Saturday, January 24, 2009

T-X: The Good Parts (Terminator 3)

While I heartily disapprove of the sexually exploitive characteristics of the T-X of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines as I’ve discussed in my previous post on the subject, I also think much of her design to be pretty cool. In comparison to the previous Terminator models, the T-X has far improved in several ways. Many of her facets are innovative evolutions of the concepts previously employed, while others are whole new tricks that further her capacity for termination.

Our first view of the Terminators was of the T-101 in The Terminator. The T-101 is the first Terminator model successfully able to pass as human. It is a cybernetic organism, living tissue over a sturdy metal endoskeleton. The Terminator can withstand numerous direct shots from contemporary 1980s weaponry, and is able to repair itself.

The T-101’s flesh is capable of healing itself over time, but a damaged eye needs to be removed entirely to allow the T-101 to properly see. It is likely that a new eye could not be naturally regenerated, prompting it to wear dark sunglasses to cover its luminous red eye rendered visible by the removal of the human eye. Eventually, the T-101 suffers continued burning that destroys the flesh entirely and forces it to move unclothed by its human guise. It meets its end when Sarah smashes its head underneath a hydraulic press in a Cyberdyne factory.

In Terminator 2, the Terminator antagonist got a big overhaul. The T-1000 is a sentient mass of liquid metal that can morph into human form. It can morph into specific individuals by acquiring their form (somehow) after touching them. It can also form parts of its body into hard solid pieces of metal to create knives and stabbing weapons, as well as sledge hammer heads, and wedges to pull open elevator doors. Its ability to pass as human is remarkable and can infiltrate human organizations easily, able to adapt to changing social conditions without the awkward lack of comprehension obvious in the T-101 models.

The T-1000’s lack of true living tissue allows it to pass far longer than the T-101. When the T-1000 is shot, instead of a bullet wound, a crater is formed in the mass of liquid. In short time, the T-1000 is able to move itself back into place and resume its illusion without even the mess of bullet holes left in clothing. However, it lacks the stability of the T-101 and suffers greater response to the kinetic force of bullet impact, slowing it down considerably. It survives being frozen and shattered by a torrent of liquid nitrogen, but at the cost of being able to control its ability to transform at will, rendering it unable to pass completely. It meets its end by being blown out of shape by numerous shotgun blasts, and then knocked into a pool of molten steel.

As the T-101 in Terminator 3 describes, the T-X is specifically designed to hunt down other Terminators, presumably those captured and reprogrammed by the Human Resistance. This requires her to be incredibly powerful. The T-X shares the best of both previous models. It has a strong metal endoskeleton similar to that of the T-101, but instead of living tissue it has a coat of the liquid used by the T-1000. Its endoskeleton is not as firmly cemented and can shift around to suit its needs, and while unable to assume every shape as the T-1000, it can take any human form of similar build. When the T-X is shot, it is able to hold its ground. The skeleton offers stability and protection, while its liquid layer can repair itself within seconds.

The T-X also has its own brand new tricks. Without small arms the T-101 only has its massive strength and the T-1000 its morphed metal. However, the T-X comes with a large assortment of weapons stashed inside its arm, much like a Swiss army knife. A plasma rifle, a flamethrower, a buzz saw, a nanobot-packing drill, and other tools of destruction can come out of its arm like a Transformer (robots in disguise!) should the T-X have need of it. (Another similarity shared with the Transformers would be the apparently magical appearance and disappearance of certain parts during shifts, but I digress…)

Despite being built as an Anti-Terminator, the T-X is also perfectly adept at infiltration of human society and termination of specific individuals. It is equipped with excellent knowledge of human psychology and social conventions, allowing it to slip undetected through human society. To aid in its ability to seek out its targets, it can analyze DNA from a blood sample when placed on the tongue, enabling it to detect identities from blood alone. The T-X can also access the Internet through cellphones, using vocal emissions that serve the same purpose as a modem.

Its arguably most nifty trick is its ability to control other machines. Using a needle-like titanium drill, the T-X can access the computers that govern machines and it sends nanobots inside, which hack into the system and take it over. The T-X is then able to control these machines remotely. Its zombies can be everything from cars to T-1 Terminators to T-101 Terminators, making the T-X especially deadly in that half the time it doesn’t even have to be in the same room as its targets in order to attack them.

