Friday, May 22, 2009

Terminator Salvation: Big and bad

Terminator Salvation (2009) • View trailer for Terminator Salvation
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.09
Buy DVD: Terminator Salvation • Buy Blu-Ray: Terminator Salvation (Director's Cut) [Blu-ray]

The explosive action in Terminator: Salvation  which is relentless and, frankly, exhausting  comes in two flavors:

• Intimate and often deliciously creepy skirmishes between one or two civilians and a single human-sized robot (think of these as the classic "Schwarzenegger models");
While investigating Skynet's primary production facility, John Connor
(Christian Bale, left) and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) fail to notice a rather
nasty surprise looming just behind them. And that's nothing to the shock Reese
would experience, if Connor were to explain the precise nature of their

• Frankly ludicrous battles between clumps of civilians and massive land-based or airborne killing machines.

The former sequences deliver plenty of suspense and serve as pleasant reminders of what made 1984's Terminator and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day such great action epics.

The latter, alas, appear to have been snatched from the upcoming Transformers sequel: diverting as live-action cartoon chases, but impossible to take seriously on any level. It's preposterous to believe that our puny and quite vulnerable heroes could outrun, outmaneuver and ultimate destroy any of these behemoths, let alone do so on a fairly regular basis.

To be sure, director McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol) and editor Conrad Buff do their best to prevent us from being bothered by such details. After a quiet and deliberately mysterious prologue, their film kicks into high gear and never lets up. The action scenes are well staged, and they make excellent use of production designer Martin Laing's vision of an apocalyptic, post-nuclear California.

Writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris also deserve credit for adhering so well to the increasingly confused continuity demanded by the time-travel elements of three previous films and a just-canceled TV series. Terminator Salvation expands upon established Terminator lore, while adding some reasonable extrapolations and even setting up the necessary "future" elements that will bring the action "back" to what we've already witnessed in the 1984 franchise-starter.

The downside, of course, is that this new film will be utterly incomprehensible to anybody not exceedingly well-versed in what has come before.

At its core, the Terminator series is a riff on the paradox that would result from traveling back in time to kill your father. In this case, our hero, John Connor (Christian Bale) must make sure that a particular young man in his own era survives in order to grow a bit older, take a trip back in time and become his father.

And, thanks to a series of taped messages left behind by his mother  cue a quick flash of a photograph of Linda Hamilton, who played Sarah Connor in the first two films  John is well aware of this mission. The trouble is, he has only a name: Kyle Reese. The man himself hasn't yet been found.

This film's primary narrative begins in the year 2018, in the blasted wasteland of what remains of the United States. Isolated pockets of human survivors  collectively calling themselves the Resistance  do their best against increasingly numerous and ever more dangerous computer-controlled machines produced by the massive artificial-intelligence entity known as Skynet.

John leads what should be a routine search-and-destroy mission; it goes horribly awry, leaving him the sole survivor.

Or so he assumes.

John doesn't hang around long enough to see the second survivor who pulls himself from the wreckage: Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), whose last memory is of having been on death row before awakening in this horrible new world. In one of those wonderful coincidences beloved by screenwriters, Marcus eventually makes his way to Los Angeles and encounters a teenager named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and his sole companion, a mute little girl dubbed Star (Jadagrace Berry, who packs a lot into her silent performance).

Star is a good touch, just in passing; she fulfills the same function that Newt did, way back in 1986's Aliens, as a vulnerable child whose presence stimulates more of an emotional investment on our part.

During several subsequent encounters with various Terminators, Marcus proves ... oddly resilient. Those who've followed this film series from the beginning will know what's coming; first-timers may get a mild surprise when this man's secret is revealed. The question then is whether he's truly on the side of the angels ... and, if not, what John, Kyle and the other Resistance members can do about it.

Meanwhile, Resistance leaders, operating from a submarine that never lingers in one spot long enough to be noticed, have uncovered a weak spot in the entire Skynet system: a "jamming signal" that interrupts contact between Skynet and any piece of Terminator technology, effectively switching off the latter. Thrilled by such an opportunity, the Resistance leader  Michael Ironside, overly belligerent as usual  plans a coordinated assault that he hopes will shut down Skynet forever.

John suspects it can't be that simple ... but before he has a chance to really worry about it, events concerning Marcus and Kyle prompt a fresh crisis.

What's a reluctant prophet  for that is what John Connor has become  to do?

Since this film has few quiet moments, we never get much of a handle on most of these characters. Emotional depth doesn't go beyond the sort of macho bonding that occurs when two Tough Men glance at each other and nod in silent mutual acknowledgment. You'd expect that an actress of Jane Alexander's caliber would inject some dramatic oomph into these proceedings, but her character  some sort of senior Resistance member  gets pushed into the far background almost as quickly as we meet her.

Even Yelchin, so memorable as the young Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek re-boot, never gets to contribute much to his performance as Kyle. OK, he's protective of Star, but so's everybody else. And Kyle begins to seem thick when he refuses to consider the implications of Marcus' repeated failure to get hurt and bleed like a normal person.

Ironically, although Bale is this film's star, Worthington makes a much stronger impression as Marcus. He is this story's truly tragic figure: a man in desperate need of the sort of redemption beloved by Shakespeare and Dickens. Marcus takes a lot of mental punishment in addition to his physical abuse, and we really feel it ... at least to the degree allowable by such an improbable storyline.

For his part, Bale is so heroically macho that he ceases to be interesting. The tortured angst that he delivers so well as Bruce Wayne and Batman becomes a parody of itself here; McG, never an actor's director, fails to modulate his star's performance. It's not a fatal flaw, but it explains why Bale tends to remain the least of our concerns, as this film progresses. Other people are more interesting.

Momentum is tremendously important, because Brancato and Ferris' script is laden with plot holes and some rather glaring inconsistencies. For openers, our various human characters seem remarkably immune to nuclear fallout, even when a mushroom-shaped blast blankets them in radioactive ash.

More than once, we're shown how Skynet's various drones and Terminators quickly zero in on any noise that might be man-made, such as the music blaring from a car stereo ... and yet John and his Resistance fighters routinely make much louder noises throughout this film. Shooting up the landscape isn't exactly what I'd call keeping a low profile!

Perhaps worse, in terms of plot logic, the film has become a victim of when the first Terminator was made. This one is set in 2018, which we're told is 14 years after Skynet became self-aware, turned on its creators (our military-industrial complex) and unleashed nuclear annihilation on the entire planet.

Well ... that means Skynet blew us all up five years ago. (I guess I missed that memo.) And while we could simply dismiss that as awkward, the bigger issue is the obvious fact that all this high-tech Skynet/Terminator technology remains waaaay far in our future.

I mean, really: Off-the-shelf computers still crash unpredictably, and they don't interface reliably with printers and scanners, and yet we're supposed to believe that U.S. military scientists are capable now of developing a super-computer that, in turn, can somehow construct Cyberdyne T-800 killer androids built of super-duper-hard materials, and driven by chips that never experience a hard-drive failure, even after getting bathed in (for example) molten steel?

C'mon, folks: Bump everything into the 22nd century, and it might be more plausible!

Granted, McG and his team couldn't care less about such details. Their goal was to deliver a rip-snorting action flick that honors its predecessors reasonably well  which it does  and they've certainly succeeded. Terminator Salvation likely will be the loudest film you see all summer  my rib cage vibrated during most of the battle scenes  and if Monday evening's enthusiastic preview audience was any indication, it'll be devoured by every sci-fi nerd within shouting distance.

No comments:

Post a Comment