Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Terminator Salvation" (2009)

Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin
Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris
Directed by McG
Rated PG-13 / R (Director's Cut) - Violence, language, nudity
Running Time: 115 minutes

Terminator Salvation (Director's Cut) [Blu-ray]Oy.

Well, okay... If I can get away with a bad pun, I'll just start out by saying "Terminator Salvation" is saved by its action sequences.  A lot of the plot just doesn't really make sense, the performance of a key player is too weak to sustain much interest, and the third act is a muddled mess.

But it's all very pretty, in a dirty, grungy kind of way.

The year is 2018.  John Connor (Christian Bale, taking over for Nick Stahl who took over for Eddie Furlong) is now a fully-grown man leading one arm of the human resistance against the computer intelligence Skynet and its army of Terminators and fleet of airborne Hunter-Killers.  He's married to Kate Brewster (Bryce Dallas-Howard taking over for Claire Danes), who is pregnant.  Connor leads a mission to infiltrate and destroy a Skynet base.  He and his squad discover that humans are being rounded up and flown to an undisclosed location.  They also discover intel on the new T-800 Terminator, a machine Connor is very familiar with.

After a self-destruct mechanism kills Connor's entire squad, only Connor escaping alive, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) stumbles out of the wreckage.  He makes his way into the ruins of nearby Los Angeles and is rescued from a T-600 by Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and his young, mute companion Star (Jadagrace).  The three of them hear one of Connor's radio addresses, and head off into the desert in search of the resistance.

Connor, meanwhile, learns that the resistance has developed a plan to destroy Skynet once and for all - they've discovered some kind of tracking signal that, when interrupted, can shut down any of Skynet's machines.  At the appointed time, the resistance will broadcast the signal at full strength and call down an airstrike on San Francisco that will decimate the core of Skynet.  But a problem arises: Kyle is captured by the machines, and brought to a human holding pen right where the resistance plans to drop its bombs.  Connor discovers that Marcus is some new kind of cyborg, one with a human heart and mostly human brain.  Marcus and Connor decide to infiltrate Skynet before the resistance can drop the bombs to rescue Kyle and save the future.

As I said before, much of "Terminator Salvation" doesn't really make sense.  For example, exactly what Marcus is and how and when he came to be is never truly explained.  It is explained, but the explanation doesn't make sense.  He's supposed to be some kind of fancy new Infiltrator ... except that Marcus is leagues more advanced than anything else Skynet has to offer, and seems to have come earlier than the less advanced T-800 from the first three films.  Skynet also seems aware that its previous attempts to assassinate Sarah and John Connor in the past were failures... except this film takes place eleven years before Skynet sent the first Terminator back through time to 1984.  Perhaps one of these things helps explain the other?  If it does, the movie certainly doesn't bother to connect the dots.  We never discover why Skynet decides to imprison Kyle Reese as bait for Connor rather than simply kill him.

The resistance's plan to bomb the core of Skynet only makes sense if you ignore the fact that in "Rise of the Machines" Skynet is revealed to be software, living in networked computers all over the world and therefore has no core.  What makes this odd is that this film is written by the same two guys.  Did they forget what is arguably the best part of the previous film that they themselves had written?

Going beyond scripting problems, we get to the fact that this film again ends with a hand-to-hand fight with a Terminator in a factory setting, making it the third to do so ("Rise of the Machines" climax mostly took place in an office setting followed by the entrance to a bomb shelter).  And in the aforementioned "Rise of the Machines" we see that once the T-X finally gets its hands on John Connor, the first thing it does is crush his ankle so the can barely walk.  Going back further, there are plenty of instances in the first three movies where the Terminators are shown to punch right through people.  In fact, the first person Arnold Schwarzenegger kills in the original "The Terminator" he does so by punching right through the guy's gut and lifting him up in the air.

Why did I just say all that?  Well, it's because in this movie, the Terminator is apparently content to simply pick John Connor up and throw him against the wall... five or six times.  What starts out as a really cool bit of digital trickery to get an Arnold cameo into the film quickly degenerates into a repetitive fight sequence where Connor somehow manages to hold his own against the Terminator in a hand-to-hand fight, which is simply ludicrous.  It drains the entire climax of the film, and even Connor getting impaled through the chest doesn't save it.  It's too bad, too, because this Terminator is portrayed nearly as relentless and indestructible as the original, it just can't seem to kill John Connor for some reason.

So the script for "Terminator Salvation" is a mess, which is really unfortunate because in many other ways, it's really quite cool.  There are lots of new designs for Moto-Terminators (armed motorcycles), Harvesters, HKs of different sizes, and finally we get to see the T-600 first described by Kyle Reese in "The Terminator."  The action sequences are impressive, including the opening attack on a Skynet base which features a long take that follows Connor out of the base, into a helicopter which then crashes (upside down).  A highway chase sequence with Marcus, Kyle and Star escaping a Harvester only to encounter Moto-Terminators and HKs is also very cool.  And even the finale, right up until that bit where the Terminator just throws Connor around instead of killing him, is great.  But without a story to bolster all these sweet effects, "Terminator Salvation" is ultimately hollow and as lifeless as its desaturated color palette.

It's easy for me to sit back and enjoy "Terminator Salvation" for its large, loud action sequences and great special effects because I love those sorts of things.  The movie is well shot and well edited... it just doesn't have a story to go along with all the pretty pictures.  It gets a lot of things right that "Rise of the Machines" got wrong, but goes ahead and makes many more glaring mistakes in their place.  "Salvation" was meant to be the beginning of a new "Terminator" trilogy, but its failure to ignite the box office has likely scuttled those plans.  Ongoing legal issues involving the rights to the franchise don't help at all, either.

See Also
The Terminator
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines