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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Recent Watches: Terminator Salvation (2009)

I don’t know about you but, from the moment I saw the original “Terminator” movie, I dreamed about an entire movie set in the future, during the war with the machines. Comics and video games tried to fill this desire but none of them truly scratch that itch. Because I’m a bitchy nerd who can never be pleased, the eventual announcement of a Future Wars movie did not excite me. To say the movie didn’t live up to my expectations for a future-set “Terminator” would be misleading. The trailers and reviews were so uninspiring that I hadn’t even planned to see the movie in theaters originally. I’d probably just now be getting around to it if a girl, the same girl I saw “Coraline” with, hadn’t wanted to see it. Anyway, “Terminator Salvation” was so underwhelming that it even raced past the divisive “Terminator 3” for the title of worst film in the series. Naturally, a new reboot has risen from the ashes of this attempted one, because franchises never die. On the eve of a new “Terminator” movie, let’s look back on “Salvation.”

Judgement Day has happened. The Earth has been bombed into an inhospitable ball of ash. Skynet and its army of killer machines seek out the remnants of humanity to exterminate them once and for all. Leading the resistance, as prophesied, is John Connor. The fate John thinks he knows is interrupted when a new face enters the arena. Marcus, a mysterious stranger, wanders into the human base, seeking to protect the teenage Kyle Reese. Marcus hides a secret that even he is unaware of that will cause John to question the destiny he thinks he knows.

Though the film is only six years old, “Terminator Salvation” feels like an ancient artifact from 2009. The presence of a giant robot in the film feels like an attempt to ride the coattails of the “Transformers” series. The improbably named McG was still a viable blockbuster maker at the time. Hell, even Moon Bloodgood has vanished from cinemas. But the biggest indicator that “Salvation” was made in a different climate is that it stars Sam Worthington. The film was released before “Avatar” was supposed to make him a huge star. Instead, it just made everyone realize what a complete void of charisma Worthington is. “Salvation,” despite everyone and Arnold saying so, doesn’t really suck. Instead, it’s aggressively mediocre. This is almost solely Worthington’s fault. Whenever the film focuses on him, it feels like a long, dull, digression from the shit we care about. Marcus isn’t interesting and Worthington plays him as a blank. The film’s insistence on focusing on such a boring character is its main downfall.

Think back to the two “Terminator” movies James Cameron directed, to the war sequences. Think about how evocative and intriguing those scenes were. Needless to say, McG is not James Cameron. “Terminator Salvation” is characterized by grey skies and a relentlessly dour mood. I guess a post-nuclear apocalypse Earth wouldn’t be a very interesting place to be. Contributing to “Salvation’s” grim tone is the very serious performances. Christian Bale brings the same gravelly intensity to part that he brought to everything in 2009. He even slips into his infamous Batman growl a few times. Totally underserved by the material is Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate, the part previously essayed by Claire Danes. Howard is non-distinct not because she’s a bad actor but because the part is hopelessly underwritten. Helena Bonham Carter is twitchy and ridiculous as the face of Skynet. Anton Yelchin is no Michael Biehn as the whiny teenage Kyle Reese. Even Michael Ironside seems overly severe, playing the important role of some asshole.

Something in “Salvation’s” favor is its action sequences, which are huge. Here’s an example: A giant robot tears through a building and grabs some people. Marcus chases after on a vehicle, which leads to a bridge. A Hunter-Killer, one of the flying killbots from the original, corners them, which the heroes successfully destroy. Yet the chase scene doesn’t end there, as another giant machine appears to grab Kyle. Marcus fights off the machine, surviving shit a human could never live through, which is none-too-subtle foreshadowing. The scene goes on, eventually ending up in a lake. It’s an impressive moment and one the film never tops. None of the other action beats, which include an explosion-filled run through a field and a wrestling match with an aquatic terminator, are even remotely compelling.

And about those robots. Something cool “Salvation” does is it gives us a first-person look at the Machine Wars. We get to see stuff we’ve only heard about or briefly glimpsed in previous films. Here’s the T-600, the predecessor to Arnold’s T-800 with the bad breath and the obviously fake skin. We see the Hunter-Killers in action, hunting and killing. There’s even call-backs to the last “Terminator” movie in the form of the T-1 tanks. However, sometimes the movie is a little too impressed with its own creations. How about the little drone like robots? Okay, that’s natural. How about the giant robots that gather people? I’m not sure what the purpose of that is, in the long run. Why is Skynet collecting people? The underwater Terminators probably don’t get used that much, do they? The most gimmicky of all are the robots that resemble motorcycles. With a little rewiring, John Connor can even leap on one and drive it like a motorcycle. Um, why? Why would the robot overlords build a machine like that?

When sequels make extended call-backs to the original, the results usually do not endear themselves to viewers. Weirdly, “Terminator Salvation” actually gains some momentum when it references those earlier movies we actually liked. In the final act, John Connor rides into Skynet HQ to rescue his teenage father. (The movie awkwardly justifies Skynet not immediately killing Kyle with a lame twist.) In the factory, he comes face-to-face with the original T-800. Since Arnold was busy governing California at the time, the movie CGI’d Schwarzenegger’s face onto a look-alike’s body. This is fairly awkward and the movie doesn’t successfully overcome it. However, the presence of a familiar face invigorates “Salvation.” Suddenly, the story has a concrete threat, instead of merely the nebulous Skynet. The final battle with the Terminator, who somehow seems harder to kill then his 1984 predecessor, is relatively exciting, involving punches to the heart and molten steel. Marcus even makes himself useful! Naturally, the movie includes the trademark quotes that are in every “Terminator” movie. Christian Bale’s delivery of “I’ll be back” actually injects some humor into the dour film.

One reason “Salvation” was not greeted with immediate enthusiasm by fans is because the movie had a troubled production. The movie’s original ending involved John Connor dying, with his skin being stretched over Marcus’ robot skeleton, in order to keep the hope of the human resistance alive. When this fairly terrible ending leaked to the internet, it required a last minute re-write. Marcus donates his human heart to the dying Connor, the improbable heart surgery occurring off-screen. This is only marginally less terrible and unlikely then the original ending. The movie is trying to make a point about the generosity of humanity, even when that human is part-robot. It also provides some weighty dramatic irony, what with a Terminator actually saving John Connor’s life. It doesn’t satisfy, feeling like another belabored attempt to get us to like this lame new character the movie is about for some reason.

“Terminator Salvation” was intended as the start of a new trilogy. It even ends with a monologue from Bale, basically promising that the adventure will continue. Originally, the movie was going to have the franchise-friendly, hilariously wordy title “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins,” which might explain the lack of a colon in the final title. These future plans would prove presumptuous. The movie underperformed at the box office, suffering the indignity of opening behind “Night at the Museum 2.” Eventually, legal issues ensued and the rights to the “Terminator” series would change hands again. This would lead to a new film that has Arnie back and will disregard “Salvation.” Ultimately, the attempt to continue to series will only be remembered only for Christian Bale’s on-set temper-tantrum and the surprisingly catchy techno remix that followed. [5/10]

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