom's Nick Stahl) is a drifter, living "off the grid" by having no driver's license or traceable employment. He winds up passing out, after an accident, in the veterinary office of his childhood make-out pal Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). T-X, the most advanced Terminator yet (Kristanna Loken, who augments breast size as a weapon), is sent back to take out not only Connor but his future lieutenants as well, including Brewster. Another T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives not only to protect young Connor but to guide him toward his destiny.

But back to Tom Swift. What the hell is a Jetmarine? Stay tuned. Find out. And don't miss the next book, which promises even more fantastical inventions. In 2003, however, technology is no longer elusive, and half of all Americans have computers in their homes capable of doing the special effects from the original 1984 Terminator. As each age grows more technically advanced, it is philosophy that must expand to catch up, and that is what was so fascinating about the first two films: the implications of technology exceeding our understanding. Both had great stories, and for their time, the best in effects.

There is little new in T3. There's a great chase scene, but it's not as good as the one in Matrix Reloaded. The visuals are good but not as dazzling as, say, Finding Nemo. What it can boast is a true return to form by Arnold. As much flap as there has been about how great Demi Moore looks at 40 in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, you'd think the Virgin Mary herself had played the corrupted Angel. Screw that! Arnold, at 55, is in top physical form, even after heart surgery, broken ribs from a motorcycle accident, and no plastic surgery.

The Terminatrix likewise disappoints. Loken, a relative newcomer, hasn't the sunken charm of Arnold or T2's Robert Patrick. Sexy, yes, but that's not the point. I wanted terrifying. How cool would it be if Kathy Bates had played the female Terminator? She could lift you over her head and throw you through a wall without CGI, I bet. Cooler still would be if T-X were played by actor/director Rob Reiner, who may end up opposing Arnold for California's governorship. Their contrasting conservative/liberal ideologies would supplant any need for a plot. Actually, it would have been coolest if the female Terminator were sent in the form of Linda Hamilton. The torment of John Connor battling the image of his mother would have been profound. More profound than, say, the maudlin monologue about her character's death from leukemia that explains why Hamilton is missing from these proceedings. A more rational explanation: her divorce from Terminator creator James Cameron after he cheated on her with Titanic's Suzy Amis.

The first two films were masterful. The first was a model of storytelling economy and plot-driven science fiction. The second pioneered computer-aided special effects. I wanted a reason to stay tuned, to see what is next, to be scared of my own future and destiny. There is nothing new here except this chick Terminator. And she's no Jetmarine. -- Bo List

The Oscar-nominated French documentary Winged Migration is like an Animal Planet or Discovery Channel special elevated to true art. It may not offer the viewer an avalanche of information about our fine, feathered friends, but it does something better: It conveys the rush of flying alongside birds, the thrill of pulling in beside a flock and locking into formation. It isn't a film that describes the mechanics of flight but one that shows the hard work and breathtaking grace that goes into getting these creatures airborne. And it does so with such awesome intimacy that you can almost feel the air movement generated by the flapping wings or feel the heart muscles pumping. It's a film that's likely to leave most viewers repeating the same question throughout its 90-minute length: How'd they do that?

Employing five crews totaling more than 450 people, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers, director Jacques Perrin and his collaborators spent four years following the migrations of groups of birds from all over the planet, tracking flights across 40 countries and all seven continents. The incredible access to the world of birds Perrin and company achieved for the film was gained through a variety of imaginative technical feats, deploying light planes, gliders (some radio-controlled), helicopters, and hot-air balloons.

Some viewers may remember Perrin's previous film, Microcosmos, which did for insects what Winged Migration does for birds. Microcosmos was more self-consciously witty and more playful than Winged Migration, which rightly stands in awe of its subject.

The migrations tracked by the film offer some accidental landscape photography of a beauty and variety perhaps unrivaled: prairies, mountains, lakes, and oceans, from Monument Valley to the Arctic tundras. Along the way, the birds bypass many recognizable human monuments as well -- the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower. But even more engrossing is the range of visual perspectives the filmmakers get on the birds themselves --flying alongside the flocks, following them from behind as they ascend, tracking the sometimes bumpy landings from above. (The Eurasian crane seems to be putting its landing gear in danger with each descent.)

Ultimately, Winged Migration presents these arduous annual trips as one of the cinema's great, epic, dramatic journeys. (The Arctic tern migrates 12,500 miles each season.) Flocks are thinned out considerably with each migration, and we see birds terrorized by combines, semi trucks, shotgun-wielding hunters, sporting dogs, and, for one particular unlucky bird stranded on a beach with a broken wing, a group of hungry crabs. We see birds plodding through industrial waste, avoiding stampeding horses in Monument Valley, fleeing an avalanche (in a rare bit of questionable editing), and taking refuge on a naval carrier during an ocean-crossing migration. The sense of journey and return is underscored by bookend glimpses of a goose cut free from a fishing net by a young boy, the bird tracked throughout her migration (a bit of netting still attached to her foot) until her return a year later to the same pond.

Winged Migration gives birds a better name than the creatures' other notable cinematic tribute (though a swarm of blackbirds surveyed here is pretty Hitchcockian), presenting a world most humans likely take for granted -- a society that soars above us, finds refuge at the edges of our cities, dodges our bullets, navigates mountains and beaches, and in some cases (meet Oregon's Clark grebe) walks on water. Even if the idea of paying $7.50 to see a nature documentary sounds questionable to you, Winged Migration is likely to overcome your skepticism.-- Chris Herrington

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