A film review by Craig J. Koban

TERMINATOR SALVATION jjj
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2009, PG-13, 115 mins.

 

John Connor: Christian Bale / Marcus: Sam Worthington / Blair: Moon Bloodgood / Serena: Helena Bonham Carter / Kate: Bryce Dallas Howard / Barnes: Common / Virginia: Jane Alexander

Directed by McG / Written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris

TERMINATOR SALVATION – aka T4 – marks the second time in the history of the landmark and hugely popular sci-fi/action thriller franchise that someone other than the series creator, James Cameron, has stepped in to fill the shoes of screenwriter and director.  The last effort -  2003’s somewhat problematic, but unfairly chastised and ridiculed TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES - was a solid and enjoyably intense shock and awe time travel auctioneer that captured some of Cameron’s past, aggressive minded mojo.  Now comes TERMINATOR SALVATION that – to loosely paraphrase the advertising campaign from another recent big blockbuster summer film – is not “your father’s TERMINATOR.” 

The look, feel, and approach here is decidedly different.  Gone, of course, is Cameron.  In are writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who both penned T3), who apparently received some uncredited script doctoring from the likes of Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT) and Paul Haggis (what screenplay has this multiple Oscar winner not re-written lately?).  Gone too is Cameron behind the camera and in is – heaven help us – Joseph McGinty Nichol…or…pardon me…McG.   Gone is the time-travel-to-the-past arc of all of the previous films, which also positively means less pontificating on the bane of all time travel films: paradox.  And finally, gone is the notion of a clearly defined villain – usually in robotic/assassin form – and hero – sometimes flesh and blood, sometimes kneecap shooting, but noble programmed, cyborg.  In short, TERMINATOR SALVATION definitely does not have the same outward façade of the type of TERMINATOR film many in the fanbase are expecting. 

Instead, T4 decides to hone in on more satisfying grounds (c’mon: would we all really tolerate yet another film where a post-apocalyptic robot from the future time travels back to the present in order to kill the future leader of the human resistance…sorry, been there, done that).  By utterly abandoning the format of all of the previous TERMINATOR outings, McG and company potentially alienate Cameron fundamentalists while luring in a whole new set of action aficionados.  Refreshingly, this TERMINATOR outing focuses on areas that were only hinted at in previous installments – the future, post-nuclear war between Skynet (the mechanized, humanity hating bad guys) and last human survivors (yup, the good guys).  Yes, this new TERMINATOR outing may not be as intriguing as the past incarnations, nor does it have as much heart and soul, but it does one thing with incalculable skill and tact: it offers up a gritty, fast paced, and feverously intense futuristic war picture and it wholeheartedly delivers with a grimly bombastic and exhilarating efficiency.   

You want a war film…well…now you got one…and with a gnarly and cruel vengeance. 

As stated, T4 does not engage in the temporal travel game: it settles its story all the way through in the not-to-distant future of 2018 (granted, back with the original film’s outing in 1984, the future as presented then was distant).  Regardless, it is the future and the machine induced Armageddon that has been referred to as Judgment Day (aka – nuclear holocaust) has just past, leaving the earth a scorched, decayed, and atomic wintered wasteland.  Skynet has Terminator robots – coming in all shapes and sizes (and, surprisingly enough, they inhabit vastly different environments) vengefully hunting down humans one at a time until they are extinct.  However, humanity still packs quite a bit of advanced firepower and, most importantly, a fiercely determined will to defend themselves from the mechanized onslaught.   

It is in this future where we finally meet the adult – and not pre-pubescent version in previous films – John Connor (Christian Bale, never missing a beat in a ferociously intense performance), who is one of the local leaders of a worldwide resistance, but still has not yet assumed the mantel as human-saving messiah packing a machine gun.  In the film he has superiors, led by the cagey and stubbornly obstinate and cantankerous General Ashdown (played with grizzled, scenery chewing bravado by Michael Ironside, perhaps the only actor one could believe would have authority over Bale).  The human resistance believes that they now have a computer-enabled weapon that can shut down any machine if it is in close proximity to it (and, no, this does not involve uploading Windows Vista to Skynet’s mainframe).  If there is one thing that the film could have explained in more detail than it would be how this gadget can shut down evil machines but not the heroes' own at the same time. 

