Monday, May 3, 2010

Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) & The Terminator (1984)

This is supposed to be about honesty, and specifically about confronting the action movies that I loved as a boy through the perspective of what I now humbly refer to as "adulthood". I have to engage in conversation with my younger self and try to figure out what was wrong with him and also what was working out all right. I'm not embarrassed that in the seventh grade I loved Titanic. I might be a little red-in-the-face for liking True Lies as much as I used to (but then, if Cameron's made any single film exclusively for the narrow demographic of male teenagers, it's that one).

I grew up with Cameron's movies, and the fact that, until recently, I had never seen one of them presents something of a conundrum. Cameron took a mulligan on his first feature and now we have to think of him as having two separate and distinct debut features. As a kid I actively sought out all of his work, but somehow (and I was perfectly aware of its existence) Piranha II: The Spawning got left off the list. So what's it like to revisit a beloved first film that you've seen countless times in juxtaposition to an alternate first film that you've never seen at all?

The Terminator is almost always checked as Cameron's first; most people give him the courtesy of reserving Piranha1 for the punchline or leaving it off the list entirely. His first of three sequels to his name thus far, Piranha is inarguably Cameron's "least good" movie. The story goes that it was another in a line of special effects gigs for Cameron, who took over after the original director departed. It was a promotion and a paycheck and Cameron has since disowned the film.

I think that's too bad.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn't conceive of the thing and wasn't allowed in the editing room (another 'citation needed' urban legend tells of Cameron trying to break into the editing suite in Rome and getting ousted by security guards), is there any merit to his film as the juvenilia of a first-timer who would go on to make several of the best action movies ever made? I say there is, especially when compared to Terminator.

Cameron started his career with two movies that can easily be classified as 'horror' films. In respect to the traditional merits of that genre, both are failures; he hasn't been back to the well since. And to be completely honest: I've seen Terminator so many times that its cheese emerges now as more pungent than I'd have thought possible, while there's a novelty to Piranha that I find refreshing. These are surprisingly similar pieces by an audacious young director not yet capable of mixing his Ideas™ with his characters in any graceful fashion.

Now an icon, The Terminator was an out-of-left-field hit, the massive popularity of which far outweighed its overall quality. Though filled with great Ideas™ and cracker-jack suspense, the decades have made it far too easily conflated with its superior sequel. Piranha is little seen yet consistently the butt of jokes - it's actually underrated (albeit not severely so). The films share a hokiness that might be less intentional in Piranha but there's plenty of unintentional humor in Terminator if you're willing to go there in a movie you grew up on.

Take Michael Biehn's Kyle Reese. Cameron and Biehn would team up in three consecutive movies (four if your count his deleted scene from T2) and ultimately The Abyss' Lt. Coffey would merit an Oscar campaign from Twentieth Century Fox. But their formula for a malleable, humanized alpha male wasn't quite perfected yet in The Terminator, saddling Biehn with some really unfortunate turns of phrase. Linda Hamilton, never exactly a high-caliber actor, only helps to bog down the romance between Reese and Sarah Connor. It doesn't take long for the pair to turn into mouth breathers.
SARAH: Kyle... the women in your time. What are they like?
KYLE: Good fighters.
SARAH: That's not what I meant. Was there someone special?
KYLE: Someone...
SARAH: A girl? You know...
KYLE: No. Never.
Never? I'm sorry. I'm so sorry ... so much pain.
KYLE: Pain can be controlled. You just disconnect it.
SARAH: So you feel nothing?
KYLE: John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didn't know why at the time. It was very old. Torn.
Faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just ... a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorized every line. Every curve. I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have.

The Terminator, like Cameron's latter-day successes, works in spite of its bad performances and worse dialogue. A huge factor in making the film a hit was that nobody saw it coming; recycled into the fabric of the popular culture, decades of parody and copying have made it a little worse for the wear.

But there's a great piece of connective tissue between Piranha II and The Terminator: police officer Lance Henriksen. A Cameron repertory player up through the 1998 Martini Ranch music video "Reach"3, Henrisken delivered some of his best character work (in a career full of understated, underrated character work) in Aliens, The Terminator and, yes, Piranha. The fanboy in me has to feel a tingle in my spine during Piranha's sub-Bass opening credits wherein the actor, billed third, shows up in an emphasis-box: "Lance Henriksen as Steve".

In The Terminator, Henriksen plays garrulous Detective Hal Vukovich, teaming up with Paul Winfield's Lieutenant Ed Traxler and Earl Boen's Dr. Silberman to provide the film's only running comic relief4. The three men are here to provide comfort to Sarah and protect her from the two crazies (nobody believes they are actually soldiers from the future) out to get her, but of course Silberman leaves his videotape running to allow our heroine to see Kyle shouting about how she's as good as dead. Traxler and Vukovich both get a spare few character beats that stand out in the film: Traxler trying to light a cigarette only to discover he has one already going in his other hand and Vukovich telling stories and showing off scars he received in the line.

