The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Mourning Daddy

Written by Neon Kelly.

Photo from the article Like many cinephiles, a large part of my childhood was spent watching videos. Among the films that I revisited time and time again, The Snowman (1982) and Terminator 2 (1991) both occupied a special place in my heart. The first managed to bottle the inconceivable wonder of Christmas, remaining a staple part of my VHS diet all-year-round; the second was the first action flick that I actually cared about, turning Big Arnie into a low-level personal hero - for the duration of my early teenage-hood at least.

I still hold a lot of love for these films and occasionally I dig them out to take a look, in the same kind of way that grown children of the past - ones who were actually forced to use their imagination - would resurrect their old scrapbooks. However, it was only during a recent session with ‘Ahnold’ that I came upon what now seems a blindingly obvious revelation:

For all these years I have been watching the same story.

Boys Will Be Boys

From the very start of The Snowman, The Kid (as he shall henceforth be known) is immediately recogniseable as the Joe Everyman of little boys: he has yet to be scarred by puberty and is instead lit from the inside by his childish glee for life. The early scenes show that he is a little mischievous, but essentially a good child who loves his parents. Like a hyperactive puppy, he wishes to rush outside and explore his surroundings. He sees the world as being a good place.

Meanwhile, Terminator 2’s John Connor is clearly feeling the hormones. His hair is too long, he hasn’t tidied his room in over a month and he engages in petty crime. John hates his foster parents and, by extension, all authority figures. His behaviour at the start of the film shows that he is trying to rebel in every way available to him, and it is no surprise to see that John sports a T-shirt advertising Public Enemy - the hip-hop group who told us to “Fight the Power”. Of course, there’s nothing particularly unusual John’s desire to get anti-establishment - his attitude is precisely what we expect of a healthy teenage male. Underneath his scowl and greasy locks is a nice young man, someone The Kid could easily grow up to become.

Whilst Arnie and The Snowman are the poster-boys of their respective films, it is John and The Kid who act as conduits for the audience’s experiences. In both stories the central child meets an idealised father-figure and is taken on the trip of his life, a dream adventure that fulfills their deepest wishes. However, it is important to recognise that these wishes are also our own. The explosive appeals of Terminator 2 are obvious, but the fantasy of The Snowman is equally exciting to children and adults alike: no-one, however jaded they may consider themselves to be, would pass up on a chance to meet the real Father Christmas (call him Santa, if you prefer to do so).

“I need your hat, your scarf and your lump of coal”

The Snowman and the T-800 can both be seen as the Ideal Dream Dads for the boys described above. They are in fact fathers made-to-order: The Kid builds his out of snow; John re-programs a robot and sends it back in time, special delivery. Both Dads arrive naked so that they may be dressed as their masters desire. The Kid chooses to clothe his with an old hat / scarf combo that is more suggestive of a kindly Grandpa, rather than “Daddy”. John, being the lazy adolescent that he is, can’t be bothered to dress his Dad. The T-800 is left to choose a mode of attire that John will approve of, and therefore picks leather biking gear and shades - the perennial rebel’s uniform.

Just as the Dads’ fashionware reflects their code of conduct, the elements they are associated with are suggestive of the experience they are to provide for the boys. Snow - white and innocent - is versatile yet soft: it can be thrown in a friend’s face without causing permanent damage, and should one fall into it snow will act as a cushion or safety net. The Snowman and his tricks embody these qualities, his adventure being full of mischief but low on risk or violence.

Metal, on other hand, is cold, heavy and tough. Terminator 2 opens with a metallic foot crushing a human skull, an image which screams don’t mess with the machines. The credits then depict a Terminator skull set against a fiery background, foreshadowing the many explosions that are to follow. Let us not forget that while ice is sometimes used to make sculptures or igloos, fire only ever destroys.

Despite the ideological differences of the two pairings, both sons respond in similar ways upon meeting their “fathers” for the first time, excited at the prospect of playing with a new toy. The Kid parades his Snowman around the house; John makes his Terminator stand on one leg. Both stories extract humour from having the Artificial Dad interacting with the everyday environment of their charges - scaring cats, playing with household objects, inspecting babies and learning street-slang. In contrast to most father figures, the Artificial Dads actually learn things from their “sons” and thus establish a relationship of equality. The sons feel protected, but also understood - a child’s dream of perfection.

My Two Dads

In addition to his mail-ordered custom T-800, John receives a free gift T-1000, the Bad Dad. Although this initially seems worrying, The T-1000 and T-800 provide endless hours of fun as they tussle in increasingly over-the-top rumbles. The whole chase-battle-chase setup is soon revealed to be an elaborate and exciting game - a potentially very dangerous one for sure, but then what is to be expected from a teenager’s fantasy? Furthermore, the only people who die at the hands of the T-1000 are those that John either dislikes or has no contact with. These murders then provide ample excuse to give the T-1000 a sound beating. The Bad Dad’s true raison d’etre is to receive violent punishment from the Good Dad - he is simply a punchbag, one dressed as a police officer to give John a little extra pleasure.

It goes without saying that The Kid is far too innocent to enjoy or even consider such violence, and therefore requires no equivalent of the Bad Dad. Where John actively seeks conflict, The Kid cares only for love and amusement. Nevertheless the seeds of The Kid’s future delinqency are very much on display, as we shall now see.

Easy Riders

Having met their makers, one of the first things that the Dads do is to take their master-sons on a motorbike ride. Motorbikes are without question the single most appropriate form of transport available for a young man: they are noisy, stylish and dangerous - the first choice for any self-respecting show-off.

The Kid is new to the biker scene and has to be introduced by The Snowman, who finds a suitable vehicle hidden under a protective cover. The removal of this blanket symbolises the introduction of motorbikes into The Kid’s world, an important step on the child’s path to becoming a boy-rebel like John. After a slightly rocky start, the pair take a speedy trip through the forest, an excursion which manages to be exciting but not too hazardous - this is The Kid’s first time after all. The Snowman thus provides a short introduction to the world of motorcycles, one which will serve The Kid well when he’s a little older and can get his own ride.

John Connor, older and more experienced than The Kid, already has his own bike, albeit a fairly small, weedy-looking one. When John mail-orders his Ideal Dad he ensures that he brings an appropriate vehicle with him. The T-800 acquires a suitably large model, but unsurprisingly, John’s appetite for adrenaline demands more than just a bigger bike for his ride: Bad Dad is called in to follow the duo in an enormous truck while the T-800 fires off a shotgun at random intervals, the ride climaxing in a large explosion designed to satsify John’s love of mayhem. These bullets and bangs are, of course, merely the hors d’oeurves in the carnage-banquet that is John’s Ultimate Fantasy.

Magic Journeys ; Teenage Kicks

While The Snowman’s fantastic journey may initially appear to be far removed from the violent pursuits of Terminator 2, both narratives essentially chart journeys across dream landscapes designed to custom-fit the interests of the central boys. As we already know, The Kid is basically a well-behaved boy who respects authority and the confines of his day to day life, but who wants to see the world. It therefore makes sense that his fantasy is built around magic and escapism. When The Snowman and The Kid go flying, they venture into the realm of the impossible. At the end of the voyage is Father Christmas, the most important authority figure in any child’s life. This venerable figure presents The Kid with a scarf, a present which perhaps brings him one step closer to The Snowman’s uniform, one step closer to maturity.

Regardless of any values we may try to instill in them, children will always see Christmas as a season built around fun. The snowmen’s ball and ensuing celebrations are unadulterated scenes of pure hedonism, something akin to the decadence of the Roman Empire as viewed by a small boy. Father Christmas is the number one Christmas celebrity and so it is no surprise that The Kid’s ideal trip culminates with a visit to the world’s most exclusive festive party.

As we have firmly established by now, John Conner hates authority. For him the greatest pleasure in life is sticking his middle digit up at The Man. His fantasy therefore begins by doing away with parental control, killing off his foster-folks - the gits who made him tidy his room - and re-unites his with his real mother. Next he is provided with a destiny - President of Humanity, no less - which further enables his right to fight the current authorities; after all, it’s his planet now. From this point onwards the antagonists in the story take the shape of policemen, security guards and SWAT teams - anyone a self-respecting (or perhaps self-loathing?) teenager might want to stand against. Better still, the T-800’s targeting system means no-one that he shoots actually gets killed, they are only wounded. In one of Terminator 2’s most memorable scenes, Arnie wipes out an entire police squad with a minigun, only for his internal computer to tell us there were no casualties. This is the Diet Coke of destruction: all the explosions with none of the guilt.

Death

All good things must come to an end. Unfortunately John and The Kid have to learn this lesson the hard way. As is the case with Bambi, the parental deaths in these tales seem doubly hard because they follow an entire film’s worth of joyful fantasy. They are also brutally efficient: the Artificial Dads don’t just die, they actually melt into their component parts. This abnormal death draws attention to the Dad’s status as non-humans whilst simultaneously underlining the impossibility of any kind of re-assembly: your Daddy is gone, boy, and he ain’t coming back.

Terminator 2 and The Snowman can both be seen as narratives about those moments in childhood where we are introduced to the meaningful concept of death, the points in life where the fantasy ends and reality checks in. Despite their unusual circumstances, John and The Kid both undergo experiences that all of us must at some point encounter. The Kid, being young of age, is not directly exposed to the death of his Dad. He deals with the same aftermath that hits any child too young to attend a funeral, the sudden void that occurs when a loved one suddenly disappears. At the moment of realisation there is nothing he can do to bring back his Dad, the enormity of the moment requiring that we the audience leave him to his private mourning - hence the film’s somewhat abrupt end.

Just as The Kid’s innocent fantasy equates to softened encounter with death, so John Connor’s brutal, more confrontational journey ends with him being forced to directly witness the melting-deaths of both his artificial Dads. The contrasts between the T-800 and T-1000 are emphasised right to the very end of the film as the two figures embody differing attitudes to their own demise: the Bad Dad screams and resists with all his might, even as he melts; the Good Dad simply accepts his fate and dies. In his final exchange with his “son”, the T-800 acknowledges the mutual pain of their parting whilst still adhering to the macho illusion he is forced to maintain - “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do”. This semi-confession is the closest the Terminator ever comes to critiquing the image that his master forces him to follow. The issue of why John and his Dad (and indeed all men) need these wildly destructive fantasies is never dealt with. Instead the T-800 ends his life by teaching John how to die ‘like a man’, by going quietly into the night like a Greek philosopher with a belly full of hemlock.

The Snowman and Terminator 2 ultimately tell variations on the same story, seeking to capture the energies of youth and the poignancy of the moment when reality comes to call and the dreams die. After many viewings I have reached the conclusion that the very appeal of these films lie in the opportunities they provide for revisiting our own history: When we watch these films we are reminded of the fantasies we once had, and in turn of the personal encounters with death which marked our own ascendancy into adulthood. When the pain of these memories becomes too much we seek refuge again in escapism of childhood, rewinding the tape in the hope that things will work out different this time around - an ourobouros cycle of acceptance and denial that stretches on forever.

This article was published on August 07, 2005.

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