TSJ on THE TERMINATOR

I watched THE TERMINATOR on the weekend.

I had to.

It was calling me.

I use the phrases “watershed film” or “watershed book” quite a lot. That’s the point of this entire blog. What are the movies/books/tv shows that influenced me in the years leading to my first attempts at writing fiction? Hell, even the name of this blog — “Life After Gateway” — is a nod to my favorite Science Fiction novel. This blog is dedicated to the books and movies that inspired me in my creative/formative years. A few TV series, some fantastic authors, and a small selection of short stories helped along the way. Certain teachers were invaluable too.

THE TERMINATOR is one of those properties. I remember the first time I saw it. Maybe that sounds weird, but I can say the same thing with more than a handful of movies. I watched it in 1985 during a free weekend on The Movie Network. Remember those? The movie channels would normally be scrambled until one of those special times. The final movie on the Sunday evening was the biggest movie of the lot, to try and convince people to rent descramblers and join up. That weekend, the movie was THE TERMINATOR.

I was fifteen years old. I hadn’t seen the movie yet. It was a restricted film, and my older brother hadn’t yet rented it to show me (as he did with THE THING a few years earlier,) so I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. But I knew I had to see it. I’d seen the commercials months earlier during the theatrical run, after all. This movie was screaming my name.

“Phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.”

We all know the story. The world of the future is at war with artificially intelligent machines, and the AI enemy is on the verge of total defeat. To prevent the inevitable, they launch one more attack — into the past. Aimed at the leader of the resistance — John Connor — before he is even born. It was a fantastic concept for my teen brain to mull over, and I sat in rapt attention at my friend Melanie’s house as Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor ran from Schwarzenegger’s maniacal cyborg, a T-800 Model 101 from the 21st Century designed to infiltrate and kill human beings. It had one mission in this movie: to find and terminate Sarah Connor.

In recent years I’ve learned more about the film. About how Arnold was originally offered the role of Reese, but thought the villainous and determined killing machine better suited him. About James Cameron’s long struggle in low-budget films as a matte painter and f/x artist before he could get this movie made. When he finally completed and released the film, critics labeled it a “sleeper hit.” It wasn’t a huge success at first, but its creativity and emotional story resonated with viewers. It paid off, and the rest is history as they say. Or “future history” perhaps, as Isaac Asimov would have said.

I sometimes meet with aspiring writers or story-tellers and talk about the importance of finding the emotional core of the story. Movies come and go, some good, some bad. The ones that stick with us, however, and cavitate on through the years as we age, are the ones with that emotional center that keep calling to us. Cameron clearly possesses that skill. He can reach out to his audience and tell a kick-ass story, but at the same time make us empathize with his characters and feel the pain and hunger and hardship and agony that they’re going through. Yes, acting and directing counts a whole hell of a lot, but if that emotional core isn’t there, It’s game over man! The audience — whether it’s of a book, movie or television show — has to be emotionally invested, or there’s no point to it all. His movies become experiential, and it’s a goal I’ve set for myself with my own novels.

Which brings me to THE TERMINATOR. Cameron does a wonderful job at making us feel Sarah’s uncertainty toward her own destiny. We feel Reese’s pain as he tries to tell Sarah what she means to him … even if it was only because of a picture he looked at while longing for something or someplace better than the terrible future in which he lived. And when each of them realizes the importance of the other — for Sarah, she’s finally found meaning in her life, a direction, a place to go, even if she doesn’t want it; and for Reese, he’s found the most important mission of his life and a way to escape the madness of the future — it’s emotionally cathartic and a big payoff in this creative and highly original Science Fiction Thriller.

“I’ll be back.”

The film was wondrous to experience again. The effects are sketchy by today’s standards, but it hardly matters anymore because the emotion is there. That’s what counts. As a viewer, you’re fighting for Sarah and Reese to persevere and defeat this relentless monster. And the stakes are massive; it’s more than the end of Sarah. It’s the end of everything. The end of humanity should she die. And Cameron is just killing it with every frame. Everything’s ticking at full speed, and it’s Cameron still in his formative years but rapidly growing as a filmmaker. The flirtatious meetings with the T-800 early on are just enough to whet the appetite for what’s to come. There’s the shootout at the TechNoir. The attack on the police station featuring character actors Lance Henrickson and Paul Winfield — both of whom eventually became veteran actors in genre films. The running battles through the urban jungle of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. And the final fight in the factory with the unflinching, unfeeling machine that just won’t give up. And the T-800’s end was more ironic than I first understood at the age of fifteen.

