Friday, June 10, 2011

A Terminator Without Arnold Is Remarkably Average Action-Adventure: Terminator Salvation.

The Good: Decent acting, Moments of plot
The Bad: Predictable plot, General lack of character development/originality
The Basics: In a VERY weak "recommend," the stiflingly average Terminator Salvation makes for passable entertainment, but nothing to spend much time at all thinking about.

A few years back while on the road for a Star Trek convention, a fan asked Robert Picardo - who played the Emergency Medical Hologram on Star Trek: Voyager - about the candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Picardo wisely said that his hope for the potential governor would be that (if elected) Schwarzenegger would help restore Hollywood to a moviemaking capital of the world. Picardo's logic was pretty sound; Hollywood built Schwarzenegger as an actor, but in the years since his rise as an actor, taxes and codes had made the studio town the bane of many a production company's existence. Los Angeles was no longer THE place to shoot a movie or television series and instead, places like Vancouver became popular filming locations in the 1990s. One wonders how Picardo would feel about Terminator Salvation being filmed mostly (according to the closing credits) in Albuquerque. Considering that this episode in the Terminator film franchise utilizes the current governor of California minimally, one supposes Schwarzenegger has little to worry about in this regard.

That said, director McG and writers John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris have very little to be excited about with Terminator Salvation either. Having caught a screening of the film, the overwhelming feeling at the end of the film was that it was a startlingly average film. My wife, who had never seen a Terminator film before was unimpressed by this installment and her comment at the end was "I'm glad we didn't pay to see that" and "I'm not going to look up the other three movies now." For its part, Terminator Salvation opens well enough, but quickly devolves into a remarkably average action-adventure film where the most enjoyable moments almost all come as a result of callbacks to past films in the franchise (though none were as extreme as my hoped-for cameo with all of the past actors playing John Connor appearing, say, in a bar . . .). I had prepared for the film by reading the prequel graphic novel Sand In The Gears (reviewed here!) and was a bit disappointed by how little bearing that had on the movie.

In 2018, the bombs have gone off, humanity has been virtually decimated by the SkyNet machines and the few pockets of remaining humans have organized into the Resistance, led by John Connor. The thing is, back in 2003, a killer named Marcus Wright was put to death by lethal injection, after signing his body over to a doctor working for SkyNet. Shortly after an attack on a SkyNet facility - where John Connor is the lone Resistance survivor - Marcus Wright turns up naked on the battlefield, disoriented and wanders to Los Angeles. As John Connor and his Resistance cell organize for a final assault on SkyNet as the result of a shutoff signal that might well stop every single SkyNet machine, Marcus begins a journey of his own.

Wright's journey puts him in the company of Kyle Reese, a man who is supposed to be sent back in time to become John Connor's father. Reese and his ward, Star, find themselves captured by machines shortly after Wright turns up and Marcus's search for answers take him in the direction of SkyNet. On that search, he encounters John Connor and both Connor and Wright learn a terrible secret about the herding of humans by the SkyNet machines . . .

. . . only, it's not much of a secret because all of the final trailers for the film ruin Wright's secret. Seriously, any potential for greatness that Terminator Salvation ever had was completely crushed by the fact that Wright's secret is revealed in the previews. In a movie where the Terminators are exactly where one expects them to be based on framing (i.e. even my wife who had never seen one of these films knew the active Terminator was right behind the one on the assembly line) the subtlety of moments is ruined when the viewer has mere seconds between the intelligent revelation and the explicit reveal. And that the explicit reveal made it into the preview trailers is reprehensible on the part of the advertisers. They gut the emotion of the moment and of the film.

That said, the plot has virtually all of the expected "Terminator" moments. There are fights, car chases, a few catchphrases that pop up. The only innovative cameo is the use of the song "You Could Be Mine" within the film. Outside that, the cameos are surprisingly bland and generally obvious. Strangely, I was the only one in the theater to react to the first mention of Kyle Reese, whose name is first dropped when John Connor is put at the #2 position on SkyNet's most wanted list. Kyle Reese's story is told in The Terminator.

Only, it is also told in this film. Terminator Salvation is essentially the story of three men, past, present and future: Marcus Wright, John Connor, and Kyle Reese. Marcus Wright had his day and is living his second chance, John Connor is living his prophesied potential and Kyle Reese is just coming into his own. Wright's story is interesting, but he was cast far too close to the look of the new John Connor, Christian Bale. Those looking for any deepening of the storyline between John and Kate Connor will have to wait; Kate shows up pregnant, but does almost nothing for the course of the almost two hours.

Worse yet is that Marcus Wright is hardly interesting. He takes the role - in terms of screentime and character arc - that is traditionally held by the adversary (Terminator) and his relationship with Blair is hardly engaging. Instead, they seem to be the most active male and female on the screen, so the camera stays on them. Unfortunately, here is where the film becomes absolutely dumb. Wright enters the Connor Resistance Cell, pretty much begging those there to let him go so he can go to San Francisco to find someone at SkyNet. Neither Connor nor his people bother to ask him who he is searching for or why. At least none of the humans look surprised when Blair breaks Wright out. Connor is at least that smart, fortunately.

The real winner of the film, though, is actor Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese. Yelchin is having a pretty exceptional month as an actor, whatwith charming audiences as the child prodigy Pavel Chekov in the film Star Trek (reviewed here!) and now picking up the mantle of Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation. Yelchin earns his chops by perfectly picking up some of the mannerisms and vocal characteristics of Michael Biehn, who originated the role in The Terminator. Yelchin steals the screen often enough from both Bale and Sam Worthington, who plays Wright.

Worthington is a decent-enough heavy, but he only shines when he is on screen opposite Moon Bloodgood (Blair) or on his own. Put beside Yelchin or Bale and he seems far less impressive. In fact, he only has one truly great bit of emoting in the film and to discuss it is to ruin the surprise for the few who have not yet seen the trailers. As for Christian Bale, he does a good job as John Connor. Personally, I enjoyed the prior take on Connor as an unlikely man living in disbelief of his destiny trying to scrape together a life off the grid. Nick Stahl made for a convincing antihero and an unlikely leader of the resistance. Bale is much more obvious, overt and military in his bearing and as a result, he sells the new John Connor just fine.

The problem, as it often is in these type movies, is that Terminator Salvation plays fast and loose with the continuity and the character of John Connor is an awkward constant/inconsistency. But as far as the film on its own merits goes . . . this moves away from being smart or complex science fiction into pretty mindless action-adventure pretty quickly. And for that, it is adequate. But with so many smarter options on the big screen right now, it is hard to get excited about this one. See it free, if possible.

For the other "Terminator" films, please check out my reviews of:
The Terminator
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 3: The Rise Of The Machines


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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