Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why I am not worried about the killer robots

Judging by Terminator Salvation (2009) we have nothing to fear from killer machines from the future. Clearly, computers are TERRIBLE at engineering. First of all, when creating robots they have adopted one of the worst features about human beings, which is that their central processing unit is all contained in one tiny area which is attached to the rest of the body by a skinny little passage, which is easily severed or broken. Most robot designers have the sense either to put the processing unit in an easily protected area or to distribute processing around the machine, or indeed distribute around several machines. Skynet, the evil network of machines from the future has clearly seen too many zombie movies and leave themselves open for the killshot.

Also, for surveillance vehicles they have copied the motorcycle, which is inherently unstable and easily overturned and otherwise disrupted. The only reason anyone invented a two-wheel motorized contraption is that it is fun, not because it is efficient, reliable or safe. It is none of those things, which is what motorcycle fans love about them. These evil computers from the future were clearly built and programmed by idiots. Or just maybe the movies about them are.

A few other things struck me while watching the movie. (In a movie like this, which is in structural terms just a musical in which explosions substitute for big notes and high kicks, you have plenty of time for your own thoughts.) Has the existence of the Jewish Holocaust permanently changed storytelling? Before the Holocaust, could we conceive of a completely implacable, irrational lethal foe which would come after you and kill you for no reason whatsoever except that you are who you are, and which cannot be stopped except by means which threaten the entire world? I would be interested if any sci-fi or fantasy fans could let me know if this story idea predates 1945.

Another thing--did they have to go to Schwarzenegger to get permission to use an image of his face from about 25 years ago to paste it onto an old Terminator? Or did his original contract cover that? (Use of likeness in perpetuity, etc., etc.) If that latter is the case, agents and lawyers are going to have to be a lot more careful about contracts for their actor clients.

Finally, as I was enjoying one of the little encounters in the movie between good guys and bad guys, one which incorporated its own beginning, middle and end, I was thinking about the old canard that what people like in their entertainment is stories. Clearly, this is not true. Let's take professional wrestling. What they LIKE is guys hitting each other with chairs and leaping off the ropes and pretending to get their legs bent the wrong way. But for some reason, they like these things a little BETTER if they're couched in a little story--bad guy wants revenge on good guy for beating him in a previous match, etc. The story isn't what makes it good, but it gives it context in which to enjoy one guy pummeling another.

Similarly in an action film, we like the explosions, gunshots and punches. But we know that a de-contextualized compilation of explosions would get boring. So we want a frame to set these things in. It's not that we enjoy story, per se. It's the flour in the cake. Not yummy, but essential for cake.

Another way to describe it is that story in film is like Russian nesting dolls. There's the great big overarching story--often mythic in scope. Inside that are the particular details of the character. Inside is each of three acts. Inside each act are several scenes, each of which has its own narrative arc. And a scene may have a discrete event within in it--a punch, a kick, a joke, a gag, a kiss, a leap, a high note--which provides a direct visceral pleasure, which is most satisfying to the audience when it's position within the nesting dolls is completely understood and enjoyed.

1 comment:

  1. "Before the Holocaust, could we conceive of a completely implacable, irrational lethal foe which would come after you and kill you for no reason whatsoever except that you are who you are" - what an interesting question!