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Terminator: Salvation (2009) **1/2

May 2, 2009

Terminator Salvation (2009) teaser poster

written by: John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris (based on characters by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd)
produced by: Derek Anderson, Victor Kubicek, Jeffrey Silver & Moritz Borman
directed by: McG
rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and language.)
115 min.
U. S. release date: May 21, 2009
DVD & Blu-ray release date: December 1, 2009
In 1984, I was twelve years-old when I was introduced to the naked, muscular Austrian killing machine of “The Terminator” that I would come to know as the unstoppable T-800 cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The low-budget film would become an unforgettable sci-fi classic giving us characters like courageous Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) a young Los Angeles waitress, unknowingly set for “termination”. Why? Because in 2029, her unborn son John Connor leads a resistance against Skynet’s artificially intelligent computer-controlled machines bent on the extermination of the human race. In an act of self-preservation, Connor sends his best soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time to keep his mother alive. Needless to say, after repeated viewings of this action-infused flick, I was hooked on  anything “Terminator” related and little did I know, anything involving director James Cameron.
Then 1991 came around with the first sequel “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and it’s groundbreaking special effects. Cameron obviously had money to play with following the cult success of the first film (not to mention 1986’s “Aliens” and 19879’s “The Abyss”,  starring some of the same actors from “The Terminator”) and this time provided an interesting twist. The T-800 was just as formidable but was now friendly, had more catch phrases, and devoted to protecting Sarah’s son, John Connor (Edward Furlong), from the T-1000, a liquid metal terminator, who was determined to prevent young John from growing into a leader of the resistance. Of course, John survived, grew into Nick Stahl (the mostly forgettable, Cameron-less “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” from 2003) and has now matured into Bruce Wayne, er, I mean Christian Bale, who’s all-soldier with wasted vocal cords. Meanwhile, the original T-800 runs the State of California. Wait, what?

Now, I’m not even touching upon the metaphysics of time travel, the self-updating allegory of technological anxiety, “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” on television or the complex development of a malignant military application called Skynet. Since T3 and its Terimatrix, Skynet became  “self-aware”, unleashed a nuclear holocaust and now wants to wipe out the resistance and the rest of humanity along with it. I never understood why Skynet wants to do all this. Do robots want their own planet that bad? What would they do with it? Doesn’t there have to be a human behind all this? Maybe it’s pointless to ask all ths but it’d be nice if it was addressed one day. Based on the previous films, Skynet will at some point master naked time travel (as will the resistance), but that will have to wait for a future sequel. A future which will be the beginning of the end of the future. Although, If there’s not enough tickets sales for the latest film  “Terminator Salvation,” directed by McG (the “Charlie’s Angels” movies) we may never find out just how The Governator arrived in California back in 1984!
Enough history and questions, a war is taking place in the year 2018, in which humanity finds itself in the predicted fight for survival against Skynet. John Connor is a low ranking officer in the human resistance located in the California desert,  reluctantly carrying out orders that he doesn’t entirely believe in by a submerged Gen. Ashdown (the great Michael Ironside). The film opens up with a devastating raid on a Skynet communications base that hides a secret, something even John’s mother didn’t know about. After the raid, a lone naked man emerges from the rainy ruins. He is Marcus Wright (newcomer Sam Worthington), a convicted prisoner executed in 2003, who finds himself very much alive and unexpectedly dumped in the middle of the post-Judgment Day world. We wanders with him into the ruins of Los Angeles, he meets his first Terminator and his first fellow human survivor…. a teen Kyle Reese (a solid Anton Yelchin). Marcus soon finds his fate intertwined with that of Kyle and John, but can this former death row inmate find a second chance among the remnants of civilization? Therein lies the title.

Being a fan of the franchise, I was easily anticipating this film especially once I heard Bale had signed on, despite McG’s pedigree. I had read all the negative buzz online and was expecting to watch a film with a number of problems. Looks like my low expectations paid off and I wound up experiencing quite an exciting film that is overall a movie worth seeing.  McG pulled off the action in of a dark, gritty, action adventure in a sci-fi setting while his directing of actors is clearly lacking. The overall story is fine but the unbelievable script really weakens the film. There are some who thought that a “Terminator” film without Schwarzenegger would weaken the franchise as well but this is a part of the story that has only been spoken of or told in flashbacks. This is the early stages of a war that had not yet created the T-800….or is it?
Setting the story in post-Judgment Day was the best thing for the franchise. As much as I enjoy seeing the glowing blue orb of displaced naked people land in a warehouse, back alley or desert, it was gettin’ kinda old. Getting away from the overused time travel plot and placing the movie in new territory. I wanted to see that all-out war between man and machine that had been mentioned in the previous films. “Salvation” puts us on an explosive path to that inevitable war. I’m a sucker for the post-apocalyptic life I guess and while we’ve seen the destroyed cities, car-littered highways, and rag-tag survivors in other movies, the advantage here is I get to finally see what was only previously referred to.
Another advantage of this future setting is it gives the design department a change to go nuts with a load of new robots. You see the sloppy, Frankenstein-like T-600 (in our introduction to teen Reese and one my favorite), the Transformer-like Harvester (a lil too similar to the Tripods Spielberg gave us in “War of the Worlds”), the snake-like hydrobots, the Moto-Terminators, and on and on. This not only gives the creators more to do but it also gives the sound effects department more to work with. I especially liked the intimidating and foreboding, low base note that pulsated by the Harvester and some of the other robots. I know if I was part of the resistance that sound would surely wake me up in a cold sweat. While the stop-motion feel of the terminator at the end of the first film brings a nostalgic smile, the CGI here is smooth and solid, conveying just the right amount of danger and intensity.
As I mentioned, I was looking forward to seeing what Bale would do with a character like John Connor. How had he matured? Was he at all similar to the previous John Connors?
Maybe I was putting to much hope in Bale’s talent as an actor but I honestly cannot think of a performance in the last 10 years where he is phoning it….until this one. I also mention Bruce Wayne up above and it turns out I’m not the only one who feels he was just playing the same brooding, emotionally guarded role sans cape and cowl. I really thought Bale would tap into any doubts or insecurities Connor might have, after all there’s a lot weighing on him. He is the prophesied messiah, has been all his life and he finds himself continuously surrounded by fallen soldiers. You’d think that’s a lot to work with but Bale remains one note. With his now famous onset rant, the rumor that he had the script rewritten to boost his role only after McG begged him to be in it, I expected more. Instead we just get a cold and calculated Connor who vacillates from a hoarse bark to an indecipherable whisper.

