Sci-Fi Movies Kick Into Gear

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'TERMINATOR 2: Judgment Day" is the first $100 million movie, according to some reports, although other estimates put its budget at a mere $85 million or so. Either way, it's the most expensive picture in history.Such costliness wouldn't be a problem if the result were something 20th-century civilization could be proud of, representing the best our culture can create and standing as a monument for the future. Such is not the case, however. "Terminator 2" has little to do with culture, or even civilization, in the higher senses of those terms. It's a monument to nothing but high-tech frivolity and a regrettably shallow conception of visual entertainment. The movie is a sequel to "The Terminator," which revolved around a 21st-century android trying to kill a 20th-century woman whose still-unconceived son is destined to be the hero of a future war between people and machines. Released in 1984, the original "Terminator" boasted clever technical effects and enough bone-crunching energy to distract spectators from its lack of meaningful thoughts and themes. It did very well at the box office, and earned favorable reviews from critics who confused its machinel ike efficiency with cinematic intelligence. "Terminator 2," also directed by James Cameron, escalates the technical wizardry of its predecessor, and rings a few changes on the original story. The muscular "cyborg" is again played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this time he's the hero instead of the villain, protecting a young boy (the unconceived kid of the first movie, now a feisty pre-teen) from another Terminator who's still trying to change the course of that future war. There's no question that a great deal of genuine talent, and even a fair amount of wit and savvy, have gone into the "Terminator" sequel. Some sequences work surprisingly well as pure cinema - if one can separate the picture's forms, movements, and colors from the facile plot and dopey characters they're connected with - and there are amiable touches of self-parody in Mr. Schwarzenegger's performance as the good guy, who becomes a sort of brawny pet for his young friend. I also like the touch of '60s-rad ical chic that Linda Hamilton brings to her portrayal of the beleaguered mom. The best efforts of highly trained talents are not enough to save the picture from its own deep-rooted foolishness, however. The plot remains trapped in the science-fiction cliches that spawned it, chugging along in a hopelessly conventional way despite the frantic new twists made possible by the movie's enormous reserve of special effects. Still more regrettable is the movie's failed attempt to convey a philosophical message. In the spirit of recent "socially responsible" pictures like "Dances With Wolves" and "Thelma & Louise," it has a sermon to deliver - about the horrors of nuclear war, and the need to outgrow the self-destructive urges of humanity. While such sentiments are admirable, their presence in "Terminator 2" can only be called hypocritical, since the film as a whole labors to contradict any such message by cramming the screen with gleeful mayhem that glorifies every weapon and macho attitude it can squeeze into 135 minutes. This contradiction reveals a painful truth about Hollywood's current wish to appear enlightened while continuing to exploit old formulas rooted in violence, hostility, and suspicion. In the last scene of "Terminator 2," after the Schwarzenegger android has supposedly learned the meanings of love and emotion from his human friends, another character remarks that maybe people can now learn "the value of human life" as well. To which I must ruefully respond: Not with movies like this to guide them, they won 't!

'The Rocketeer' In the 1950s when I was a kid, jetpacks - the things you strap on your back and fly into the air with like a bird - were always popping up in science-fiction movies, TV shows, and comic books. They had an air of nostalgia about them even then, because my friends and I knew they'd been popular during our parents' youthful days back in the '20s and '30s. Well, you can't keep a good gimmick down. The latest yarn from Walt Disney Pictures is all about a jetpack - or rather, about a brave young pilot who stumbles on one of these high-tech wonders, figures out how it works, and immediately becomes the fabulous Rocketeer! It's noteworthy that today's most popular fantasy filmmakers, such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, have moved away from imagining the future, preferring to reimagine the past instead. That's why pictures like "Alien" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" have been replaced by, say, the Indiana Jones epics. In this spirit, a jetpack is an oddly old-fashioned doodad for a science-fiction movie just nine years before the 20th century draws to a close, and there's something similarly old-fashioned about "The Roc keteer" as a whole - which takes place in 1938, and actually brings back the Nazis as villains for our hero to defeat. I rather like some of the movie's backward-looking aspects. But predictably, such historical angles are making "The Rocketeer" a hard sell with the young '90s audience it obviously wants to capture. Another problem is the movie's relaxed pace, and the fact that it doesn't have many daring exploits to offer. True, the Rocketeer goes on some harrowing rides, and the climax is literally explosive. But much of the picture just ambles along, with familiar characters having more conversations than adventures. "The Rocketeer" has been capably put together by Joe Johnston, who directed it. Still, it probably won't turn into one of the summer's hits unless the competition turns out to be even duller than expected. What today's young audiences want in their warm-weather fantasies is action, action, action - yet strange to say, there's less derring-do in "The Rocketeer" than in many a low-budget matinee serial from the 1930s themselves. And as for seeing a man fly, didn't "Superman" take care of that?

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is rated * for "strong sci-fi action and violence" and language. "The Rocketeer" is rated PG.

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