They're side characters in the film, but when Traxler gets shot during the Terminator's riveting, wrenching raid on the police station, Cameron pauses long enough to allow Vukovich a fleeting "Ed!" over Traxler's body. This gets me, partially because Henriksen is so adept at infusing melodramatic material with his grizzled, steadfast humanity. Henriksen is real, and he's equally good in Piranha, if not better. He's got the lead here: if the whole thing was made to cash in on Jaws, Henriksen is Chief Brody. Of course, the quantity of screen time here can't match the quality of his minutes in The Terminator, but to Henriksen it's all a wash.

I love how seriously he takes this preposterous scenario. Paternal towards both his son and the resort community he serves and protects, Chief Steve spends the whole film worrying. Like Chief Brody, he's the only one who grasps that anyone's lives are stake throughout most of the running time, even as bodies are piling up. Of course, why would we take this seriously? The mere suggestion of genetically-altered, man-eating piranha that can fly out of the water at you because they have wings is as ridiculous to a beachgoer as it is to a moviegoer.

But part of what I find fascinating is that these movies are, in essence, about the exact same thing - and it's the exact same thing that almost all of Cameron's movies are about: a military designed future-weapon flails out of our limited control and comes back to bite us in the ass5. In Aliens and Avatar, we try to gain control of a weapon that isn't ours and in The Abyss and Avatar the non-human intelligence teaches us a lesson about the weapons we desire to wield. The premise of Piranha II is so thematically in line with the rest of Cameron's ouevre, it's almost as if his entire career has been a response to the failure of this C-movie fiasco: "No, no, this is what I am interested in and I will do it better again and again just to show you I was right."

At this point in time, the familiarity of The Terminator works against the film. It's a classic, sure, but can't match Cameron's three follow-ups in terms of cast, suspense, action or theme. Really, the only of Cameron's films that it looks good against is Piranha II, which, since I tend to root for the underdog, only makes me like Piranha all the more. I may or may not ever sit through it again, but I'm glad I've finally seen it once.

1.) The full on-screen title is Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, which I greatly prefer. And in case you're wondering: no, I've never seen and cannot comment on the film's predecessor, though my impression is that they are about as disparate as two films about killer piranha could possibly be. [back]

2.) There probably ought to be several more ellipses in that transcription. [back]

3.) This eight-minute Cameron-helmed music video, stars Aliens cast members Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Paul Reiser. In addition, it features Academy Award Winner Kathryn Bigelow as a sexy cowgirl mercenary leading a posse of sexy cowgirl mercenaries, and resurfaced on the internet during the "non-feud" between Cameron and Bigelow that took up too much of this year's award season. It is, to borrow a term from my friend Daniel Gorman, 'essential' viewing. [back]

4.) Silberman is the only one of the three who lives to see Judgment Day; in the sequel, his character is far less exuberant, though he has made his career on the committal of Sarah Connor (as he foreshadows in the first film). Presumably, having walked out of the police station and crossed paths with the machine that would kill almost everyone left in the building, he's been traumatized into humorlessness. [back]

5.) In the case of Piranha's sublimely ridiculous underwater scuba sex cold open, they will bite us in the ass – literally!! [back]


  1. I'll be doing something on Cameron's films soon, and will be sure to cite this at some point. Your criticisms of Terminator are fair, but my growing, evolving appreciation of the film has always been able to maintain, and without effort or bias, that it's in large part a film that derives strengths from its imperfections, in that it's roughly hewn and ramshackle and the equally unpolished human elements are given a certain legitimacy by this trait. I consider it a debut film (saying Cameron truly "made" Pirahna II is more of a stretch than saying Alien 3 is David Fincher's own film) on nearly the same level as Orson Welles. Seriously.

  2. PIRANHA II is very obviously not the product of any single person with vision or control, and THE TERMINATOR is, for its flaws, audaciously assured. Still, it's not really fair to call TERMINATOR a debut. Any decent director will learn a lot of important lessons from a first-feature-fiasco like PIRANHA, and some of that has to be evident in TERMINATOR.

    ALIEN 3 is an apt comparison, although it makes PIRANHA look like a kindergartner's finger painting.

  3. You either loved Titanic in 8th grade or you have a time machine somewhere that you have yet to tell me about.

  4. Cassandra did the math and she's right, it was eighth grade. Explicitly exposing my age to the internets!

  5. I think Todd and I are fairly close in the age realm.

    Also, my personal favorite bit of screenwriting cheese from Terminator 1: "You think I'm tough, organized? I can't even balance my checkbook!" It's bad, but Christ, it's earnest.