Maybe it’s good thing then that a new character is introduced to the franchise for the first time in a long time. Marcus Wright is a mystery at first (unfortunately the trailers reveal entirely too much about him) and Worthington’s gives a performance mixed with both darkness and nobility. We see this scorched landscape through his eyes since we are just as new to it as he is. When he eventually has to face off with Christian Bale, they’re on equal ground. He can grimace with the best of them, in fact I would sadly have to say that Worthington and Yelchin wind up delivering the best performances in the film. Each time Yelchin is on screen as young Reece, I could totally see a young Michael Biehn in him. It reminded me of Ewan McGregor playing a young Alec Guiness in the Star Wars prequels. He’s that good. Between this role and his part in “Star Trek”, he should give his agent a raise.

The rest of the cast is somewhat ancillary performing auxiliary tasks, if that. There’s a few in the resistance crew like tough chick Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) and Barnes (a wooden Common) who follow John Connor. There’s also John’s wife, Dr. Kate Connor (formerly Brewster from “T3”) played by a wasted Bryce Dallas Howard. Honestly, I don’t even know what she’s doing in this film and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how she is the only woman who is dolled up in the entire movie. What purpose does that serve? There could have been some tender exchanges between John and Kate, possibly involving her pregnancy but they don’t even touch on that. It’s little scenes like that which could have really elevated the tone of the film to a more balanced level instead of nonstop, high-octane nonsense. I’m not even gonna try and explain Helena Bonham Carter’s unexplainable character.
Maybe McG isn’t an actor’s director but I have to ultimately blame the inconsistent script. The story feels quite rushed in a few scenes and the director and editor must take the blame for that but it always comes down to the script. The “Terminator” movies worked best when Cameron had a hand in the writing and this film like “T3” really shows how much he’s missed. At times, it felt like the writers had forgotten what they had established and laid out, either that or maybe they thought the audience would forget about simple logic. I’d like the writers to explain how a blaring boombox attracts a Terminator in one scene and yet when the resistance fire off napalm near their compound, evil Skynet detects nothing. There’s a scene where we see humans scrambling and hiding from Skynet, then in another scene they are seen out in the open staging an attack with dozens running around making plenty of noise. Really? Skynet can “go live” I guess but she’s not that clever.  feel like a major looming threat in some scenes and some distant, fallible foe in others. It took away from the sense of desperation and impending threat you expect in the post-Judgment Day world.

When we see John Connor zoom from one location to another very quickly and all too easily, it seems more for the sake of running time than flow of the story. Some say you have to disregard logic at times in movies like this. I say logic is can be imperative if we are to believe in the reality and stakes of the situations. In another scene, McG (or whoever involved) totally defy human nature. There’s a scene where Blair is dealing with would-be attackers, then immediately afterwards she’s flirting and cuddling up with Marcus, a guy she has just met in the middle of nowhere.  I can’t even say that felt rushed. It felt like a different movie. The most laughable offense to logic or drama was how easily John Connor was able to infiltrate Skynet in the final act. Skynet goes from omnipotent to impotent. Just like that. Regardless of whatever plot exposition follows to possibly explain Connor’s infiltration, it’s still anti-climatic and far from suspenseful.

I’m not gonna feel the same way about this film as I would the first two, likely due to my age and knowledge of film mechanisms but it was a good time despite all the rusty holes. It’s not the first time I was exposed to a script that is both heavy-handed and light weight at the same time. While it rarely delivers more than what is required to keep the franchise alive, it was nice to see McG subtely refer to the previous films in various scenes. We still see that Connor is good with gadgets. We hear Guns ‘n Roses You Could Be Mine as Connor tried to lure a mototerminator. We see the nuclear fuel cell from the T-850 play a crucial role. Most notable though was the “geek out” introduction moment of a T-800 dressed with certain Austrian exo-skin.

I was actually surprised I was fine with the story really being more about Marcus Wright than John Connor. Could be cuz Connor himself is pretty boring here, lacking the sort of weight and charisma you’d expect from someone who is destined to lead the rebellion against the machines. Wright’s character is far more interesting, but his story feels as if it’s been trimmed to give more time to Connor, which is unfortunately what weakens the story. Compared to Bale, Worthington seems to actually be acting not just delivering lines.

Since this is the first of the series that takes place in the future, I didn’t really miss Schwarzenegger not being in it, but I couldn’t help feeling it had trouble defining itself without him.

Terminator Salvation (2009) giant poster

Terminator Salvation (2009) Skull poster

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