The first two Terminator films, particularly the second installment, are generally thought of as action films with brains behind them (okay, not as much the first one, though it's a solid film). I won't go into the plot behind them; in case you've been living under a rock for the past twenty-plus years, there's always Wikipedia. They're notable in particular for having one of the most well-drawn female characters this side of the science fiction ghetto, Sarah Connor. (Talk about a character arc, too - she goes from damsel-in-distress waitress to badass warrior hero in the space of two films. But I digress.)
After those two movies came Terminator 3, a 'meh' movie with some great action scenes, boring characters, mediocre writing, and the complete absence of the central character of the first two films, Sarah Connor. (She's killed off by cancer offscreen.)
After that came a still-running TV series, which, as if to thumb its nose at the mistakes of the third movie, calls itself "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles". Awkward name, but straight to the point, no? Ironically, recent episodes of the show have occasionally suffered from too much subtlety and experimental writing and a dearth of good action sequences. More on this in later posts, as I'm still following this show.
The newest Terminator movie, weirdly titled "Terminator: Salvation", is set in the post-apocalyptic future the first three movies lead up to. After the sheer disappointment of Terminator 3, exactly no one was interested. So the producers and director pulled what TV Tropes calls a "Cue Cullen", which is when the people involved in a blockbuster flick with bad buzz "bring out the one person that makes you go, 'Holy crap, this is going to be awesome.'" They cast Christian Bale, rare combination of Action Star and 'Real' Actor.
There was just one problem, which brings me to the point of this post, a problem I read all about in a months-old interview with pretentiously named director McG.
"Initially (Bale) told me to 'f**k right off.' He said it had to be about character, not explosions. He said, 'If you can get it too a place where it can be read on a stage like a play, with no action or special effects, then I'll do it.'A few drafts later, Bale signed on.
I still have no idea whether or not "Terminator Salvation" will turn out to be either well-written or entertaining. Either way, this situation is an interesting sign of the times. Once upon a time, I hear tell, genre films only needed a cool idea and neat special effects (or the written equivalent, in plain ol' prose fiction land). That's still the case now, but standards are rising across the board - make no mistake, if Terminator Salvation is a success, it will be because people expect great things out of Bale, not because of the explosions in the trailers. I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the most popular sci-fi/action films of last year were Iron Man and The Dark Knight; Iron Man had a great director and a well-written and well-acted central character, and The Dark Knight... well, I hardly need to add to the critical gushing over that film, do I?
If this is becoming an era of higher standards for genre fiction, then I wholeheartedly embrace it. I love pretty special effects and spiffy fantastical ideas, but I love good plot, character and writing even more - and I hardly think I'm alone.
UPDATE: After watching Terminator Salvation, I have to wonder how bad McG's original drafts were if that was supposed to be a character-based script. I mean, I enjoyed the film on balance, but seriously.