June 6, 2009
Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a war against the machines, and for my sins, they gave me one. Ever since that metal foot crushed the human skull back in T2, and the flying Skynet ships fired lasers from overhead, the dream was to see this amazing future post-apocalyptic battle stretched to full length. I wanted massive campaigns in hollowed out cities to metal machine music. The previous Terminator films always hinted at this, but wound up comfortably settling into the more relatable (and cost-effective) present day, which to their credit worked, and I’m including Rise of the Machines in that statement. They were effective action spectacles that wowed us with proper set pieces and, on occasion, provided the kind of two dimensional character moment that lifts such a venture that much higher. But as the end of Rise confirmed, we’re done with the present. Judgment Day has happened, and there’s no turning back.
Terminator Salvation begins in our present day (okay, almost done with the present), with death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) being asked to donate his body to science after his death, for a second chance. The fully repentant but guilty murderer (guilty, of course in a ‘boy that’s wrong but we understand why he did it’ kind of way) relents and then we cut to prologue number two, this time text-based, which catches us up on the events of the previous films as well as setting up our hero John Connor (Christian Bale). We’re effectively given a two-lead story, and we know we’re going to cross-cut between the two as they make their way to their inevitable meeting and the final act that will result. Ideally, this would allows us to invest in both the good guy and the presumably bad guy, ratcheting up the tension with each scene and set piece that builds and builds suspense. In reality, with a man named McG running the show, we get a lop-sided, half done snoozefest of bland action scenes interspersed with nonsensical plot advancement and middling stabs at character development.
The side that works best, unsurprisingly, is that of Worthington’s Marcus. His journey of confusion mixed with seemingly instinctual fighting abilities rises slightly above the sub-Bourne rip-off it was probably written as. Indeed, Worthington is the best thing about the film by quite some distance, and just to rub it in the face of the other films that seem to be going on at the same time, he gets to play off the second best performance, Anton Yelchin as future-Michael Beihn/John Connor’s dad Kyle Reese. Yelchin’s given the role of your standard, wiry teenage street urchin, and while it never really rises above the cliché, he understands that the trick to this kind of role is to not be annoying, and he pulls it off accordingly. Worthington, even in the poorly written scenes of real emotion that occur later in the film, manages the surly lack of confidence of a genuine innocent who still knows more than he’s letting on.
Worthington also has the benefit of having both a character arc and a story that basically involves moving from point A to point B. Bale’s Connor, on the other hand, has been abandoned entirely by the movie gods and is stuck channeling his Batman voice to growl and shot lines as he gets caught in an ambush, jumps into the ocean, is on a submarine, tests new techonology, fights this and that all the while listening to a tape recording of his dead mother and talking at his pregnant wife (Bryce Dallas Howard, criminally underused). Pretty much every scene in this part features dialogue that sounds like it as added in six months later when they realized they had no idea what was going on, and that’s saying something considering every third character in each of these scenes exists to explain what’s happening in the clunkiest way possible (see: Michael Ironside’s second in command). This whole section is an utter mess, and I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Bale sensed the calamity that was coming. If he did, it’s difficult to blame him for a few minutes of insane swearing at a D.P., which seems relatively tame considering this film justifies the flipping of a catering table and the punching of a key grip at the very least.
Perhaps the biggest betrayal of all comes from the man himself, Mr. McG. Veteran of all those glossy music videos and, of course, the Charlie’s Angels flicks, McG brings a really impressive ineptness to the enterprise. The man is a sub-par Michael Bay, and that takes some doing. There’s a shot fairly early on that more or less sums up what’s wrong with McG’s visual style: All in a ‘single-shot’ (i.e. a single shot with millions worth of CGI), Connor jumps into a helicopter, takes off, an explosion occurs behind him, the helicopter spins out of control, flips over, and then crashes. Connor then crawls out of the debris and sees the mushroom cloud that took him down. This should be impressive. Instead, it’s brown and drab, there’s absolutely no sense of where everything is and what is happening, and there isn’t even any awe or terror in the sight of the cloud. Indiana Jones had the fridge, yes, but at least it nailed the damned mushroom cloud. So this is what McG is. He’s a string of ideas that aren’t that great but obviously seem pretty awesome-looking to him, and then those ideas are poorly executed. He said the great post-apocalyptic films such as Mad Max and Children of Men influenced him, but for my money, I think the closest cinematic touch point is Resident Evil: Extinction (it’s certainly about on that level of quality). The visuals are meant to be gritty, but they look brown, metallic, and cheap instead. This is about as drab as films can look.
Well, we can hope that the franchise is dead. I have no interest in revisiting it in the future at this point, and let’s hope the studios leave it alone. We were promised something special nearly two decades ago, but instead of epic man versus machine wartime excitement, we get giant CGI machines smashing up a derelict gas station, followed by a tepid chase sequence on motorcycles. Clang. Clang. Boom. Boom. Bore. That Transformers sequel is looking pretty good right about now, and that might be the most damning statement I can make about a Terminator film.