Monday, May 25, 2009

Terminator Salvation

[Note: I'm not including this film in the "Countdown From Judgment Day" series we ran a few months ago. In case you missed those entries, check them out - that omnibus is one of our best, if I do say so myself. Start with the First Impressions for Terminator Salvation, then move onto thoughts of the now-cancelled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show, a retrospective about the T2: 3D Terminator experience at Universal Studios, and reviews of the three previous films: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Terminator.]

For any die hard Terminator fan, the prospect of Terminator Salvation should have been very exciting. Finally, we get to see the war between the humans and the machines that we've been hearing so much about since 1984! When McG (Charlie's Angels, We Are Marshall) came on to direct, I can understand some wind being taken out of those proverbial sails. But the casting of fanboy demigod Christian Bale as the legendary John Connor allowed me to hold out hope for this film - hope that spurned me on to see it on opening weekend and not allow the surprising bad word of mouth to dispel me from taking my chances with a franchise I've come to love. As it turns out, the bad word of mouth is no longer surprising.

Terminator Salvation
Director: McG
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin

It's hard to talk about this film without first mentioning the stunningly mediocre script. This movie leads me to two conclusions: either this script was a casualty of the Writer's Strike, or the writing team of John Brancato and Michael Ferris simply isn't that impressive. T3, while enjoyable as a stupid action movie, does not possess the same level of commentary on the human condition as its predecessors. For some reason unknown to me, these same guys were allowed to write Salvation, which has become the first in another planned trilogy. I should have known, then, that Terminator Salvation would not live up to the massive hype that followed the film up to its release date. It is also an unfortunate indication as to the direction this series is headed over the next few years. Spoiler alert - it's not "up."

Does all this mean that I wouldn't recommend seeing the movie in theaters? Well...yes, actually. Hardcore fans should see it anyway (and you probably will, if you are one), but as far as the casual Terminator fan goes, I would wait for the DVD/Blu-ray. There are a lot of solid-looking movies coming out this summer, and I'd save your hard-earned money for something like The Brothers Bloom or Public Enemies. As far as an action movie goes, there was definitely some cool stuff present here: I'm thinking specifically of the gas station set piece where we see a giant robot releasing motorcycle robots out of its legs and the ensuing chase and explosions resulting from that. The rest of the action felt like we'd seen some variation of it before, and wasn't really that stunning to me.

Visually, Terminator Salvation is pretty quality. Shane Hulbert (whom Bale ranted against months ago) knew what he was doing when he was shooting post-apocalyptic environments. Something about his style gave the impression you could almost feel sand blowing across the frame, making it easier for you to relate to these characters because you subconsciously feel like you're there in the desolation with them. Another fantastic sequence was the long shot of Connor getting into the helicopter, the crash, and the explosion in the first few minutes of the movie. While not really one take (it was pieced together to make it look seamless, Children of Men-style), I don't think I've ever seen a helicopter crash from that perspective before; when a movie can present something new that I've never seen before, I can at least respect it for that reason if nothing else. That's not to say there weren't a few other things I can respect about Salvation (the aforementioned gas station scene), but it just didn't live up to my high expectations for this franchise. But that sequence placed you right there with John Connor as he endured those bumps, scrapes, and rattles, and allowed the cool visual reveal of the explosion from right behind his shoulder, placing the audience beside him and begging us to feel what he's feeling.

For all the attempts to keep us invested in the characters, it's too bad that they are so poorly written it's hard to care about any of them except for Marcus Wright. The cyborg (the trailer gave it away, not me) has the most complete story arc of anyone presented, as one dimensional as that arc may be. In fact, Marcus is a microcosm of the movie itself: a hollow robotic thing with identity issues posing as something more, ultimately predictable, and kind of ridiculous. That being said, Sam Worthington definitely showed some promise in the role, giving sci-fi fans a glimpse of the talent expected to be displayed in December when he plays the lead role in James Cameron's highly anticipated Avatar.

