Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Genre Analysis of The Terminator

Here's a look at The Terminator and some other science fiction films taking a genre approach.  This is for my BTEC Film Studies students who are currently writing up their own analysis of science fiction films which I hope they will then turn into a blog post just like this!  Enjoy reading and please leave any feedback if you have anything to say about what has been written here.

Arnie becomes an icon
The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) is a hybrid of genres.  It has elements of science fiction, horror and action films.  Some of the conventions that make it recognizable as a science fiction film are the use of robots and scenes that are set in the future.  It has horror conventions such as an unstoppable monster that will not die and does not feel pain.  It is also mostly set at night and has a girl being relentlessly chased by the monster/robot.  The Terminator is also full of car chases, gun fights and explosions which audiences expect to find in an action film.

Firstly, The Terminator is science fiction.  The hero and villain are time travellers from the future.  The audience knows this by the dialogue and the fact that the villain is a cyborg.  Time travel is not overly significant to the plot as once the protagonist and antagonist are in the present, they do not travel back and forth in time again.  Many other science fiction films use time travel much more with characters going to the past, the future and their present.  An example of this is the Back to the Future trilogy where the protagonist travels from 1985 to 1955 to 2015 to 1855.  This is only possible in science fiction and allows the characters to have adventures in different time periods.  It also allows the filmmaker Robert Zemeckis to make a science fiction Western hybrid in Part 3 of the trilogy.

Genre Hybrids: Back to the Future Part 3
Cyborgs are a science fiction convention that do not exist in the present.  They are robots that appear human.  Beneath the skin it has a metal endoskeleton.  This metal endoskeleton helps the film conform to genre expectations of the horror and action film.  The Terminator is almost invincible so it can survive gun fights and even explosions.  This means the heroes have to repeatedly try to kill it, leading to more action scenes.  It also means that the villain keeps rising after it appears to have been killed.  This makes it similar to the slasher films' psycho killers like Michael Myers of Halloween and Jason Vorhees of Friday the 13th.  The use of a metal endoskeleton signifies the robot's strength and power and how hard to kill it will be.  The skeleton signifies that it is dead and therefore impossible to kill.  Its red eyes and gritted teeth also make it appear angry, scary and determined.

Michael Myers just won't stay dead
The future is presented in the film through the use of flashbacks.  It is dystopian as machines have waged a war on the human race and there are few survivors.  It is darkly lit and there are flying machines and Terminator robots that hunt down human survivors.  The bleak future is created through special effects such as models of robots and ruined cities.  Humans live underground and hunt rats, showing the dire situation that the human race is in, in the future.  Technology is killing humans and this emphasises a message that humans depend too much on technology and are advancing too quickly in the present.  Science fiction films set in dystopian futures often have messages to convey about the time in which they were made.  An example of this is Children of Men that takes place in England, 2027.  The human race is infertile and London is dirtier and more polluted than it is now.  The only thing that seems to be looked after and technologically advanced is adverts on the side of buses and buildings.  This suggests that corporate power and greed remain unchanged from present times.  There is a bombing in the opening scene and lots of references to patriotic values and discrimination against immigrants.  This is clearly a reference to the post 9/11 behaviour of the British and American governments and demonstrates how genres adapt over time.  The culture also seems obsessed with celebrity as shown by their staring at the screen and grief over the death of someone they have never met.  Children of Men offers a different vision of the future from The Terminator, but still has uses science fiction conventions to represent it.

Children of Men's dystopian future London
Robots are not present in Children of Men but they feature prominently in The Terminator and Transformers.  They are futuristic as they have real human skin and hair and can sweat and bleed.  The Terminator also has a type of 'Terminator vision' created by a red tint and various bits of written information scrolling on the screen when the audience sees from The Terminator's point of view.  Like in Transformers, the robots disguise themselves; The Terminator as a human and the Transformers as various vehicles.

Terminator POV
The music and editing also helps the audience to decipher the genre.  For the action moments such as car chases and fights, the music speeds up.  The synth score sounds futuristic and the high pitched string sounds are very reminiscent of classic horror music from films such as Psycho.  Tension is created through the use of intercutting between the Terminator and his prey, Sarah Connor.  The audience is made to worry about Connor’s safety by the order of the shots.  The Terminator is also shot from a low angle to make him look dominant.  This is common for villains and sometimes heroes.

Terminator terminating.
Terminator is structured like many other horror, science fiction and action films.  It introduces a hero and a villain at the beginning and sets them up as binary opposites.  The human is vulnerable, caring and sensitive and willing to do anything, including sacrificing himself, for the good of the human race.  The Terminator is set up as exactly the opposite.  It may look human but it is made of metal and therefore hard to kill, it has no feelings and its purpose is to destroy humans.  The human and robot come into a series of conflicts together; gun fights, car chases and eventually at the climax hand-to hand combat.  The action film is often structured around a series of confrontations and set-pieces.  The target audience want stunts, action and fighting and so conversations and dialogue are scattered through the film between big action moments.

Kyle Reese: Human Hero
Terminator also subverts the expectations of the crime and action film as The Terminator drives a police car in one car chase.  This means the villain is driving a symbol of law and order.  Usually the police are a force for good in action films and this use of the police car suggests that the Terminator is the new symbol of order.  He will not stop until he catches his prey, like the determined detectives of many action films.  This is taken further in the sequel as the T1000 villain morphs into the figure of a policeman throughout the film.  It also subverts expectations and adapts to reflect more modern representations of women than were present in many of the science fiction films of the 1950s.  Sarah Connor may begin the film as a typical damsel in distress but by the end she is a strong female who must fight the villain by herself and wins.  This is similar to the convention of the ‘final girl’ in slasher films who is the last survivor of the killer and must fight back to survive.  This convention can be seen in films including Halloween and Friday the 13th.

Sarah Connor: The Final Girl