Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: "Terminator Salvation"

When "Terminator 2" came out and Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back" was all the rage among my middle school friends, it used to be a clever joke to follow it up with "is that a threat?"

Sadly, when that line is uttered in "Terminator Salvation," I wasn't joking around.

The latest attempt to drag classic franchises through the mud, "Terminator Salvation" is a pointless, suspenseless, witless and brainless barrage of robots, explosions and Christian Bale alternating between screams and growls. Director McG--the director of the two "Charlie's Angels" films and the perpetrator of "The O.C."--has said he was able to talk to franchise creator James Cameron about his vision for this fourth film. Cameron refused to give his blessing without seeing the film but wished McG good luck...and warned him that he still reserved the right to hate the final product.

I don't know that Cameron will necessarily hate "Terminator Salvation." That would require some sort of emotional investment. At best, it merits a shrug and a sigh.

Set in 2018, about a decade or so after Judgement Day (for the uninitiated, that's when Skynet went self aware and launched its war on humans...for more backstory, rent the first two films before you see this. Or instead of seeing this), the film opens with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convicted murderer, signing his body over to science before he is executed. He then wakes up years later without any memory of what's happened. But the world has been overrun by giant machines and the only humans he runs across are a kid named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and a mute kid who's job is to hand people things at various points throughout the movie (I'm serious).

Meanwhile, John Connor (Bale) is a grunt soldier who leads a raid on a Skynet facility only to find that there are humans imprisoned there. He then heads back to base and to his girlfriend Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) who looks like she's pregnant with their child but they never once mention that. Of course, Connor is too busy doing action hero stuff like diving into the ocean and swimming to a submarine where the resistance leadership is headquartered. He also listens to recordings his mom Sarah left him, preparing him for the future war...which is now the present war. Other than that he growls and screams about how much he hates robots, only going soft when Reese's name is mentioned...because, of course, 20 years later John will send Reese through time to sleep with his mother and plant the seed (literally) of the resistance. Have I mentioned that John Connor really doesn't like robots?

There's some mumbo-jumbo about a signal that can disarm the robots and the movie poses questions about Marcus's identity--questions that the previews already gave away, putting the audience in the very unlikable position of being five steps ahead of the movie. There's a semi-romance between Marcus and a female soldier (Moon Bloodgood)...well, basically they just cuddle. And robots that look suspiciously like Transformers pick people up to take them away.

I find myself in the sad position of being very apathetic about this film. And I say sad because I love the first two "Terminator" films. I just watched the original last weekend and was impressed how Cameron was able to take a low budget and, on his second outing as director, craft something that is still intense, involving, smart and exciting. "Terminator 2" is widely regarded as one of the greatest action films ever still holds up as a fantastic chase movie, the special effects were groundbreaking and it actually had something to say about fate, mankind's proclivity for violence and the value of human life. It was a poignant moment when John Connor had the T-800 say "I swear not to kill anybody."

In "Terminator 3" the T-800 told us to "talk to the hand." But as campy as the movie was in areas, it made up for it with an out-of-left-field, bleaker than bleak ending in which all the efforts to stop Judgement Day were for naught and Connor was left as the lone hope for humanity.

In "Terminator Salvation," John Connor really hates robots. Have I mentioned that? Because he does. He really hates them. A lot.

We really didn't need a movie about the future war, in my opinion. The war existed in the first two films to simply be the reason why it was important that John Connor stay alive...the films used that as a jumping point for two strong chase stories. The glimpses we got of the war against machines were chilling enough--the cyborgs stepping on skulls, lasers blasting through the sky--I never really needed an entire movie about it.

But, okay, let's say that there was a good story to tell about mankind's rebellion against Skynet--this story is not it. In fact, I would say that any story that takes place prior to John Connor sending Kyle Reese back to 1984 is pointless. For all the talk about "no fate but what we make" or alternate timelines, the audience knows one thing--John Connor and Kyle Reese have to survive until 2029 so that Kyle can go back to 1984. Until then, they're untouchable. We also know that the war is still raging at that when you set the movie in 2018, you've robbed us of any suspense because we know our main character is going to be fine.

