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Non-Review Review: Terminator Salvation

There are perhaps some franchises which really shouldn’t endure after the departure of the creative brain behind the operation. Some would argue that The West Wing should have ended after Aaron Sorkin departed, and I would argue that Warner Brothers should probably reboot Batman after Nolan leaves, rather than continuing his saga (since there’s no way they’ll let that franchise lie fallow). Terminator is perhaps another example. The first two films are iconic, towering science-fiction masterpieces which perfectly blend big ideas with visceral thrills – The Terminator is a tightly constructed urban thriller, while Terminator 2: Judgement Day helped define what a blockbuster should look like. However, once Cameron departed, the franchise was somehow allowed to continue limping on. After the really awful Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines, I was willing to let the series die. However, somehow we got a fourth movie. And, despite all my misgivings and preconceptions, it isn’t bad. It isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible.

Sam Worthington needs a Bale-out...

Here we get to an interesting discussion. How much of an original film should remain in a sequel order for it to remain a spiritual successor? At what point do you change the story or themes or events or characters or concepts so much, that it isn’t really a follow-up anymore, but becomes almost its own film – just one that shares a lot of similarities with the original? I don’t have an answer, I’m just spit-balling here. Whereas the first three films were linked by the same leading actor and the concept of free will against fate via time travel, Terminator: Salvation pretty much foresakes these ideas. There’s never really any character here who questions the part they will play in the grand scheme of things because an oracle assures them of their importance. Sure, there’s weight on the shoulders of the prophesised leader John Connor, but that’s par for the course when you’re one of the last humans left – the movie isn’t about John growing into the man he must be, it’s more about events occurring which will position John as he should be.

And yet, perhaps because of these differences – and notably the decision to abandon the present for the post-apocalyptic future – I think that I respect the film more. While Terminator 3 made the mistake of convincing director Jonathan Mostow to consciously emulate James Cameron, the resulting movie simply showcased Mostow’s shortcomings rather than playing to his strength. Mostow can’t mix action with humour well (it leads to things like that stupid crotch-grab in the stupid toilet-fight), but he knows that Cameron was the master of it – so he does it anyway. Despite the fact that there’s no way to make a third film which completely undermines the philosophically nuance position of the second film, Mostow did it anyway.

John has a poke around...

By setting this film in a destroyed landscape, and favouring large battles over intimate pursuits, McG manages to seem like he’s not trying to give us “James Cameron lite” – because if we wanted that, we’d see Avatar. At the same time, it looks and feels just about familiar enough that it doesn’t feel like a conscious reboot or an arrogant attempt to stamp his name all over an iconic property. It’s a thin and difficult line to walk, and McG ensures the film rarely stumbles. That alone is something to be thankful for, I suppose.

However, McG is no James Cameron. That’s not an unfair criticism – nobody but James Cameron is James Cameron. Even while working a moderate distance away from the heart of the franchise established by Cameron, it’s quite evident that we are not looking at a director of similar ability. The truth is that – despite an effective opening (I loved how the lethal injection apparatus moves like a ominous machine) – the movie is far too mechanical for its own good. Cameron realised that the beauty of his set-up was that he could merge the perspectives of cold and calculating machines with the emotional depth of humans, but McG never really establishes a connection with any of his characters or with his world.

Instead, we’re offered Terminator by away of The Matrix sequels. I love the set design here, but the general aesthetic calls to mind the multiple pointless Zion scenes that slowed down the two later movies no end – a weird fusion of techno-grunge and end-of-the-world which never really connected with the viewer. Indeed, the setup also recalls the relaunch of Battlestar Galactica – which arguably makes sense, as the reimagining would draw greatly upon Cameron’s idea of the war between man and his technology – but it takes the style with none of the depth. At one point in the film, we’re presented with an organic heart beating underneath a cold metal skeleton – I’d remark that was an apt comparison, but I never feel any blood pumping at all during the film.

Christian Bale is an acting machine...