As Sarah drives off in that Jeep into the sunset, toward the coming storm, you can’t help but smile and feel that despite the pain and danger on the horizon, at least she’s found the meaning in her life. Isn’t that something that anyone can latch onto and sympathize with? Even though it isn’t necessarily a happy ending, and that the life ahead of her is going to be filled with a crapload of torment and agony, isn’t that something an audience can really get behind? She knows where she’s going.

And she has a purpose.

At least, more of one than she had before she met the T-800.

THE TERMINATOR has it all. A great SF story, some great action, charismatic actors, a wonderful villain, a creative and original tale, a pulse-pounding score, but most important, it has that emotional center that everything else revolves around. It’s the single most important element in stories. The audience needs to be invested, and this movie certainly does that to them. To make it even better, it’s a movie for grown ups, with adult concepts and language and the reality of (future) war, and how people will cling to each other to find those basic human emotions to relish, even if it’s just for a glimpse of a past that never was, or of a future that might never be. And for a fifteen year old who was just discovering how great Science Fiction Thrillers can truly be, it came into my life at the perfect time. The movie is damn near perfect. In James Cameron’s resume, other films like AVATAR or TITANIC or TERMINATOR 2 will eclipse it, but this was his masterpiece. It’s the one that started it all.

I’ll never forget THE TERMINATOR. I owe James Cameron and that T-800 a hell of a lot.

TSJ on Writing First Lines

 

#Writing #AmWriting #ScienceFiction #Thriller #Horror

 

The first line of any story is the most important sentence you’ll write.

The first page of the story is the most important page you’ll write.

The first chapter of the story is the most important chapter you’ll write.

I can’t overstate the importance of these three points. Often in this business you’ll hear aspiring writers say, “Wait until you get to page thirty! It gets so good!” The thing they neglect — and this is important — is that by the time the editor, agent, or intern (yes, sometimes the people you submitted your book to aren’t even reading it) gets to the end of page one or two, they’ve already made up their minds. Because of this, we have to make sure that the first line and first page are utterly captivating. You have to lay out the story and dilemma right from the start, get the reader’s attention, and never look back.

It’s easier said than done.

In fact, it’s damn hard.

Let’s check out five of the best first lines ever written. Keep in mind that these are filtered through my mind, and through nearly fifty years of enjoying stories of all types. But my particular tastes are distinctive to me, and so are the lines I’ve picked. My genres are Science Fiction, Mystery, Horror, Thriller. Someone else might read these lines, shrug, and think nothing else of them. But if you’re into these genres and you’re hoping for a book of the type these signify, then these are something else.

 

1. “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” — Dan Brown, ANGELS & DEMONS (2000)

 

 

 

 

 

2. “I found the eyeball fifteen minutes before I found the rest of him.” — Richard Milward, KIMBERLY’S CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (2012)

 

 

 

 

 

3. “The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.” — William Gibson, NEUROMANCER (1984)

 

 

 

 

 

4. “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” — Stephen King, IT (1986)

 

 

 

5. “The small boys came early to the hanging.” — Ken Follet, PILLARS OF THE EARTH (1989)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice a trend there?

Yeah, I do too. My genres. I like a dark and twisted turn to my stories. I like the thread of a good mystery in there, and I enjoy the notion that something is coming that’s going to give me a restless night. I want to experience the thrill of the plot with the protagonist as he or she tries to uncover the mystery, survive countless dangers, and escape death by the slimmest of margins. And most important — I want to keep thinking about it for weeks/months/years later.

Each of those lines above has an element within that signifies something mysterious and sinister. Follet’s masterpiece took place in a decidedly savage period in our history. Yes, there were happy people and there were good times, but mediaeval England/Europe was also notable for torture, public executions, extreme poverty, poor sanitation, and bizarre (and painful) healing practices.

The other lines I’ve picked showcase burning flesh, three decades of terror, a grisly murder, and a technological dystopia signified by static on a (dead) television screen.

Here’s a line that nearly made my list, from George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Why did he write thirteen?  There are a few explanations.  First, it just doesn’t happen.  Clocks that ring don’t do so more than twelve times.  This indicates that something is wrong, and that everything else that occurred before should be in dispute or questioned. It signifies a society that is struggling or perhaps in survival mode.  The second reason is the more obvious one:  the number thirteen signifies bad luck.  Another might be that there’s no way all the clocks should be striking thirteen at the same time.  It couldn’t be happening, therefore something is terribly wrong.  Yet another reason is perhaps the most significant, considering Orwell wrote the novel in 1948.  In 1942, Adolf Hitler said, “I make it a principle not to stop until the clock strikes thirteen.” This is a particularly disturbing connection to a clock striking thirteen.  As a result, Orwell set the tone of unease, disquiet, and foreboding right from the very beginning.

