Terminator Salvation

The fourth installment of “The Terminator,” the popular sci-fi franchise that began precisely 25 years ago, is directed (I mean orchestrated) by McG, again proving that he is not a storyteller and that his filmic approach is still determined by his origins in music videos and commercials.   As was clear in his two “Charlie’s Angels” films and in the even more disappointing “We Are Marshall,” McG can’t sustain dramatic momentum or narrative flow for more than a few seconds, resulting in a structurally messy plot that is overwhelmed by machinery and some spectacular special effects but is seldom involving or making sense on any level.

 

No matter what you think of “Terminator Salvation,” one thing is for sure, thematically, ideologically, and artistically, we have come a long way since the first film in 1984, made by the then unknown director James Cameron, which was an enjoyable B picture that displayed a new visual look and went on to develop a cult following.

 

The problem with “Terminator Salvation” is that it wants to have it both ways, dark but not too dark, grim and depressing but also leaving room for some hope (and a sequel, of course), human-scale but also flaunting its splashy visual and sound effects.   The fine line between a loud picture and a noisy one is crossed by this “Terminator.”  

 

Now that he has claimed the role of the masked Bruce Wayne/Batman in the revitalized “Batman” series, Christian Bale again covers himself (this time his body more than his face) in armor and shield, looking a bit like Mel Gibson in the “Mad Max” series.  Bale is John Connor, the one man whose destiny has always been intertwined with the fate of humanity.

 

It doesn’t help that Bale is positioned against a more interesting character, Marcus Wright the humanoid, played by the extremely photogenic and talented Aussie actor, Sam Worthington, who’s bound to become a major Hollywood player.  Expect to hear much more about Worthington when his next picture, James Cameron’s “Avatar,” hits the screens in December.  You could not find two more handsome faces in American film today, and the director stresses that point in a number of scenes in which the actors get to reveal their gorgeous profiles in the kind of mega close-ups that were once the domain of the studios’ great movie queens, women like Garbo, Crawford and Dietrich.

 

I began this review with a discussion of the actors’ faces and the impressive CGI (some of which I have not seen before), because they are the movie’s most impressive elements.  It was probably a mistake to assign the writing to John Brancato & Michael Ferris since they were largely responsible for the fact that “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” was the weakest of the first trio.

 

The plot of this “Terminator” is so minimal and unbelievable on any level, the dialogue so primitive and banal (the best stretches are silent), the characterization so underwhelming, that you could watch and listen to the picture as a strictly sensory experience, without paying any attention to the dialogue.  As far as summer movies go, “Terminator Salvation” is a good companion piece to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and at least two notches below “Star Trek.”

 

“The Terminator,” written and directed by Cameron in 1984, introduced the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 T-800, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a borderline campy way.  The T-800 is sent back in time by its artificial intelligence creator Skynet to stop the future leader of the Resistance from being born.  But this leader also sends back the human soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and ultimately fathers a child with her—a child who will grow up to become Skynet’s nemesis. 

 

In Cameron’s 1991 follow-up, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which became a global box office hit,  Sarah Connor is institutionalized and her teenaged son John Connor (Edward Furlong) must defend himself against a sophisticated T-1000 Terminator (Robert Patrick), which Skynet has sent back in time to assassinate him.  But the future-Connor sends back a reprogrammed T-800 (again Schwarzenegger) to protect his younger self.  Jointly, Sarah, John and their ally attempt to outrun the T-1000 and stop Judgment Day from happening. 

 

In 2003, Jonathan Mostow oversaw the third chapter of the first trilogy with “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” in which Judgment Day, the terrible event Connor (Nick Stahl) and his mother tried but failed to prevent results in a  nuclear war at Skynet’s command. 

 

Since the original “Terminator” trilogy ended with the world’s destruction, the new film had to be about what happens after that.  Indeed, the drama unfolds against a bomb-blasted post-apocalyptic America, in and around Los Angeles.  But like other blockbusters this summer, such as “Wolverine” and “Star Trek,” it’s very much an origins story that tries to explain the becoming of John Connor, the becoming of Kyle Reese, the strengthening of Skynet, and where humanity ultimately lies.

 

Nominally, humanity plays a key factor, and the movie is so metallic looking in its gray-blue shades that periodically the scribes feel obligated to remind us what humanity is all about.  The text goes something like that: “The difference between us humans and the machines is that we bury our dead,” or “The strength of the heart is what makes us human.”  But a movie in which a cyborg is the most “human” and engaging character is in trouble.


When the story begins, in the distant past, Marcus Wright (Worthington), on death row for horrendous crimes, gets a visit from Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), wearing a headscarf to cover her baldness.  She wants  to turn him into a cyborg, and Marcus agrees to sign the release form in exchange for a kiss. “So that's what death tastes like,” he says as he is about to get a lethal injection.

