Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles The Complete First Season DVD Review
In short, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is something that you've got to check out if you're a Terminator fan. If you're not, it's still a pretty good science fiction drama.
Back then I didn't know who Jim Cameron was. After being blown away by the first movie, I was in college watching a rented movie (VHS--there was no DVD at the time) and it had a trailer for T2. Who was that in the metal-case? Who's body? It couldn't be Arnold back again was it? Then it showed his face. When I found out it was the same director I was impressed--they'd gotten him back and now he was a much bigger name! After I'd seen Terminator 2? I was blown away a second time. The only time that'd happened before was Aliens (needless to say, I now knew who Jim Cameron was).
When I heard they were making a TV show based on the movie (and throwing the 3rd one out) I was worried: how good could it be? Certainly this is the golden age of TV with CGI FX being relatively cheap, shows no longer designed for syndication having continuing plots, and with milestones like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5 paving the way it was certainly possible to have shows that pushed the boundaries set by the 80's television I grew up with.
So I decided I'd watch it.
I think something new is happening in Science Fiction entertainment: I believe it has reached a "critical mass" in the popular mind where it is not only mainstream but also inspiring people beyond the initial base of science-geeks and dreamers. It's true that NASA and Intel are full of people inspired by Star Trek--but today I think we can find people in the supermarket who know Lost and Battle Star Galactica--if only for a season or two. It isn't just the weird guys who know the basic story of Lord of the Rings and speaking Klingon is still weird but at least now it's not entirely bizarre.
I think that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the result of this--one of the first children of a new age where science fiction gets taken seriously and smart people from all over are drawn to work on it as legitimate art.
For starters, it gets all the tropes of the movies right. When the creators had their first meeting there was an empty chair at the table (so says the interviews included with the DVDs). "The empty chair is James Cameron," said the producer. They were going to stay true to his vision. This includes abrupt vehicular collisions with a terminator, almost-non-sequitur one-liners from the machines, a style of walking and fighting, and so on. They've studied the material and they get it right. Almost too right: sometimes you can see the movie hitting plot-points because it's trying maybe a little too hard.
Secondly, it casts Summer Glau (Firefly) as Cameron (a tribute to Jim), a female terminator who is John Connor's bodyguard. Her incredible body control (she's a ballet dancer) and ability to convey a lot with a facial expression (or lack thereof--the Terminator Boot Camp training taught her to fight without expression) is key here. She can be charming or scary. She's a huge asset to the production.
So is 300's Lena Headey playing Sarah. She has a difficult role: she has to be intense and angry and still be somehow maternal. The show does a decent job and while I wasn't sure I bought her not just wasting people with extreme prejudice, I did find her a powerfully emotional actress who does a credible job with some tough material.
Less impressive is Thomas Dekker as John who just plain doesn't have as much to do and lacks a bit of screen presence. The problem with John's character is that we partially want to see him "do stuff" and are reminded that by "doing stuff" he often jeopardizes his future savior of mankind role ... which is a tough spot to be in. He's credible though (and, interestingly, apparently bald--see the added material).
So what about the added material? It's good. They have several commentary tracks where they actually talk about what's going on with the movie. All too often the creators will talk about what they had for lunch that day or other projects or whatever. They also have three "making of" videos that are highly worth watching.
I was most impressed by the artist they got to do the CGI. He had to take the Terminator ethos and mythology and update it. He studied Stan Winston's model for the machines (including the flying Hunter Killer machines) and then updated them with sound engineering principles. He talks about how the models move and turn, how they are armored, and so on. He really gets it. When he designed the plasma gun for the first episode, he used his knowledge of science to build a credible looking weapon--with interesting behavior. He could tell you what each piece of the gun did, even though it was never really discussed in the show.
This is the kind of thought Cameron puts into his work that makes it stand out (see the Sentry Guns and Steady-Cam mounted weapons in Aliens). This is what you didn't use to get when you promoted "science fiction" (sure, there were always people thinking about stuff--but I've seen plenty of shows where the amount of technical thought that went into a set or device consisted of "how many lights can we put on this?")
The DVD set is presented in amaphoric widescreen with crisp colors (no artifacts can be seen on the picture itself) with a Dolby 5.1 surround sound mix.
In short, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is something that you've got to check out if you're a Terminator fan. If you're not, it's still a pretty good science fiction drama. The DVD set provides you with what I think people really want: a look behind the curtain at what the creators were thinking when they created it.
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