Sunday, May 24, 2009

Terminator Salvation (2009)

The first Terminator, way back in 1984, is a B-movie blast: a dark – and darkly funny – sci-fi actioner that uses a cool time-travel hook only to get us into a merciless hunt-hunt-hunt kill-kill-kill chase movie. By the time 1991 rolled around, director James Cameron had made, with Terminator 2, the universe of his initial film more expansive with a more daring exercise in mythmaking. The film is looser and longer, but the budget, and the boom, is bigger and more resonant. There’s a real sense of inevitable tragedy as Linda Hamilton, as Sarah Connor, and Edward Furlong, as her son John, race against time to stop the evil robots from taking over the world, all the while knowing that if they succeed, John would never exist because the events leading up to his birth would never have been put into place. The two movies work so well, both together and separately, that there was never any time to slow down and think about the logic of the time travel contained within.

With the blander third picture and a TV spinoff, there was ample time to consider why the time travel plots used in this franchise open up too many questions that lead down ridiculous roads. If any thought is put into it, the franchise really shouldn’t exist at all. Why don’t the evil robots send a terminator even farther back in time where the humans wouldn’t be able to fight back? Why don’t the evil robots just fill the world with poison which would kill off humanity while leaving mechanical objects intact? But that’s a dangerous road to go down if one wishes to keep enjoyment of these movies intact.

The biggest question I had going in to the fourth film, Terminator Salvation, was whether or not the film would successfully get past the time travel hangups and allow me the pure enjoyment of a summer action picture. The answer is: yes, for the most part. The movie, directed by the relatively lightweight McG, is a big, grim, action movie with satisfying visuals and cool special effects. It suffers from a serious case of mid-film drag but manages to shake loose for a fun climax. It doesn’t add much to the overall mythology of the franchise but at least it entertains. It succeeds in a way that the first Terminator film does; it takes a standard sci-fi trope (the man with no memory and the machine with a consciousness) and uses it for a bit of pathos, but mostly an excuse for more action.

The center of this subplot is actor Sam Worthington, who first appears in the opening scenes of the film as a prisoner on death row who signs away his body to science. He shows up again years later, after the opening credits and an explosive action sequence, mysteriously the same age and with no memory of the intermediate years. He may or may not be a robot now, but he becomes the emotional center of the movie for me. The emotional center of the movie is certainly not Christian Bale, as John Connor, fine actor though he may be. Here he operates in two modes: intense and grim. He doesn’t elicit my compassion or my sympathy, although, to give Bale credit, the script is definitely no helper in that department. I cared about John Connor only because I had seen the other Terminator movies.

This movie takes place in the future, after the robot uprising, and contains thrilling scenes of robotic combat. Although the Terminators have none of the personality or singular scariness of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s or Robert Patrick’s models, they generate a kind of terror and awe of their own. The gears grind as the mechanical beasts clang forward and shoot and punch. There are slick robotic motorcycles that zoom through the barren landscape, charging down renegade humans, the ones that haven’t been picked up by startling appearances by giant metal claws. Struggling to survive being hunted by these technological terrors is Kyle Reese (franchise devotees will recognize that name), played by Anton Yelchin – young Chekov in Star Trek just a few weeks ago. If Worthington is the emotional center of the movie, then Yelchin is the emotional drive. I cared about him, not just because I had seen the earlier movies, but because Yelchin, with no help from the script, plays at the genuine human beneath the cog in the plotting.

This film has more in common with Star Trek than just Yelchin. It reinvigorates a sagging story, although here it is less radical reinvention and more canonical doodling in margins. It’s filled with all kinds of winks to franchise history that cause me to smile. You can believe someone says “come with me if you want to live” and you would be kidding yourself if you thought no one would say “I’ll be back.” Linda Hamilton shows up in a vocal performance only and I felt a surge of excitement when Ahhnold himself (with somewhat convincing CGI de-aging) steps out of a cloud of steam. It felt earned – it felt right – that the original Terminator was doing battle again. But also, like Star Trek, this movie made my inner thirteen-year-old very happy. It’s not as good a movie, or as satisfying an overall experience, but Terminator Salvation sets out some modest action-oriented goals and meets them, while taking the franchise a step back from mediocrity with fresh promise for future endeavors.

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