Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Terminator: Salvation (2009, McG)

The most inerrant feature of the Terminator franchise, once seemingly dead yet revived six whole years ago after twelve years before the last installment, has been John Connor. In addition to changing the actors who play him, his will and purpose in the two non-Cameron sequels has been refashioned each time to suit the shortsighted needs of each film.

In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Nick Stahl's portrayal of a John Connor turned haggard druggie (since Judgement Day was prevented) was at least plausible. Seeing T2's Edward Furlong play an older version of the character he immortalized as a child would've been unsettling anyway. Whoever was playing Connor still didn't matter much since Mostow had the benefit of Schwarzenegger, even in his aging twilight and on the cusp of fulfilling the Terminator series' vision of running California into the ground. Mostow's indistinguished career prepared him perfectly to fashion a PG-13 facsimile of Terminator 2, which was boring on arrival since every sci-fi action movie had been emulating T2 up until The Matrix in 1999. Terminator 3's adaption to the lameness of Matrix knock-off style was having a acrobatic hot chick Terminator in tight leather effectively taking the place of the T-1000.

Salvation continues T3's aimless slouch towards trendiness while not even attempting faint resemblance to the series from where it came. Like T3 the rating is PG-13, although in retrospect even T2 could qualify with a little less blood. The series most brazenly copied is now Michael Bay's Transformers via frequent scenes of humans running from giant robots that dwarf the landscapes, which are also mostly deserts. The premise of a Terminator set in the future war shown briefly by Cameron in his two films was kicking around as the possible third movie for a long time, yet even T3's brief view of that future bears closer resemblance to Cameron's blue-lit nighttime palette than McG's arid grey and yellow post-apocalypse. Being set in the future also precludes the need for time travel, another radical anomaly from the original formula.

Terminator: Salvation's biggest anomaly and biggest problem is the absence of Schwarzenegger. As in, THE Terminator. Without him, the producers doubled down on the new casting of John Connor as the number two reason people would come to see Terminator flicks. Poor John Connor now has to be played by Christian Bale, whose stock hero performance so resembles a chunk of wood that he would've made a fine Terminator. Unfortunately this is just another in his continuing line of post-Batman roles in which he's a human action figure all geeks can project their asexual power fantasies upon. If the same actor can play Batman and John Conner in potentially multiple movies, why not have him play the next James Bond? At least he could use his real accent. As a star to hang a whole movie around, I wasn't expecting much from Bale and given the box office performance perhaps Hollywood also will be less inclined to regard him as an ace in the hole.

There are barely even any of the iconic Terminator skeletons in this movie. Instead, there's a focal Terminator played by a side of beef named Sam Worthington, who undergoes the something almost resembling time travel, being frozen and waking up in the future as a Terminator who doesn't know he's a Terminator! He barely raises an eyebrow upon discovering that fact or even when being told he's woken up in the future. There's no logical sense of progression to the robots introduced in the series and Worthington functions mainly as a mcguffin to be sought out by everyone, ultimately giving him more screen time than Bale's monotone histrionics or fresh faced Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese.

Yelchin provides a weird conduit to the tactics of JJ Abrams, the only director with a faker name than McG. Both shamelessly exploited fan nostalgia and the casual knowledge of non-franchise fans by casting young lookalikes or just good looking young people as the younger versions of beloved characters with decades of memories behind them. Granted, Kyle from the original movie was never a character known by name to anyone but fans of the the first movie the way non-Trek fans know the name "Mr Spock." Although his inclusion here is gratuitous pandering, Yelchin does bear an uncanny resemblance to Michael Biehn's appearance and performance. There should have been more of him than Bale or Worthington but even if there had been, Michael Ferris and John Brancato's script still would have had him doing idiotic things. When first introduced, he's not only living by the skin of his teeth with the help of a mute little girl in the ruins of LA, they're hiding at night atop the highest point possible, the Griffith Observatory. I'd be tempted to think this was a reference to the location of Arnold's arrival in the original Terminator if the stupidity weren't so self-discrediting.

On the matter of the war-torn post apocalypse: George Miller's The Road Warrior doesn't logically spell out how people are logically able to survive day by day, yet the world of Mad Max feels real unto itself because of the desperate savagery of its inhabitants. Terminator: Salvation's post-apocalypse is lazily cribbed from The Road Warrior, throwing handfuls of armed survivors into remote desert locations, but they're not mobile or threatening and nothing about the future world feels particularly dangerous until a giant robot appears from nowhere. Cameron's vision of the future wars (and T3's for that matter) were of a constant ground war of attrition. Brancato and Ferris actually blew their chance to show Bale commanding a battle on land, something teased since Terminator 2's prologue. They aren't even sure how he ultimately became the leader against the machines. He's not yet in charge at the start of the film despite being the only person who had Terminators sent back in time to kill him; he's so important! He still has to get chewed out by gruff Michael Ironside about how he's too reckless a soldier and doesn't play by the rules and other stuff that would get him canned immediately. Amongst other new absurdities, Ironside lives in a nuclear submarine with the other military commanders and the human resistance also has fighter jets. Did they run out of those by the time the future-events of T1 and 2 took place, and all they had left were jeeps with mounted machine guns? This is a really dumb movie. I wonder if they even noticed that the title is displayed twice during the opening credits or if some dumb person just thought that was necessary.

As a generic boilerplate science fiction action movie, this one is at least technically competent. As a Terminator film - whatever that is without Cameron - the contradictory attempts at reinvention and series fidelity only compound the lack of wit or inspiration. Near the end of the movie, an Arnold lookalike shows up playing one of the first Terminators hot off the press. His face gets melted off in seconds so you don't notice it's not him, then the rest of him gets melted in minutes so the movie can end. That's all McG did here - grudgingly reuse someone else's icon as a stepping stone to create something boldly unoriginal.

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