In addition to its enhanced martial abilities, the T-X has also undergone some aesthetic modifications from the previous Terminator models. The T-101 endoskeleton featured a head that looked very similar to a human skull, albeit with shining metal teeth and demonic glowing red eyes that offered a surreal creepiness. The T-X, on the other hand, has a very inhuman head comparable more, in my opinion, to a cat or a Grey alien than a female human. This Terminator’s aesthetic creepiness derives from its known power and its otherness rather than its imitation of human form. Its eyes, which glow and perceive the color blue rather than red, imply the T-X’s enhanced power in that red lighting is generally a thing of the past while blue represents the newer and better machinery. (I’m not really sure the reason for this, but I am aware of its existence and I believe it applies to the Terminators’ aesthetic differences.)

In conclusion, despite the numerous gratuitous sexual characteristics I dislike about the T-X, I find its new design to be effective and demonstrative of enhancement upon previous models. I believe an early version of the antagonist of Terminator 3 had it as a gaseous entity, essentially moving on to another state of matter after the solid T-101 and liquid T-1000. This version of the T-X I find to be more grounded in reality by having it exist as an evolution of the previous models, sharing the best characteristics of both. If they had only stuck to the seriousness of the subject and not let it degrade into the T-X getting bustier to flirt her way out of a ticket, I feel the movie could have been far improved from what it turned out to be.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cortana, What Exactly Am I Looking At? (Halo 2)

Originally written for Halopedia:

When I originally played through the campaign of Halo 2, I ran into an unusual stumbling block: a section of the level Gravemind I could not get past. As it turned out, this section isn’t supposed to exist as far as I can tell. Despite being witnessed by my mom and dad in addition to myself, I have been unable to find any references to it on the mainstream Halo sites.

While many people play through the games simply for their tactical entertainment, I have always been a fan of the official storyline. In order to preserve my ignorance of spoilers, I had pretty much banned myself from the Internet until I could finish the game. As I didn’t want this to take weeks, I decided to play through on the first time using the Easy difficulty. This was probably a good idea, because I initially found the game pretty hard, in comparison to the previous game at least.

Anyway, I was making good progress until the latter part of Gravemind with the mausoleum sequence. Man, I could barely keep myself alive during that part! I’d worked out a strategy where I’d sneak along the side of the room, ducking away from Elites, and slip into the door on the far side of the room while everyone was still fighting. I imagine many people are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, but as far as I can tell I did in fact manage to enter the far door without killing everyone first.

At this point, I had just felt relieved to get out of the slaughter that was the mausoleum battle. I figured this was a chance to calm down and relax before entering the next area. So, I walked down the long, peaceful hallway without triggering a cutscene, and in fact exited through the door on the far side of the hall.

On the other side was another “hanging gardens” area. However, despite having cargo crates strewn around as if the remainder of a battle, there were no enemies of which to speak. No weapons, either. It was a very peaceful bit of scenery with a river and stuff, but no advancement of the game.

On the other side of the far door was another hallway, this time going down. Past that was an energy bridge connecting the hanging gardens to another tower. However, even though I stood on the pedestal that would normally take me across to the other side, it seemed that the bridge was “off” or not working. Despite this, I got a checkpoint while on the pedestal. I tried various things to get it to work, but it seemed dead.

I decided it was a glitch and decided to play through the section again. I restarted the level and made my way through the mausoleum again. As my strategy had worked so well last time, I snuck around the edge again. Once more, I found myself in the abandoned hanging gardens with the dead bridge.

Annoyed, I broke my Internet ban and looked through several Halo 2 walkthroughs. No luck, though. They all just described the mausoleum battle and then stopped writing, completely leaving out the section I was stuck on.

Really aggravated, I had my mom and dad watch me as I played through the section to offer advice. Although neither of them play video games, I figured that if there was some puzzle I wasn’t getting, their fresh perspectives could help. However, despite some creative shifting around of crates, the bridge remained dead.

At one point, my dad came to me to say that he had talked to a coworker who plays Halo and who had written down some instructions on how to activate the bridge. Feeling good, I played to that point with the dead bridge and then looked at the instructions, which detailed the activation of a nearby switch.

I started combing the gardens for a switch, pressing X all around every crate, trying to activate the bridge. Eventually, I realized that the bridge to which the instructions pertained was the one in Delta Halo, not the one with which I was having trouble. I gave up on trying to activate the bridge and instead tried to find another way across.

I started with trying to grenade jump up to the skeletal section over the bridge, but that didn’t work. I then tried jumping down onto the lower skeletal section and walking across. It seemed to work, but I was at too low a level to jump up to the other side.