 

The saga itself is set in 2018, when an army of Terminators roams the post-apocalyptic landscape, killing in cold blood and arresting human beings and throwing them into camps where they hide in desolate cities and deserts.  Small groups of survivors manage to organize into Resistance units, hiding in underground bunkers and striking when they can against an enemy force that outnumbers them. 

 

Controlling the Terminators is the artificial intelligence network Skynet, which became self-aware 14 years earlier and turned on its creators, thus unleashing nuclear annihilation.  The world is now on the brink of the future that Connor has been warned about all his life.  But an unexpected event has shaken his belief that humanity has a chance after all of winning this war: the appearance of Marcus, a stranger from the past whose last memory is of being on death row before awakening in this strange world. 

Skynet, the “aware” machine, has almost accomplished its mission of destroying the threat of people. But pockets of rebellion continue to operate, in some cases consisting of just two youngsters: Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and the mute girl Star (Jadagrace).  Kyle, of course, will grow up to father John Connor after being sent into the future to meet Sarah Connor.

Before the two men join forces, they have to resolve issues of trust and conviction. Connor must decide whether Marcus can be trusted.  The ever-nastier Skynet adapts new strategies to end the Resistance, and Connor and Marcus must find common ground to infiltrate Skynet and meet the enemy head-on. 

 

By necessity, “Terminator Salvation” borrows ideas and sentences from the older chapters, some of which are iconic, such as “I’ll be back.”  And you know he will—in the next chapter.  From the first film, the Terminator was an unstoppable beast that just keeps coming at you, sometimes out of nowhere in a chopper or on a motorbike, a machine that pursues its prey to the end, even when it’s blown apart.  But this picture follows the logic of more is more: To make sure his enemies are really dead, one bullet won’t do and Connor shoots them half a dozen times.

 

Unfortunately, there are not many good new ideas, and Marcus' identity crisis, posing the question, “I need to find out who did this to me,” while his chrome-covered body is exposed and punctured, comes so late in the proceedings that you don’t care much about him, despite the solid performance rendered by Worthngton.

Compared with James Cameron’s, McG's direction is mechanic and impersonal, functioning more as a traffic manager than as a director with a singular vision and a sense of mise-en-scene.  I am willing to bet that you could rearrange the special and no one would even notice because they are like stand-alone set-pieces, often beautiful to behold but serving no function other than delivering the expected goods of a popcorn summer flick.

The earlier movies contained some humor and unfolded in a more familiar contemporary world, but “Terminator Salvation” is really a war movie set in a darker, post-apocalyptic future.  In this desolate bleached-out looking American West, the bombs have damaged and completely altered the ozone to the point where the sky is of a different color, the earth has different quality, the air is polluted—and it almost always rains.

 

Created from drawings by production designer Martin Laing and his art directors, the army of machines that rampage through the story came to life under the direction of Stan Winston, the legendary creature creator who designed the original T-800.  The movie is dedicated to Winston, who passed away during the making of this film. 

Production values are ultra polished and overwhelming, courtesy of cinematographer D P. Shane Hurlbut and the visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic, Asylum, Pacific Title and Art Studio, and Matte World Digital.

Cast


John Connor – Christian Bale
Marcus WrightSam Worthington
Blair WilliamsMoon Bloodgood
Dr. Serena Kogan – Helena Bonham Carter
Kyle Reese – Anton Yelchin
Star – Jadagrace

Credits

A Warner release of a Halcyon Co. presentation of a Moritz Borman production, in association with Wonderland Sound and Vision.
Produced by Moritz Borman, Jeffrey Silver, Victor Kubicek, Derek Anderson.
Executive producers, Mario F. Kassar, Andrew G. Vajna, Peter D. Graves, Dan Lin, Jeanne Allgood, Joel B. Michaels.
Co-producer, Chantal Feghali.
Directed by McG.
Screenplay, John Brancato, Michael Ferris.
Camera, Shane Hurlbut.
Editor, Conrad Buff.
Music, Danny Elfman.
Production designer, Martin Laing.
Art director, Troy Sizemore.
Set decorator, Victor Zolfo.
Costume designer, Michael Wilkinson.

Terminator makeup/animatronic effects, John Rosengrant; sound, Mark Ulano; sound designer/supervisor, Cameron Frankley; visual effects supervisor, Charles Gibson.

Visual effects coordinator, Bill Sturgeon; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, Asylum, Pacific Title and Art Studio, Matte World Digital.

Stunt coordinator, Tom Struthers.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 116 minutes.