22 May 2009

Movie review: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation (2009)
Directed by McG. Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Michael Ironside, Common, Helena Bonham Carter.

This movie has robots in it. Lots of ‘em. Big and small, versatile, with plenty of ways to make life unlivable for the human resistance fighters who have banded together in the wake of Judgment Day, the nuclear nightmare visited upon the planet at the end of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The robots of Skynet are a pretty damn awesome group of movie gadgets and bad guys. They’re the best part of this fourth movie in a franchise that should have stopped when creator James Cameron waved “hasta la vista, Baby” after the second film.

Terminator Salvation at the least improves on the third film, which was a tired effort that simply went about the same old business of the previous two movies: robots hunting down a Connor in modern-day Los Angeles, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the combatants. The new film makes the logical leap to the future war between humans and machines shown briefly at the start of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and in flashbacks in The Terminator. When I first heard the proposal for the new film, I nodded my head in agreement: if you want to carry this series on, this is the right way to go.

Then they put McG, director of the two Charlie’s Angels films, in the director’s chair, and I retracted my previous assessment. I knew James Cameron wouldn’t come back to the series—there was no reason to even hope that he would—but why McG?

But here’s the shockeroo: McG isn’t the serious problem with the film. The direction on Terminator Salvation is better than I could’ve expected. The problem with the film is a weak script built around two feeble characters. The writers’ strike certainly didn’t help the development of the screenplay, and McG tries to get around these deficiencies with fun pyrotechnics, awesome robot action, and a good post-apocalyptic design that feels as if it belongs in the James Cameron Terminator universe.

But John Connor (Christian Bale) is the empty vessel at the middle of this story. I’ve enjoyed so many other of Bale’s performances that I feel a bit stupefied that he does little for me as the hero of the human resistance—or at least, the destined hero, since this movie shows his ascent to the position merely because the timeline has destined him for this and tapes from his mother (a welcome return for Linda Hamilton, even if only in voice-form) tell him that he will be. John Connor feels like a character trying to fit into a story that wants to be about two other characters: Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin from Star Trek), the man who will eventually go back in time and father John Connor; and the confused Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), an escapee from a Skynet testing facility who makes some unpleasant discoveries about his humanity.

Even though Terminator Salvation occurs during the future war, it still can’t let go of the franchise conceit about the evil computer Skynet trying to alter the timeline through assassination. In this case, Skynet has targeted Kyle Reese, not yet a stout soldier but an enthusiastic neophyte. John Connor’s task is to rescue Reese from the clutches of the machines before a human strike against one of Skynet’s centers kills off all the human prisoners. If Kyle dies, the future dies, or so Connor and the script want us to believe. (At this point, with the overlapping time paradoxes, I’m unsure if anything would change except the credits for the next movie.) The mysterious Marcus might end up as Connor’s only hope for achieving the mission.

Marcus’s condition may come as a surprise to him, but anyone who saw the trailer or who pays attention to the strange prologue in 2003 will know exactly what he is. As the center of the movie’s poorly-played “what makes us human?” theme, Marcus needs to work or the whole film will stumble. He’s more interesting than Bale’s John Connor, who seems to spend the large part of the film muttering and giving badly written speeches over the radio, but Worthington doesn’t make Marcus interesting enough. That leaves us with two gaping holes in the human side of the story.

I’ll give Yelchin credit: he’s the shining star in the cast. He looks similar to Michael Biehn, who originated the role in the first movie, but plays him at the beginning of the learning curve that will turn him into a true hero. Yelchin mostly drops out of the movie in the last third, but he livens up every scene he gets in the first parts.

McG does well with the action: although none of it is fresh in conception (the truck and MotoTerminator chase comes straight from The Road Warrior), it feels fresh and enthusiastic in execution. The various mechas and Terminators are delicious heavy-metal eye candy. The movie never gets us to an enormous battle of the kind promised in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but we get some exciting opening skirmishes. If another film emerges—we’ll have to see how the cash flows during this three-day weekend—I hope the filmmakers put Connor firmly behind the lines and let the massive robo-carnage play out with Yelchin’s Reese as the major figure. We have still have to get to time-travel and laser-gun tech.

One serious mistake in the mechanized side of the story is providing Skynet with a face and voice. The unknown and unfathomable master of the machines feels far scarier than a digital display and synthesized speech, which localizes and humanizes the computer too much. This sequence exists for plot mechanics, most of which seem obvious already.

I don’t feel disappointed with Terminator Salvation, since I didn’t walk in with raised expectations, but I still only tangentially enjoyed it. That McG didn’t end up as one of its serious faults is definitely a surprise, and he did hit my thrill button in a few sequences. But this isn’t an episode in the franchise I think I’ll revisit often—if at all.