Finally, I decided to play the game in co-op mode (by myself) and try to get to the other side of the bridge in a similar manner as the last attempt, but to use the other player model to give me a little extra height. If that didn’t work, I’d try the same thing with Sputnik on to give my grenade jumping some more oomph. However, this time around it would be more difficult to sneak around the mausoleum with two characters, and I decided to save some energy and kill all the enemies before leaving the room.

To my surprise, I didn’t even get to the bridge this time. As I made my way across the hallway, a cutscene was activated! I was suddenly seeing Tartarus walk by some docking platform and he was talking to the Prophet of Truth. The game was actually continuing and I was delighted and baffled at the same time. What the Halo had happened?

The obvious conclusion to come to is that I just made a 360 loop and wound up going the way I came from. I am pretty sure I did not do this due to the different look of the hallway and what’s on the other side. The way I came was filled with corpses and debris, and even if that was cleaned up by the system, I know the look of the terrain to be fundamentally different.

My posts about this on HBO and HIH have produced skepticism and disbelief. Obviously, this is not a regular occurrence. Furthermore, I did not record any evidence of the mysterious map extension, having no idea that it was out of the ordinary at the time, and have been unable to recreate my experience since completion of the level. My personal hypothesis is that it was an incomplete section of Halo 2 that Bungie was forced to abandon when they had to rush to finish the game. Perhaps after crossing the bridge, the player would reach a section with the gravity lift the Chief is seen using in the next cutscene, thus making a smoother transition than is seen in the final version. In any case, this Brigadoon of Halo 2 remains the greatest Halo mystery as far as I am concerned.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Terminatrix (Terminator 3)

I am a big fan of the Terminator series of movies and TV show. The one exception, however, is the third movie, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which I feel is of a considerably lower quality. My assessment is that the movie caters primarily toward the male teenager audience, abandoning much of the series’ serious content in favor of gratuitous sexually pleasing elements and humor sequences. Their portrayal of the first female Terminator, the T-X (who I personally will always think of as Shawn’s evil girlfriend from Boy Meets World), is in particular showing a high degree of pandering to a simplistic male viewing standard I feel to be indicative of sexism.

The main thing about the design of the T-X is that she is unlike the previous Terminator models, which are obsolete in contrast. I would say that her physical design insofar as it relates to her combat capacity is satisfyingly creative and powerful, but it is also needlessly sexually attractive. This shows in the very choice of outfit she was given to wear. While Arnold dons his traditional black leather, evoking his biker look from the previous films, the T-X wears a high-quality low-cut red leather outfit with high heels. Although the outfit is not especially sexual on its own, the way actress Kristanna Loken plays the T-X allows the outfit to accentuate her feminine qualities.

The very manner in which she moves is of a seductive feminine nature. In addition to simple fluid grace, she exhibits explicit wiggly undulations in her movements, which carry with them an erotic undertone. This is seen notably when she extends her needle-like drill from her fingertip – a tool used to transmit nanobots into machines in order for her to control them remotely. The drill is a main facet of her power, and it is shown off in a way that displays the theme of the character: strong, sexually attractive, feminine, and evil.

The T-X exudes sexuality in a way quite inappropriate for the Terminators. Yes, argument can be made that it would be an effective technique for disarming humans, but it is not portrayed solely as an attack strategy. Rather, the T-X exists to be sexually titillating for the viewer and just so happens to also be the main antagonist. The concept of seductiveness as an aid in infiltration is utilized in the TV show by female Terminator Cameron to greater effect, as it is depicted as a conscious decision in which its application is turned on and off to achieve specific ends – mainly to manipulate John. However, in Terminator 3, the T-X’s seductiveness is pure fanservice.

One of the worst (i.e. most blatant) incidents in which this occurs is when the T-X, caught speeding, is pulled over by a cop. First of all, it makes little sense for the T-X to pull over at all. She’s a Terminator – she’s supposed to be an unstoppable force smashing through the city (as she does later) until her objective is complete. Not only does she stop, but she tries to get out of a ticket by appearing sexually attractive, inflating her breasts to match a Victoria’s Secret model displayed on a nearby billboard. And she still ends up killing him, so the whole bit turns out to just be a way to please sleazy male viewers. “I like your gun,” she states in a seductive tone – a far cry from Arnold’s terse demands or the T-1000’s even-toned requests. The point of the T-X is that she is sexy, is evil, and has power – in that order.

