Having briefly explored what makes up film character personas in this article here, I thought it would be fun to start a new feature which looks at memorable film characters. So, with Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) in the cinema, I wanted to look at one of the greatest character narrative arcs ever in my opinion. When I say character arc, I am talking of the transformation of a character throughout a film or films. Because for me, the arc of Sarah Connor is absolutely brilliant.
I haven’t seen Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), as for me, the Terminator franchise is a spent force narratively speaking. I’m sure it’s a great spectacle, but I am more interested in speaking about James Cameron’s first two genre masterpieces. I am specifically intrigued by Sarah Connor movement from timid waitress to hardcore rebel fighter. Thus, Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke’s turns as the character are ignored here.
The genius of James Cameron’s original filmThe Terminator (1984) is how it is both simple and complex at the same time. It takes time travel tropes, which while very familiar today, were extremely fresh and exciting back in the 1980s. Mashing up ideas from literary science fiction, Star Trek , The Twilight Zoneand films likeWestworld (1973), Cameron gave us one of the greatest bad guys and heroines ever committed to film. Plus, he did it all on a $7 million budget!!
At the heart of the sci-fi, war and thriller genres is an intriguing character study and even a love story. The Terminator (1984) introduces Sarah Connor as a waitress who is having a bad day. It’s about to get worse. She has been murdered and it’s on TV. Well, it’s not her, but someone with the same name as her. Very quickly she is confronted by a man from the future, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), claiming she is the mother of the person who will be a future saviour. How do you process THAT?!? Mind blown!!
Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor then find themselves pursued by a futuristic cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger), hell bent on her destruction. Here she learns more and more about the future and how machines will take control, but her son, John, will lead the resistance. Thus, over the course of the film, as Sarah learns about her fate, the audience learns too. Sarah begins as a conduit and passive, before transforming slowly into an aggressive and battle-hardened fighter.
When the events of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), come around we meet a whole different kind of Sarah Connor. She has transformed into a muscular and angry revolutionary. Not surprisingly, her narratives about future robots and the apocalypse find her sectioned. But, we know she is telling the truth. Moreover, due to her toughness, guile and resourcefulness, she is now very capable. No four walls will hold Sarah Connor.
Finally, Linda Hamilton’s performance must be praised too. In the first film she is a small character, quiet, likeable and lacking confidence. Over the course of the two films her physical, mental and emotional transformation is very impressively rendered. Cameron’s writing and Hamilton’s commitment to the role make Sarah Connor a highly memorable film character for me.
Way back in September 2015 I wrote an article listing some great ensemble film casts. Please feel free to read it here at this link.
If you can’t be bothered to read it the list of films are as follows:
12 ANGRY MEN (1957) AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (2012) GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) INCEPTION (2010) LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) MAGNOLIA (1999) MEANTIME (1984) THE OUTSIDERS (1983) PULP FICTION (1994) SHORT CUTS (1993) TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (2011)
Never one to worry about originality, I have decided to follow up this article with another list of great ensemble film casts.
The challenge second time round though is to EXCLUDE the films of directors or franchises ALREADY LISTED.
For those who may have lazy-read this I WILL REPEAT!!!
NO DIRECTOR’S OR FRANCHISE WORK FROM LIST ONE WILL BE ON LIST TWO!!!
It would be so easy to include all of Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino’s or the Marvel films. So I am not going to do that. Anyway, here are another TEN films with great ensemble casts (in alphabetical order).
Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, as the above quote from Freud suggests watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.
The thriller genre is one of my favourite types of film and in this piece I would like to draw on elements of psychology, genre and culture theories to examine classic, postmodern and neo-thriller tropes. I also want to investigate some recent cinema offerings which defy certain genre conventions and have what could be described as a subtle less-is-more approach to building suspense and thrilling the audience. For this I will examine three scenes from the work of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Joel and Ethan Coen where, while adhering to thriller genre conventions, they also softly kill us in an arguably more unconventional fashion.
But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include: sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. Also that as social mammals we have the power to experience and feel the fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.
These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including: McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs etc. Moreover, it also features characteristics like: unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson one of the thrillers enduring characteristic is openness to expansion into subgenres such as: spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular to audiences and filmmakers alike.
One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was of course Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films such as: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolised death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.
Without a shadow of a doubt Hitchcock had an incredible influence of filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers like: Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and arguably most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in: Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s ouevre there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as the Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).
What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humour in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill and just on moment of impact the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humour in an especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humour or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.
While Hitchcock and DePalma often favoured the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.
The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favouring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean. While, the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however it is implicit within the editing and performance that sadly she does.
Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.
Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from a the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience. Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realises she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realisation for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavours.
What all these scenes and films provide are a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death. Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.