 

One of the watershed books I read while growing up was William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST (1971.) It made a tremendous impact on me. I was twelve when I read it. Its first line:

“Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.”

 

If horror is what you’re looking for, Blatty is basically screaming at the reader — You’ve come to the right place! And boy, was he right.

I had nightmares for years.

If you’re an aspiring writer, look at that first line in your stories. Why did you write it? Why did you choose the words for it? What mood have you established? What mystery exists? What hardships are the characters going to experience in the next hundred thousand words?

It’s a challenging skill to develop.  Go look at your favorite novels and read the first lines of each.  Why did they resonate with you?

Good luck!  And keep on writing!

TSJ on the Imposter Theme in Science Fiction

John Carpenter’s THE THING, 1982

In 2013, coinciding with the release of my first novel, THE FURNACE, I wrote an essay for John Scalzi’s website on the Imposter Theme in Science Fiction.  It’s a common plot element in the genre, and I encountered it repeatedly in my formative years.  The novels INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE PUPPET MASTERS feature the theme.  John Carpenter’s THE THING had a massive impact on me when it was released, and THE FURNACE is actually an homage to it and the novella it was based on, WHO GOES THERE?

But why is this theme so popular in Science Fiction?  And why did THE THING leave such a profound mark on me?

From my essay:

In 1938 the Imposter theme made its first appearance in Science Fiction.  The work was Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.  Other authors advanced the premise over the next several decades, increasing its popularity immeasurably.  Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), along with Campbell’s novella, are the most well-known literary iterations of the theme.  Since then it has appeared on both the silver and the small screen, in shows such as Star Trek (both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), The X-Files, and the short-lived Invasion just to name a few.   There have been three movie versions of Campbell’s novella, one of Heinlein’s novel, and a whopping four big screen versions of Finney’s, the most recent being The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

I sometimes reflect on this theme, wondering why I was so driven to tell a story that embraced the idea that there could be intruders close to us masquerading as people we knew.  I’ve read Finney’s book multiple times.  I’ve watched every movie mentioned above.  The 1978 take on Finney’s novel, starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, is one of my favorites.  Even poorly made versions of the premise keep me riveted and wanting more.

But why is the theme so popular with fans of Science Fiction?

Read my full essay on the Imposter Theme, the books and movies that have contributed to it, and how my own self-esteem played a part in the theme HERE.  

 

 

 

On Horror and Science Fiction Influences

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of participating in a radio program with host Gail Barker.  I spoke about Horror/Science Fiction movies and how they inspired me to write.  Movies like ALIEN and THE THING.  In the 1980’s, during my most formative years developing my creativity, a wave of slasher films hit theaters.  Parents hated them, but believe it or not, they taught me about the importance of emotion in all stories, regardless of genre.

Consider:  what makes a “slasher Film” like HALLOWEEN or FRIDAY the 13th successful?  What is it that John Carpenter channeled into his film that turned HALLOWEEN into one of the most successful film franchises of all time?  Why do some slasher films succeed and others fail?  It’s a twenty minute interview.  I love talking about my genre, and I hope you enjoy listening.

 

Life After Gateway — The TSJ Blog

So here it is.  A blog.  It’s taken years for me to decide to finally do it.  You see, I’ve been so busy working and writing books that I never thought I’d really have all that much time to say anything here.  And yet I’ve discovered during that period that I do seem to find enough time.  It’s always there.  Maybe late at night (like now,) after I’ve finished editing for the evening, or maybe early in the morning before I get to work, or maybe on a weekend with a hot cup of coffee at my side and a cat (or two) at my feet.  I’ve noticed that I do indeed have the time to write about SF-related properties, either books, movies, or television.  After all, I’ve managed to recently put up more than a few movie reviews on Facebook, open letters of praise for recent novels I’ve also (somehow) found the time to read, as well as the odd obituary as heroes from my youth pass on.  These seem to increase in number every year, and it guts me every time.  But I do seem to find the time for writing things other than novels, and it’s because of this genre that I love.  The genre that I grew up with.  The one that played a massive role in forming my creative energies.  It made me who I am, and I can’t help but want to talk about it as much as possible.  I realize now, after all these years mulling it over, that I need this.  It’s an important outlet, to share my thoughts about Science Fiction and other related genres, like Mystery and Horror.  I want to talk about the movies and books that made me who I am.  Maybe it’ll have some sort of impact on someone, somewhere in the world.  Even if it’s just one person … that’s enough, isn’t it?
 
And so finally here I am.  Here you are.  Welcome.  I can’t promise much other than my thoughts on past, present and future Science Fiction / Thriller books and movies.  But then again, that’s a whole lot of awesome right there.  Enjoy!