In another scene, she assaults the veterinary clinic where her target Kate works (which incidentally doesn’t follow the Terminator modus operandi of hitting the target’s home first, but anyway…). After killing a female customer, she checks to see if it was really Kate by tasting her blood and analyzing her DNA. The simple act of wetting her finger with the blood and rubbing it off on her tongue is played in a very slow provocative manner. Upon finding another sample of blood to be from her primary target John Connor, she gasps as though having an orgasm from the realization.

And while she is very powerful, a good-sized portion of that power is in itself sexually provocative. John refers to her as a ‘Terminatrix’ for good reason, as she has a very dominatrix-like demeanor. For one thing, she seems to be the first Terminator seen to be actively sadistic. While the T-1000 got tense and annoyed, he never seemed to enjoy causing damage as anything other than a means to his primary function. The T-X, on the other hand, appears to get pleasure out of specific acts of causing injury. For another thing, she has the characteristic of being able to control other machines. While she looks sexy and leisurely approaches her targets, she gets to attack from afar using a small army of zombie machines. Her red leather outfit only adds to the evil dominatrix look.

Finally, the manner in which she is ultimately taken out seems to me to be an illustration of male dominance over an evil female. I normally scoff at claims that weapons of various natures represent phallic male aggression and whatnot, but in this particular case I have to admit that oral rape seems to be the implication when Arnold shoves the boxlike explosive into the T-X’s mouth. I recall a similar scene in Alien when the robot Ash attacks Ripley by shoving a rolled-up magazine into her mouth, a clear metaphor for rape. There it was used horrifically, to portray Ash as a villain. However, in Terminator 3, the reasons seem to be to illustrate the male T-101 protagonist’s victory over the evil female antagonist who exudes sexuality.

Not all females in the Terminator series are portrayed as badly as the T-X. However, Sarah Connor, the strong independent fighter of the previous film has been killed off in the backstory of Terminator 3 due to actress Linda Hamilton turning down the part. Kate, the female protagonist, lacks a lot of the power held by Sarah. This is understandable, given the character’s recent introduction to the agents of Skynet, but by the time she gets the initiative to wield a weapon, the character’s only use of that initiative is to destroy an aerial Hunter-Killer. John makes a humorous comment about her reminding him of his mother, and that is the end of her power.

What is more, she is given a unique ability, that of being able to control the T-101. This element had a lot of potential that was just never realized. Her full usage of that ability is to order the T-101 to save her father and to tell her how John dies in the future (and for there to be a joke about the T-101 being unable to comply with her line “Drop dead, asshole!”). When the T-101 is corrupted by the T-X and is moving toward John to kill him, it is John who talks him into saving them by making him realize that he has no other reason to live than to ensure their protection. This could easily be a scene in which Kate makes use of her ability to help fight the T-X’s influence, rising into her role as a resistance leader. However, it’s all about John nobly taking a beating as he talks down the T-101, while Kate gets the plane started up in the sidelines.

Kate’s main role is as a supporter to John. She is his future wife and mother of his future children. While John’s pivotal role in the human resistance against the machines has always been a part of the mythology, female characters can still be strong even as they defend him, as shown by Sarah. Even scared waitress Sarah of The Terminator was able to deliver the final blow to the first T-101 by tricking it to crawl underneath the hydraulic press. With the exception of her destruction of the Hunter-Killer, however, Kate does not show strength as a female protagonist.

While at first I considered Terminator 3 a total failure, I found I enjoyed it better on the second viewing after I had lowered my expectations accordingly. I think it, like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, to be better if I watch it while considering it to be like a fanfic – an attempt by a fan to play around in a cool universe – rather than a serious addition to a cool series. That said, I find the blatant sexual rendering of the T-X to be quite awful.

The movie was created for a male audience and has degraded itself to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It carries a heavy sexist tone throughout, and so stands in stark contrast to its predecessors. While not a total waste of time, I do feel that the filmmakers have significantly erred in their depiction of the T-X. Here’s hoping Terminator Salvation cleans up its act.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Her Princess (Dealing with Dragons)

I recently reread one of my favorite books when I was younger: Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, a no-nonsense fantasy novel about a princess who rejects her life, which has been severely restricted through sexist expectations, by running away. It’s a progressive story succeeding through compelling narrative and humorous references and parody of several fairy tales, often poking fun at the illogical nature of some of them. Much of the humor involves giving common sense to the mechanics of the magical world, somewhat similar to the brand of humor employed in Harry Potter, but with a certain mundane flair. I read it over and over when I was a young kid, but then didn’t touch it for years. Reading it now, I notice with some amusement that the book contains elements that seem reminiscent of the more sexual Dominance/submission genre.