Imagine you’re watching a man while a punishment is handed down to him. When his sentence is delivered, he begins to scream and cry uncontrollably. “Oh, no, sir,” he sobs. “Anything but that!” A door opens, a tentacle shoots out, wraps around his leg, and drags him in. Screams fill the air, both from the new victim and from the space beyond the door.
Do we actually want to see what’s behind the door? We might think we do, but chances are, the truth will probably fall flat compared to whatever horrors we had conjured in our own brains. Particularly in cinema, our own imaginations tend to do a far better job of scaring us than whatever combo of CG and puppetry is the beastie of the day.
When I was a pre-teen, I watched the original version of The Haunting. I was absolutely freaked by a few creaks and moans off-screen. There was no clever “Boo!” moment, no expensive fake gore. I did all the work myself.
The concept of “less is more” works remarkably well in sf film as well. It’s easy to come up with fantastic stuff in a novel; with just a few words your brain can fill in an entire alien world. In TV and film, however, you run several risks. If you’re working with real sets, it could look like what it is – wow, that sure looks like the rock quarry near my house or wow, that’s Vancouver, isn’t it. With CG, it could look, well, like a bunch of CG, over-bloated and unnecessarily detailed (George Lucas, I’m looking at you), or just fake.
The first Terminator movie was made in the 80s, and their special effects certainly left something to be desired. However, the story was simple, evocative and iconic enough that it’s spawned several sequels and a TV spin-off. Who cares that Arnold’s face looks like it’s made of Silly Putty for half the movie – did you see the skulls crushed under the wheels of the machines?
The ultimate baddie of the Terminator films is Skynet, the self-aware computer, and the ultimate in what we don’t need to see. The idea of a self-aware computer that goes on to design all the killing machines of the films – that sort of cold intelligence really gets our minds going, and we decide that it must be really freaking awesome. No tan mid-90′s computer case for this baby! It should get something like an altar of a server rack, at the very least – and it should lie in the middle of the Office Complex of Horrors, with hundreds of Terminators to protect it!
See how even as I try to put the awesomeness of Skynet into words, it diminishes it? This is why Skynet should be left alone in these Terminator movies. So far, thankfully, “Skynet” itself has never been depicted on-screen in some “pure” form, and that’s how it should stay. Even the ride creators of Terminator 3-D knew we’d rather battle the T-1,000,000 – the ultimate guardian of Skynet – than the more abstract Skynet itself.
Still, even the idea of going to a place to ultimately destroy Skynet diminishes it. There’s no reason to think it resides at any one place anymore – Skynet is global, telling machines everywhere what to do, and we can’t imagine what tricks a self-aware AI might know. Run with that concept in the future – it’s scarier than any looming Office Building of Horror.