The film tries to steer clear of this by giving us the story of Marcus. And it's an intriguing concept, especially when his true identity is revealed (which, unfortunately, was in the trailers). But Sam Worhtington isn't as big of a star as Christian Bale, so his story is short-changed so that we can get more of John Connor being mad at robots. Word was that Bale was originally approached to play Marcus, which probably would have been a smarter move. Connor should have been left in the periphery, not been a major character.

But John Connor IS made a major character in the story, even though we never see anything interesting about him. In "Terminator 2" we saw him as a smart alec juvenile delinquent...I realize this takes place about 20 years later, but there is not even a hint of that personality there. He listens to recordings by his mother, but shows no emotion. Bale either growls each line in that horrible Batman snarl of his or he barks orders into a walky talkie. We don't get a hint of what it's like for him to be the one hope for humanity. We don't get any hint of chemistry between him and Kate. Does he wonder about meeting Kyle Reese and whether he should tell him he's his son? Does he know he's untouchable? We don't know...because there's not a character presented, just a loud personality we're supposed to care about because, a.) an A-actor is playing him and b.) we know the name John Connor from the other three movies so our recognition should create some sort of bond. It's lazy and dull and to watch Bale, a charismatic actor, stuck in such a one-note role is excruciating.

Not that Worthington always fairs much better. Like I said, there's a better idea with Marcus's story but I feel like the deep questions James Cameron would have posed--what makes a person a human?--are thrown out in favor of increasing John Connor's time and making the film come in at under 2 hours. By the time Marcus makes a crucial decision in the end of the film there's no real resonance to it because we haven't gotten to know him as a human being.

Which by the way, is probably the film's major flaw. Think back to the first two "Terminator" films. Yes, they had fantastic action sequences. But they worked best because, at their core, they were about humanity. There was a tender romance between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in the first film and Michael Biehn created a hero who was resourceful, smart and passionate. In "Terminator 2" we had the story of a mother trying to train her son to be a leader and that very son teaching a machine the value of life. It's not Oscar-caliber stuff, but it made the film's more involving because it was about human dilemmas and concerns. Here, in a film that is about taking back the world from machines, it comes across as a lost cause anyway because almost all of the human characters are so machinelike. There's no joy, laughter, emotion or passion...just yelling and screaming and shooting.

The one exception is Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese. Fresh off a smaller role in "Star Trek," Yelchin creates the one character who is somewhat developed. He not only captures Biehn's presence and scowl but he gives the character enough heart and brains that we see him quickly becoming the soldier we knew back in the first film. Yelchin's the best thing about this movie...unfortunately his character is also saddled with the mute kid, which is the most extraneous and pointless character in the film (seriously, the character exists to give guns, band-aids and detonators to people...items that are within reach!).

I haven't even mentioned the supporting cast, which McG gets absolutely zero charisma from. The jury is still out for me on Bryce Dallas Howard...she seems to be a smart actress but her roles are so scattershot. Here we really don't get to see what she's capable of because she's saddled with a role that is non-essential and never explored. There are several shots where she looks pregant and I assume the baby must be Connor's...but it's never mentioned, never explored. Moon Bloodgood is nice eye candy but her acting is stiff and a tender scene between her and Marcus just feels rushed and awkward. And the less said about Helena Bonham Carter, the better. But that's just the way it's becoming lately...I see Carter in a movie and my interest is sapped. She's cinematic poison.

Now I know this is where I will be told that "hey, it's a Terminator movie. Lighten up and turn off your brain, enjoy the action." And while McG brings a nice bleached-out look to the film and Stan Winston's team delivers top-notch creature effects, I can't really call the sequences good.

See, what makes an action scene exciting is that we need to care about the people involved. We need to be afraid that they are going to get hurt or killed or that something is going to happen to deter them from meeting their objective. When your characters are untouchable or inhuman, you lose that investment.I knew John Connor wasn't going to die and that Kyle Reese wasn't going to die...and I knew nothing else about the characters or their goals to make me care one way or another if they escaped unscathed. Without that investment, especially in these days of CGI, I'm simply watching pretty colors and hearing loud noises.

And yes, Arnold does appear. And yes, it's neat. Totally pointless, but neat. And then, just as I was starting to care...they decided to make the climax a total ripoff of the climax to T2.

You know what? I'm done. I have nothing more to say about this film, no more interest in writing about it. I'm sure it will make money and McG will make a sequel. Bale will continue taking this role for the paycheck.

But I don't plan on being back.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.