**CONTAINS SWEARING AND SPOILERS AND OVER-USE OF CAPITALS**
Usually I’m very positive on this page but on occasions I feel the need to let rip at things that irk me. Loss of the Voice-Over Guy in film trailers pisses me off as does the generally poor expositional style of many trailers which TELL the whole story or give key plot points away IN THE TRAILER!!! E.g. Terminator: Genocide (2015). But there is one sub-genre of movie-making which has me tearing my nuts off with rage and that is the continued proliferation of FOUND FOOTAGE style films. And here are TEN reasons why!!!
1) THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT(1999) – I hate this fucking film! Because of its ridiculous success it undoubtedly gave birth to an army of other bastards that have been stinking up the cinema and TV screens for the past few decades. Firstly, this film sucks! As both a story AND a horror story. If this film scares you then you are a moron! It’s an okay short film padded out to an overlong bore-fest which was only topped for boringness when Paranormal Activity (2007) came out.
I’m happy for the filmmakers for garnering such success but given they have not released anything of note since shows this was a fluke success. I mean the characters were awful and dumb; notably when one moron threw away the map and got them LOST! The ending isn’t bad but I was just so relieved when they all died! Verbal Kint once said, “The greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing you he doesn’t exist.” I disagree: it was making this film so phenomenally successful.
2) UNNECESSARY!– Found footage is unnecessary to tell a story. I can see some benefit in perhaps framing your story like that if it’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and it’s documentary film crew blah-blah-blah! But in my opinion it ADDS NOTHING to the story as a stylistic device. Use flash-backs, montage, flash-forwards, voiceover, non-linear structures etc. but found footage is like one of those Chihuahua dogs: irritating, totally lacking in charm and completely pointless.
3)POISON – Like Hitler, Gangnam Style, Miley Cyrus, Adam Sandler, Ugg Boots etc. found footage films are inexplicably successful yet also poison humanity!! I admire low-budget/independent filmmakers and DO NOT begrudge any success these people have had BUT THE FILMS ARE RUBBISH!! The cinematic epitome of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
4) CLUMSY – It’s just SO clunky!! Even the best ever found footage film Chronicle (2012) which uses the device imaginatively suffered because they had to make up some reason for one of the characters to be filming. Oh, it’s my sister’s mum’s birthday and funeral and we need to film it for future posterity. Oh, I accidentally left my phone camera on while in the woods and am now being hunted down by my own shadow! No! STOP IT!!
5) THE FILMS LOOK SHIT! Need I say more?!? Low budget does not mean the film needs to be shot through CCTV or infra-red or in low-grade digital footage grainier than hamster shit. Ten minutes or so is bearable but a whole film like that is just too much to handle!
6) LAZY – Oh, we’re gonna make a horror film shall but we don’t have much money: shall we use our imagination like say Sam Raimi or James Wan and construct a proper story with nasty monsters, witty dialogue, funny and horrific set-pieces OR shall we set up a fake camera and have doors move slightly or faces suddenly appear on screen or it’s quiet and then a shadow moves! Yeah, don’t bother with characters you may connect with or creating suspense through something called a story let’s make a found footage film because WE ARE LAZY!!
7) INSULTING – Occasionally, found footage is used well such as in Creep (2014) with Mark Duplass or REC (2007), but overall the films are an insult to the horror genre. I love horror films and there have been some really good ones recently such as: Insidious (2010), Saw (2004), The Conjuring (2013), The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), You’re Next (2011), Let The Right One In (2008), The Descent (2005), Cabin in the Woods (2012), Shaun of the Dead (2004) to name a few. And were any of them found footage films: HELL NO!!!
8) MORONS – It’s an invite for every talentless, breathing moron with a camera who think they can become a filmmaker. Don’t bother writing a script or creating decent characters or storyboarding imaginative cinematic moments – just don’t bother because you can just tripod a camera and PRETEND its close-circuit TV or a cameraman or videographer! Even horror legend George Romero got sucked into the talent vortex with the atrocious Diary of the Dead (2007) and Oscar winner Barry Levinson too with The Bay (2012). Stop the world I’m getting off!!
9) VERMIN – Like rats in London you’re never too far away from a found footage film. There’s too many of them – they are a plague upon the culture and humanity overall. Please STOP watching them because as they are cheap to make they spawn rubbish sequels! They are like the appendix; utterly pointless but when they burst on the cinema screen they are poisonous, painful and one must immediately seek medical help.
10) FOUND FOOTAGE FILMS ARE NOT SCARY! Perhaps in the darkened cinema you could be tricked into THINKING they are scary when a shadow, door or tree moves but they’re not. Overall they are as scary as a Panda in a bib!