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Women's Work - Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

While the war between writers and producers continues, threatening to turn television into a barren creative landscape — a grim vision of the future, indeed — Fox unholsters one of its last weapons in its arsenal of not-yet-seen prime-time scripted drama. Of course, it’s a franchise rehash. Old is the new new!

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is an attempt to find weekly gold in the central pursuit narrative of action-auteur James Cameron’s legendary films The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The gist is that former waitress Sarah Connor, mother of the guy who will one day lead a successful post-nuclear-war rebellion against intelligent machines, vigilantly works to ensure her son’s destiny, which means fighting off annihilation at the hands of seemingly unstoppable human-looking cyborgs sent from the future. These blisteringly edited chase operas of mayhem were silly but primal entertainments in the first two Terminator movies, and of course the mechanical monsters were the stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger turned shotguns, sunglasses, a motorcycle and robotic quips like “I’ll be back” into a template for tongue-in-cheek action cool, while few popcorn-flick images seemed as heart-poundingly terrifying as reedy Robert Patrick’s relentless T-1000 liquid-metal assassin running at full speed in the sequel. (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, on the other hand, made without Cameron but with Arnold, seemed more a rowdy test of our willingness to accept a fading movie star who won’t go quietly.)

The TV version of this run-and-gun yarn, developed by War of the Worlds screenwriter Josh Friedman, takes us back to a time after the events of the second film — 1999, to be exact — when Sarah (Lena Headey, taking over for Linda Hamilton) and her 15-year-old son, John (Thomas Dekker, the third actor to play him), are leading jumpy, peripatetic lives avoiding Terminators and U.S. authorities. The feds are giving chase because they think Sarah is an escaped mental patient (which she is) responsible for the murder of Miles Dyson (which she’s not), the scientist who was meant to create Skynet, the military defense system that becomes sentient and wages war with humans. But when Sarah learns from a new Terminator (Summer Glau) sent to protect John that Skynet is still going to be built, this chase-hardened guardian, who likes to remind John that “no one is safe,” decides to quit running and actively seek to destroy this impending death sentence for humanity.

I’m always slightly amazed that anyone would want to take films with such iconic characters and scenes, scale them down for television and risk supreme disappointment. Fixing a flawed movie like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is much more preferable to reconfiguring the movie scrapbook emblazoned in an entire generation’s head. But this is a multiple-platform world we live in — where comics become movies become video games become TV shows become musicals, or any order you choose — so on its own terms, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a serviceable enough addition to this particular pop-culture mosaic. (Besides, a fourth film is in the works, too.)

Comment should be made, however, on the female-centric vibe here. Although Sarah Connor’s name is in the title, and the show is ostensibly tied to her travails as a woman with very peculiar parental circumstances, it’s Glau’s bionic robo-babe who is likely to keep the flame of ass-kicking alive for Terminator fans. She’s even named Cameron, in an unsubtle nod to the director, who had a penchant for including tough women in his high-octane scenarios. (Remember how freaky it was to see Linda Hamilton go from soft in the original movie to sculpted in the sequel?) It means Lena Headey’s hard beauty, pouty lips and mommy ferocity must vie for attention with Glau’s fembot totality: bedroom-meets-labroom eyes, runway-ready stride, fuck-you-up pumps. It also means it’s a little too easy for Thomas Dekker to seem like the messiah sidekick.

It was shrewd, though, of the show’s creators to shift the job of Connor-protecting cyborg from the oaken monolith that was Schwarzenegger to a wiry and hard-wired young female, especially in the wake of Kristanna Loken’s lethally sexy, red-leather-clad, TX-model villain in the third Terminator film. Plus, the show has dramatic plans for Glau, clearly intending her beautiful bucket of bolts to hint at increasing levels of humanness, an enduring theme in cyberfiction. So she not only handles the monotonal one-liner aspects of the job nicely, but may have been uploaded with the program code for coy as well.

“What model are you?” John asks Cameron as he’s eating potato chips during a gas-station pit stop. “You seem different.” She takes a chip out of his bag. “I am,” she says, slowly putting the wafery snack in her mouth before walking away. And, um, what was that model number again?

Although there’s no proof yet, I like harboring the notion that Cameron was sent by the apocalypse-weary John Connor of 2027 as the ultimate time-travel gift to his hormonal teen self: an ageless, Maxim-engineered hottie who destroys all comers and won’t leave his side. But is she a literal and figurative heartbreaker? Somewhere in this series is a facts-of-life episode that should be a hoot.

Like James Cameron with his original Terminator, hallowed producer Val Lewton got his break turning a low-budget genre film into a work of art that captured the wider public. The Yalta-born ex-novelist and former story editor for David O. Selznick transformed a box-office-bruised RKO Studios into a literate, stylish horror brand in the 1940s, starting with Cat People (that masterful exercise in unseen menace, psychological hair-raising and sound effects that seep rather than startle); then followed with the equally incredible, Haitian-set chiller, I Walked With a Zombie; and many others, including The Seventh Victim, Curse of the Cat People,Bedlam and The Body Snatcher. These were moody, intelligent and often expertly crafted tales of the terror and allure of what lies beyond the well-lit, recognizable world, their obliqueness perhaps demanded by a deficit of production money but aesthetically in line with a view of life that respects what cannot be explained. Their titles screamed, but the movies behind them were often eerily calm in evoking their poetic pall, and aficionados of Lewton’s artistic stamp won’t want to miss Turner Classic Movies’ original documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. Written and directed by author/critic Kent Jones, it’s a lovingly hushed journey — not unlike the trademark hypnotic walks that characters often take in Lewton’s films — through the producer’s tragically short life, and how the pressure to make good films with limited means both freed him and became something of a prison. Martin Scorsese narrates too, with a kind of quiet reverence, as if he’d been transplanted to the sets of these classics and was afraid of breaking their delicately obscene atmospheres. But not to worry: Since you’ll be thirsty to watch his films afterward, TCM is airing 10 of them in an all-night marathon, after which you can truly claim, “I Walked With Lewton.”

TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES | FOX | Mondays, 9 p.m. | Two-night series premiere, Sun., Jan. 13, 8 p.m. and Mon., Jan. 14, 9 p.m.

MARTIN SCORSESE PRESENTS VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS | TCM | Mon., Jan. 14, 8 p.m., midnight encore. With Val Lewton marathon to follow until noon Tuesday. Also, the TCM documentary will be available as a single-disc DVD for $19.97 or as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection six-disc DVD set for $59.92, from Warner Home Video.


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