Monday, September 27, 2010

Terminator Salvation

I love the Terminator series.  Until I experienced the rapture that comes with repeated viewings of Road House and Purple Rain, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was my most viewed movie as a teenager.  I can even point out the single bullet that, had it not been dropped, would have ended the movie twenty minutes earlier.  While the first two Terminator movies are obviously classics, I'm even okay with the far inferior Terminator 3: Wanton Destruction of Property.  It's not great, but it could have been much, much worse.  As the fourth movie in the franchise, Terminator Salvation sits in an unenviable spot where it wants to recapture the fans that were turned off by the last film while relaunching the series by setting it in the Terminator future.  That is a tough trick to pull off.

How successful is this film?  Well, on paper it might work.  Christian Bale signed up to play the main role of John Connor and the supporting cast was partially filled out with Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, and Helena Bonham Carter.  Not bad, right?  I liked the notion of taking the series into the post-apocalyptic future instead of retreading the "to save the future, John Connor must live" plot from the last three films.  Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger's sagging man boobs should have no reason to show up, since he was busy governing California at the time of filming.  I love me some vintage Ahnuld, but the man stopped making good movies in 1994.  Oh, and this movie doesn't feature time travel, which automatically makes it slightly less ridiculous than any of the other films.  All in all, this movie was theoretically promising.

And then it starts to fall apart when you take a closer look.  Counting Bale, the pivotal character of John Connor has been played by four different actors in four movies and one TV show.  That implies that there is no true vision for the character, so despite him being a recurring role his character's presence does not indicate any particular level of quality.  The director ended up being McG, which is the most obnoxious Hollywood name in recent memory.  Oh, and he committed the cinematic sins of directing the Charlie's Angels movies.  The rest of the supporting cast consists of Bryce Dallas Howard (I don't care if she's prettier than her dad, she's not very talented!), Moon Bloodgood (whose acting is nowhere near as awesome as her name), Common (who still hasn't convinced me that he can act), and Michael Ironside (whose name should have belonged to a general or linebacker, not a B-movie actor).  And this movie was rated PG-13, not R, like the rest of the franchise.  Add all that to the fact that the script went through several rewrites, and this thing starts to sound like it will utterly suck.

As with so many things, the truth lies somewhere in-between.  In the year 2018, the future is a great big pile of crap.  The sentient computer program, Skynet, has instigated a nuclear holocaust, leaving mankind on the brink of extinction.  The remaining humans are trying just to eke out survival or they are active in the human resistance.  John Connor (Christian Bale) is a member of the resistance movement; despite having some knowledge of the future from his mother and his time-traveling Terminator friends from previous movies, he is not one of the leaders of the movement.  But, apparently, he is the voice of "Human Resistance Radio," the presumably made-up-by-me title to his occasional radio pep talks to the remainders of humanity.  The resistance has just had two major breakthroughs:
  1. They have discovered Skynet's "kill list" of humans most in need of being murdered...John is #2, behind Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin)---John's father, who hasn't yet aged into Michael Biehn, gone back in time or slept with Linda Hamilton in The Terminator.
  2. They have discovered a radio frequency that disables Skynet's killer robots.  Oh, and Skynet also is planning to kill the leaders of the resistance in one week.  How nice of Skynet to squeeze the leaders of humanity in on that day...I thought they'd be booked!  
Anyway, the resistance leaders are planning to nuke Skynet's central base after using the new robot-disabling technology to turn off their defenses.  The only problem with that is that Skynet has been capturing humans to experiment on them in that same base.  Casualties of war happen every day, but not on John Connor's watch!  He heads to the base to break out the humans before Skynet gets bombed.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Marcus (Sam Worthington), a man that is being executed in 2003.  The next thing he (or we) know, he awakes in 2018 with absolutely no idea what is going on.  He meets the young Kyle Reese and his fellow survivor, the nine year-old Star (Jadagrace Berry), and they get kidnapped by Skynet machines and taken to the Skynet central base for unknown reasons.  Marcus feels obligated to break his only friends out of the base, so he finds and teams up with a Human Resistance member, Blair (Moon Bloodgood), and is taken to the Resistance base.  Once there, the Resistance discovers a startling secret about Marcus that explains the fifteen-year gap in his memory.  With that reveal, many questions arise:
  • Is Marcus one of a kind, or is he a sign of things to come?
  • Can Marcus be trusted?
  • Can John Connor find Kyle Reese before the Resistance nukes Skynet's base?
  • Will Skynet win by being nuked and killing John's soon-to-be father and wiping John out of existence?
  • Will Skynet win by drawing John into their main base and killing him before the tide in the man vs. machine battle has turned in favor of man?
  • Will Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, or Thomas Dekker (the other three actors who have played John Connor) show up and really confuse things for viewers?

