No Saving This Terminator

 

A fairly typical reaction to Terminator Salvation.

 

(Potential spoilers)

Roger Ebert wrote in one of his recent blogs “There’s a difference between caring what happens in a movie, and merely waiting to see what will happen.”  TERMINATOR SALVATION is a waiting room for action scenes, though in keeping with its tone, it’s a suitably withered locale.  It’s a factory line of set-pieces from beginning to end, one big crashing ride after another.  Some of them are even impressive – or would be, if the director, McG, bothered to spend a few seconds on deepening his characters.    I understand that summer movies are supposed to be graded with leniency, like they can’t help but be idiotic, but a bad movie is a bad movie.

What an ugly, noisy mess this is, devoid of any semblance of humanity as much as its barren matte paintings lack colour.  Dystopian visions are often striking, and TERMINATOR SALVATION is blessed with some exceptional sights, but the best shots — a battered electrical tower springs to mind — are buried in its furious rush to excite.  The thing about dystopian visions is that they’re intrinsically depressing, which can be a real bummer if your bleak tale lacks a strong story and interesting characters.  TERMINATOR SALVATION doesn’t just suffer from such a condition; it’s terminally ill.

Consider the script, which lays waste to plot, character, and logic with astonishing boldness.  Calling it a script is a kindness; it’s a conveyor belt shuttling us along from one fight to the next.  It is a film designed to Entertain, only to think that it actually does so is an insult to real, thrilling entertainments.

Witness the misuse of good actors: Christian Bale struggles in a role that feels simultaneously inflated and underwritten.  For a character that spends his free time urging his compatriots to remember that the heart is what separates humans from robots, Bale’s sullen Connor is remarkably heartless.  In one scene, his men die while pursuing a quarry that he sets free not five minutes later.  The senseless waste of his men’s lives, of which he bears full responsibility, doesn’t register on him.  In a smarter film, I’d be inclined to see this as a commentary on the nature of leadership in warfare, but TERMINATOR SALVATION is far too concerned with purposeless pyrotechnics to warrant such a reading.  If there are Ideas in this film (and there are, despite the writers’ efforts), the editing process has made sure to starve them into submission to the greater cause of pointless kinetics.

Equally frustrating is the sheer idiocy of this future world.  Why does SkyNet’s main base feature well-lit corridors?  Why did they build a big, shiny tower?  Why do the machines bother having computer terminals?  SkyNet may be self-aware, but not of how stupid it is.  The best visionary films create a world that makes sense on their own terms.  TERMINATOR SALVATION doesn’t even bother with terms, let alone sense.  The inanity extends to the characters, in brief, and astonishing moments.  Why does John Connor, safely ensconced in his home base, need to yell “evasive maneuvers!” at his embattled pilots, especially when they’re clearly in the thick of a dogfight?  Why does a technician have to demonstrate what a robot snake will do when such-and-such happens, instead of just telling Connor?  She almost takes his face off by “showing” him.  I wanted to throw something at the screen.

There is nothing – not one moment – that succeeded in facilitating an emotional bond between its characters and myself, save for Anton Yelchin’s earnest and winning turn as a young Kyle Reese.  In a film full of across-the-board robotic acting, I’m not sure how Yelchin was able to sneak a lively performance past his director, but he did.  He accomplishes the same task as some of his comrades in STAR TREK  (and he, as Chekhov, kind of failed to do); he recalls the performance of the role’s originator without aping it.  It’s fitting that the franchise’s original protagonist comes off as the most human and vital presence in the film.

The film touches ever so briefly on questions of human identity, not so much because there’s an attempt to explore such concepts, but because they are baggage brought along by plot developments.  It sniffs at territory covered by the recently ended television series, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which often packed more substance into its pre-credit openings than TERMINATOR SALVATION does in 115 minutes.

McG deploys a few moments of homage (single-handed shotgun loading; a motorcycle leaping off a bridge) with dexterity, and drives the rest home with a sledgehammer.  It’s enough to make you wish that fans had never popularized catchphrases, the way they’re bandied about here with a wink and a nudge.  Perhaps these moments are irritating because their very presence and tone of execution reveals their purpose: to build cachet between McG and the skeptical fanbase.  If he can make enough inside references, he’ll be embraced as a serious filmmaker and we’ll all forget about CHARLIE’S ANGELS.  Instead, the clumsy implementation of classic lines and images reinforces a sense of insecurity.  Revealing the Arnold-skinned T-800 isn’t enough; it has to be accompanied by a tonally intrusive use of Brad Fiedel’s original theme.  It’s supposed to be exciting; instead it’s a jarring aural shift that screams “Look!  It’s an homage!”

By the time the film winds up on its knees, strangled by the chain of homage in its duller-than-dull factory climax, catatonia has set in.  Ever valiant, McG ensures we understand his geek cred by making a Terminator be simultaneously burned by molten metal and frozen by liquid nitrogen, a neat little combination of T2’s climax.  It’s the slavishly devoted icing on a cake of unoriginality, but it functions as a visual summary of the film itself: caught between the fire of fans’ expectations and paralyzed by the grip of its predecessors’ legacies, it winds up as a totally inconsequential piece of work.  I have never seen a film set up such high stakes and then brush aside supposedly massive consequences with a simple voice-over (Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS springs to mind, but it had a sense of finality about it).  The roots for yet another trilogy are being laid, but at the expense of the individual impact.  In the rush for moneymaking franchises, Hollywood is forgetting why people go to sequels: because they liked the original.  Having spent two hours watching humongous things happen for no apparent reason, I’m not eager to see that experience replicated again and again before a supposedly satisfying conclusion.

A day after seeing TERMINATOR SALVATION, I watched John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.  The two films have nothing in common, except for running times and a lack of colour in the image.  Ford’s film is a great work, full of warmth, life, tragedy, pain, love, death, and maybe most of all, humanity.  It touched me deeply; more than I realized at the time, and even now as I reflect on it, I sense it is one of those films that travels with you for life, like an old friend.  In the same amount of time spent on robot chases and heartless set-pieces, Ford’s film reached into my own experiences of family and small-town life and increased its presence.  It is something of a masterpiece. 

I mention this to demonstrate the power that a 115 minute film can contain, for good or for ill.  But I also want to mention how, like Ford’s film, the TERMINATOR franchise once had life and humanity and vitality.  Those days ended with the departure of James Cameron.  T3 clung to life enough to deliver an emotionally resonant conclusion, but it was all for naught.  McG and his writers have beaten all life from this story, and in doing so, destroyed any enthusiasm I have for future TERMINATOR projects.  In crafting the most mechanical, lifeless entry of this series, all they have left to look forward to is the inevitable academic paper arguing the brilliance of a TERMINATOR film that is more machine than human.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I won’t be back.

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