Anton Yelchin turned in his membership card from The Cheesy Impersonation Academy that he used in Star Trek and subsequently churned out a great performance as Kyle Reese in this movie. Aside from Marcus, his character was the only one that was interesting to me. As I was trying to realize why this was the case, I came to this conclusion - in Terminator Salvation, Kyle Reese serves as a kind of surrogate John Connor from the earlier films. He is the one that needs protecting this time around. Unlike Connor, though, who is totally aware of his impending future and the responsibility that holds, Reese is just a ballsy kid trying to survive and make it through another day. I liked the juxtaposition of those two iconic characters and give the writers some credit for shaking up our expectations a little.*

As much respect as I have for John Connor in other Terminator incarnations, this time around he was stale and bland. The thing that makes Connor such a great character is this ticking time bomb down to Judgment Day and the future, when he has to finally step up and become the man that he knows he is prophesied to be. The inner struggle with that legacy and the pressure put on him as a kid makes his arc so interesting to watch. But in Salvation, he's already reached his peak and the mystery of how he got there is gone. All we're left with is a grizzled military soldier who retreats to back rooms to listen to tapes that his mom made for him. As much as I rag on Christian Bale for his growling and snarling, that was the least of my worries when it came to this version of Connor - originally Bale was supposed to play Marcus, but when he took a liking to John Connor, the script had to be rewritten (again) to give the role a little more substance. FAIL. No wonder Jonathan Nolan (Chris' brother, and co-writer of The Dark Knight and The Prestige) didn't have his name show up in the credits - I'm guessing he knew how this would turn out and wanted to keep a perfect track record (he was brought on late in the game for some rewrites).

It was a nice surprise to see Michael Ironside (Jester from Top Gun) as the Resistance leader on the nuclear sub. Everyone other actor in the movie was pretty worthless, including Ben's Movie Reviews favorite Bryce Dallas Howard. Taking over for Claire Danes as Kate Connor, Bryce was pregnant and barely in the film at all. Not only that, but they didn't mention her pregnancy at all. No one even glanced at her stomach. That shot from the trailer, where John pats her stomach as they share a tender moment? Never happened. Way to go, writers. Moon Bloodgood was violently stupid, parading under the guise of the "kick ass girl," but in actuality serving to hurt the female presence in the film with her idiotic actions. [I'm thinking specifically of releasing Marcus and running with him through a mine field, although there were others that I can't recall at the time of this writing.] Common (who? Oh, that guy from Smokin' Aces) was laughably awful with the thankfully small part he had. Someone named Jadagrace (who I'm guessing is related to Halle Berry due to the same surname) played a mute child who accompanied Kyle Reese everywhere, and I'm grateful to her for keeping her mouth shut. Helena Bonham Carter jumped in her Weirdsmobile again and gunned the engine, coming off as equally cold while she was alive as when she wasn't. (That'll make sense if you've seen the movie.)

Danny Elfman's score was such a nonfactor that I can't even remember one track in the entire film. McG's direction was passable - it's not like he was Brett Ratner or anything. He showed some pizazz with the long shots and made some good decisions with the big action scenes. I also credit him for not using the shaky cam technique that is prevalent in action movies these days. Would I be down for watching another McG-directed Terminator movie? If they get really solid writers, then sure, I'll give the guy another shot. I'm convinced that the script was the major problem here. The special effects were fantastic, especially evident in the robots themselves. They finally have reached a point where stop-motion endoskeletons aren't the norm, and the film's aesthetic is greatly improved because of it. It was great to finally see the T-600's that were mentioned in previous films, and the Harvester and its motorcycle minions were really badass. [I will say that I liked the idea of Arnold's cameo, but the digital representation that we saw in the final cut left me shaking my head at how cheesetastic the CG was in that scene.] And whoever designed Skynet Central should be heralded as a visual genius and get work for the rest of his/her life. That shot where the camera comes over the top of Connor and the city is revealed for the first time was breathtaking.

Sadly, the few little things that Terminator Salvation got right are not enough to give this movie a free pass from me. The film completely lost its roots (sci-fi and horror blended together), instead opting for a more crowd-pleasing formula that failed to hit its target. The loss of one major Terminator hunting someone down hurt the movie in the end, since the Resistance was fighting a surge of never-ending machines that we couldn't identify as a singular villain.

This is probably worth seeing at some point in your life, but I'd have a hard time recommending that you drop 10 dollars in a theater to accomplish that. The summer has just begun, and there are many more movies on the horizon. Until next time...

*Yes, I'm aware that there is a reveal at the end that suggests ulterior motives. I didn't want any spoilers in this review.

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