Coldly and professionally, the movie succeeds. The music is great (and even the source of a few harmless easter eggs) and the imagery is rich – this is a dead world where buildings are reduced to shells which crumble at the slightest disturbance. I feel the need to defend McG – who has drawn a lot of fire from his work here. I accept that he’s unable to connect with the audience, but I sense he may well have been locked out by the script.

The movie had a lot of scripting problems. If you doubt that, check out the original planned ending. Even in the version that made it to screen, the first half suffers from the simple fact that it’s divided between two plots which seem almost meandering and insignificant. At the half way point, after a twist is revealed (one spoiled by the bloody trailers), what the script was attempting to do becomes clear in hindsight in contrasting its two leads – but it just doesn’t create a strong enough juxtaposition to engage its audience.

Even in the little moments, the script suffers. Action requires the last humans alive to move like parkour styles – which is strange in a movie that should contrast their humanity against the machines. John’s “frogman stunt” at the start seems like a cheap concept recycled from a dodgy eighties spy film. Even the portrayal of some survivors – using fantasy-style dialogue like “the dark season” – is hackneyed and clichéd. And don’t get me started on the ending.

The performances are a mixed bag – in contrast to Cameron’s ability to draw the best from his cast at all times. Rapper Common is downright terrible in a supporting role (seriously, check out his delivery of the line, “She made her choice”). Moon Bloodgood, despite officially having the best name in the history of great names, is inherently disappointing. I’m not sure how much of this is down to bad writing or bad acting, but it seems both sides are to blame. On the other hand, Michael Ironside is awesome in a tiny role – but he always is. Anton Yelchin makes a good impression as Kyle Reese – he even even sounds like Michael Biehn. Christian Bale is grand, he’s not great, not terrible – as is Sam Worthington.

Perhaps the greatest affront to Cameron’s legacy is the dodgy CGI. In fairness, it’s only obvious in the early scenes and the climax features some fantastic effects work, but it still seems like the envelope wasn’t pushed enough. Maybe I’m just disappointed to see a Terminator movie as a middle-of the road blockbuster when it should be a classic one. Perhaps that’s my problem with the whole film.

Terminator: Salvation isn’t a great action film – and certainly not an essential one. It is relatively adequate, if a little unengaging. Still, I find myself more than a little sympathetic to it, if only because it dares to give us just a little bit more than a half-hearted James Cameron impersonation.

13 Responses

  1. Great review Darren. Not as disappointing as many people make it sound and I somewhat enjoyed it. As you said, not great, not bad, just a little meh.

  2. I just felt like the ending made the entire movie irrelevant. Nothing that happened really mattered in the end…everyone is back at square one…

    • I feel the same way. Connor’s fine and Wright ends up right where he was before.

    • Yep. And how ridiculously stupid is Skynet. “Duh, we’ve got him trapped in our lower levels and an army of robots at the ready… let’s just send in our prototype and hope for the best.”

      Tactical computer my ass.

  3. I actually enjoyed this movie, particularly the exchange between Sam W. and Bale (Sam managed to steal scenes from him but I think that’s ’cause Marcus is a better-written character) Definitely not as horrible as the critics made it out to be.

  4. Worst movie of ’09, hands down. What an abomination and a disgrace to a franchise that started out so damn good. Freakin’ McG…

    • I still don’t think it was as bad as the third one. But you’re right, the franchise should have died with Cameron, to be honest.

  5. There’s some promise to Terminator Salvation early on, but the film unwinds itself really quickly by making John Connor the least interesting character in the entire story. John Connor should sort of be the man, here, but this is so much more about Marcus– a character we have no real reason to get behind, aside from the fact that he’s nice to Kyle Reese. We have no history with Marcus. We have history with Connor, and McG really should have made this movie more John-centered.

    At the very least, (spoilers, I guess) the film should have ended with Connor dying and Marcus taking his place by adopting the fallen hero’s name. That would have been more fascinating on its own than anything else that takes place in the rest of the movie.

    • Yep. You know about the original ending before the focus groups went nuts? With the full body skin graft?

      And, apparently, SkyNet having totally ripped off the Matrix?

  6. I absolutely hated this one and everything about it. It does nothing but tarnish the Terminator name.

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