Let's start with the good things first.  I will admit that, while watching this movie, I was entertained.  It is nowhere near as intelligent a film as the rest of the series, but it has its own charms.  I liked Anton Yelchin's performance; it was reminiscent of Michael Biehn's work in The Terminator, but not indebted to it.  The movie looked good, too.  It can be difficult to capture the dirtiness of a post-nuclear world, but I thought the sets looked great.  I thought the design work for the various Skynet machines was imaginative and pretty cool.  There were a lot of cool mini-tributes to the first couple movies sprinkled throughout; the best was definitely the inclusion of the Guns 'n' Roses song from Terminator 2.  There was a lot of action, too, enough to keep you from thinking about the movie's plot or logic.

That is where things start to sour for this film.  Despite avoiding some time travel problems by setting this in the future, including a young Kyle Reese has the same effect as sending a Terminator back in time to kill John or Sarah Connor; if the Terminators succeed, then the entire time line is disrupted and, I assume, everyone wakes up in a delicious swimming pool of vanilla pudding.  Or, we blink out of existence; until the time stream is totally disrupted and I can be proved wrong, I'm sticking with my theory.  That headache aside, there are a lot of little things that don't make sense in this movie.  How can so many machines that are specifically designed to kill people have such awful aim?  How is Marcus able to swim, considering his presumed body weight?  Why don't Terminators just crush John Connor's throat or punch through his face?  Whenever they get their robotic mitts on him, they just throw him across the room.  Why would sentient machines have a radio frequency for an Achilles' Heel?  When the final plan is revealed, why is it so ridiculously convoluted?  Seriously, when I heard the plan explained, I thought I was listening to Cobra Commander, or possibly underpants gnomes.  And yet, we are supposed to believe that a brilliant and devious supercomputer came up with this?  I am insulted by the filmmakers (probably fair) assessment of the average American's intelligence.  And what was the deal with Skynet targeting Kyle Reese?  In the first Terminator, the father of John Connor was unknown by Skynet, but here he is their number one acquisition priority.  Did John, the only living person who knows the identity of his father, blab his daddy's name?  I'll just mildly state that I doubt it.  But let's say that, yes, John Connor spilled the beans...when Skynet captures Kyle, why don't they just squish him into meat jelly?  It couldn't hurt their evil plans, right?

Despite all that stupidity, though, this isn't a bad movie.  Yes, McG is a pretty bad director in terms of cinematography, storytelling, and working with actors, but at least the movie never drags.  Most of the actors turn in uninspired performances, but not necessarily bad...although Christian Bale was uncharacteristically one-dimensional.  And Sam Worthington still has the range of a box of Triscuits.  If you look at this as a continuation/reboot of the ultra-successful Terminator franchise, this was definitely a disappointment.  On its own, though, the movie is a fun, dumb little flick.  As much as the logic-loving part of my mind might disagree, I give this movie

***EDITED ON 9/27/10 at 14:20 PM***
An excellent comment from nobulljive has forced me to amend my rating.  Yes, it is incredibly stupid for Skynet to have designed a base that conforms to human proportions.  With so many uniquely shaped pieces of machinery, there is absolutely no reason for a base for robots, by robots, to be designed like any modern-day processing plant.  And it is even stupider for the interface for the central Skynet computer to have screens or speakers for Helena Bonham Carter to speak through.  The central computer in Skynet should just have ports for any machine to link up and communicate through. 

Man, I can't believe I didn't think of that; I am now equally upset with myself and this movie.  These logical flaws in the story, on their own, wouldn't bother me too much.  I can forgive action/sci-fi movies for some stupidity.  On top of all the other issues I had with Salvation's plot, though, I cannot in good conscience recommend this film.


  1. Way too many stars (by approximately 5.5). Although, I have to give it up for the ambient talking robots (Why do they talk?) that, for whatever reason, build human-friendly operating systems and buildings.

  2. That, sir, is a fantastic point. I cannot dismiss my brainless enjoyment of this movie, but that is stupid beyond words. Consider my rating revised.