STARRING: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington,
Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jane
Alexander, Michael Ironside
2009, 115 Minutes, Directed by:
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a frivolous
entry in this brutal saga of man vs. machine, but it retained a suitably
metallic scent of James Cameron’s original creation, and offered audiences a
sucker punch of a doomsday ending, placing a respectable capper on a franchise
that never bothered to plan too far ahead. We’re now confronted with
Terminator Salvation because Hollywood is stuck in the rebooting phase of
its history, scouring the vaults for once high-profile material it can reshape
and resell to a public hungry for familiarity. Not unexpectedly, the James
Cameron-less Salvation is another trembling step backwards for this once
persuasive series of time-traveling adventures, crafted by a filmmaker one was
hoping could lead the charge and take the franchise in a whole new direction.
The year is 2018, and John
Connor (Christian Bale) is an exhausted soldier in the war against Skynet and
their army of killing machines. Using tapes from his dead mother (Linda
Hamilton, in a vocal cameo) as his guide, Connor attempts to piece together his
future, which is tied directly to his past. The clue in play here is Kyle Reese
(Anton Yelchin), John’s father, who’s now a feisty teenager looking to assist
the Resistance movement stationed clandestinely across the globe. Freed from
captivity is Marcus (Sam Worthington), a ruthless killer from 2003 who has now
regained consciousness, unaware that machines have corrupted his body through
devious experimentation. Finding his way across the wasteland to Los Angeles,
Marcus befriends Kyle, who takes him to the core of the Resistance, finally
meeting with John Connor when Kyle is taken by the enemy, marked for
termination, thus threatening any hope for the future.
As expected, Terminator
Salvation is not a simple to film to summarize. By now, the mind-bending
John Connor legacy has been pulled apart like taffy left out in the sun, messily
reconfigured to meet the standards of the various directors who have suited up
for the sci-fi cause. The latest mind to tackle Terminator is McG. An unlikely
choice, I know, yet McG has made quite an impression over the years with his
cherry bomb Charlie’s Angels pictures and his detour into Oscar bait with
the football drama We Are Marshall. We’re not talking a razor-sharp
cinematic mind here, but McG has an intricate vision for action set pieces,
making him comfy with the demands of the tangled Terminator
world. However, to put it bluntly: McG botches the whole venture. Where exactly
does this picture go wrong? Well, the shining moments of Salvation are
the sequences that reference the past Terminator
features. That’s not how a reboot should score heart-stopping highlights.
"A lumbering, joyless detour into unappetizing Hollywood
recycling . . ."
With his monochromatic, gritty
cinematography, McG is gunning to manufacture a forbidding future world
environment for Salvation that reworks previously established visions of
Connor’s combat years. What Cameron imagined as a cold, murky war of the night
is now a sun-dried barren wasteland of grimy survivors and numerous Terminators
stationed out in the unknown to hunt them down.
The screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris is an unsurprisingly dim-witted affair (the men
previously teamed on Catwoman!), downplaying the
time-twisting mania of prior films to baste in the post-apocalyptic gloom. The
change in atmosphere isn’t appealing and the screenwriting does nothing to
inspire, gifting the cast miserable exchanges of Sci-Fi Original dialogue and
narrow characterization that intensifies McG’s cluelessness with the property.
While I trust the director was eagerly committed to the story, there are
sections of Salvation that reek of a man who mentally wandered off,
trusting a steady diet of fireballs and city-block-sized explosions would cover
any his blunders.
Promoted as the rise of John
Connor from grunt to rebel leader, Salvation is actually more consumed
with the story of Marcus, a machine/man hybrid who’s here to supply the brawn
and a dollop of crude thematic substance the rest of the picture can’t be
bothered with. It’s a complicated role that McG is most intent on exploring,
leaving Connor and Bale’s one-note performance of raspy howling absent the
gravity to believably plug into established myth, making Bale’s appearance seem
more like a stunt-casting cameo.
Salvation is left to Worthington, and
his combination of bland charisma and wobbly accent control renders the
character a complete blank; a hero not worth the emotional investment, reduced
to screams and grunts to lure a reaction out of the viewer. Marcus is intended
to represent the next stage of Terminator
violation, yet McG never sells the combustibility of the conflicted man and his
psychological processing of dual purpose. It’s a curiously ineffective
character, and he’s the linchpin for the whole story.
I wasn’t thrilled with Worthington’s monotonous reading of Marcus, it’s
impossible to lay all the blame on the actor. Salvation was clearly
trimmed heavily before release, as sloppy stitch work is perceptible throughout
the entire film, felt most directly in the soldier character of Blair (played
tepidly by Moon Bloodgood), who nonsensically torches her steadfast allegiances
to the Resistance to protect Marcus from justifiable execution after one single
day spent together. It’s a subplot that was clearly neutered before release, and
it creates a frustrating black hole of logic and motivational buffoonery the
rest of the film can’t avoid being sucked into.
I don’t doubt McG’s enthusiasm
for the Terminator universe. The
highlights of this disappointing picture tend to ape previous achievements, be
it a recognizable line or two, a specific Guns N’ Roses anthem blasting away
from a boom box, or a showdown between Connor and a freshly produced T-800. This
lethargy extends to Danny Elfman’s score, which only jolts awake when reminding
the audience how terrific Brad Fiedel’s original percussive compositions were.
McG loves to pepper in the references and tributes, but he’s aware of invention,
focused primarily on the machine army, which moves from Cameron’s handful of
killer robots and wobbly airships to a plethora of sleek tanks, glossy
motorcycles, and CG-rich metal grunts all poised to slaughter our heroes.
Obviously more time was spent on designing Salvation than editing
Terminator world is a place where
up is down and left is right. While Salvation makes a game attempt to
rile up the screwball continuity of this franchise to introduce a new wellspring
of adventure for John Connor, the choices made by McG and his crew smother the
nuances James Cameron worked diligently to generate. Instead, Terminator
Salvation is a cold, blunt summer movie misfire, infatuated with mindless
explosions like an infant with faecal matter. The last picture featured Arnold
Schwarzenegger exclaiming Talk to the hand! for goodness sake. Clearly there was
room for improvement. Still, we’d take a brief franchise humiliation over this
lumbering, joyless detour into unappetizing Hollywood recycling.
- Brian Orndorf