Needless to say, Connor agrees to test this weapon in the field, forever cementing his reputation of having balls of steel.  He also has a secondary objective at the same time: locate and protect a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, a far cry from CHARLIE BARTLETT here in a mature and world weary performance) who Connor has learned has been targeted for termination (this would be catastrophic for Connor, seeing as he sends the adult Reese back in time, who in turn knocks up his mom in 1984, which culminates in his birth – damn you, time paradox!).  While Connor engages in his mission we have a side story (which is surprisingly given as much narrative weight) of a mysterious, amnesia-plagued stranger named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington, in a star making role), who bumps into Reese while strolling through the bombed out remains of L.A..  Wright seems to have no clue about Judgment Day, the future war, and so forth, but he does agree to head to San Francisco (where Skynet is located) with the plucky and resourceful Reese.  Unfortunately, Reese is captured on route by the machines and is taken to a human concentration camp in the machine city.  This event unavoidably leads to a very shaky partnership between Connor and Wright, which is made all the more dicey considering that Wright is not what he appears to be…even if he fails to acknowledge or understand it himself. 

One of the most unexpected and satisfying aspects of T4 is its astonishingly first rate production design.  McG, a director who has rarely inspired confidence in me (he made two of the most cringe-worthy and bloated films of the last decade in the two wretched CHARLIE’S ANGELS films, but followed that up with the very decent WE ARE MARSHALL), really gives T4 a provocatively disturbing and bleak vision.  Liberally mixing stylistic references from works as far ranging as George Miller’s MAD MAX films, to STAR WARS, to CHILDREN OF MEN, and to the post-apocalyptic writings of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, T4 emerges as an absolute tour de force of visual invention.  Using Technicolor’s Oz processing (which gives the film negative a sharply desaturated and bleached out appearance), McG develops a virtuoso look of a 2018 America that looks suitably worn, withered, and decayed.  At times the film has a granulated, near black and white aura that contributes to its overall nihilism and despair.  No doubt, the way Mr. Nichol here gives the film a gritty and unforgiving tactile sensation is to the film’s credit.  Besides the second film in the quadrilogy, T4 is the finest looking of the lot. 

Another surprise is how well McG handles the pulse-pounding and amazingly realized action sequences, which combine cutting edge special effects, computer trickery, and that top notch war torn aesthetic just mentioned.  Using machines designed by Martin Lang (who worked on TITANIC) alongside the late Stan Winston’s fully mechanized creatures (he died shortly after the film wrapped) and seamless computer effects, T4 spares no expense in order to thrill viewers.  The film has several memorable – and haunting – scenes of flesh against metal mayhem.  An early scene in particular shows McG’s gutsy and daring innovation, which shows Connor’s awesome battle against T-800 robots, which culminates in him boarding a helicopter, attempting to fly to safety, and then later crash landing it, all apparently in one smooth shot (it could be the product of some very slick editing as well, but no matter, the set piece is sensational).  Another sequence – which shows a 50-foot tall Skynet marauder grabbing humans right off the ground to transport them to a Skynet death camp – is effortlessly creepy and thrilling.  One of the film’s most breathtaking action set pieces has a nail biting chase involving a fuel filled tanker truck trying to outrun flying hunter-killer drones, a building sized human harvester robot, and two nifty motorcycle propelled robots that morph out of the giant harvester’s legs.  

Individual moments also pack a forcefully tense and scary wallop, which are high in the “boo!” fright factor: one involving small snake-like robots in a lake bed trying to feast on Connor is gripping, as is a early sequence involving Connor trying to rid the world of a T-800 cyborg skeleton that – like the dismembered knight in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL – just keeps on coming and coming (clearly, T4 is following Cameron’s lead in the past TERMINATOR films, but some of the moments of frightening ingenuity actually owe more to his ALIENS, which is nonetheless a good film to reference for inspiration).  The exemplary pacing and break neck speed of the action really hits its stride in the final, climatic showdown between Connor, Wright, and Skynet, which also manages to offer up a few well-hidden surprises.  And, yes, through the miracle of CGI compositing – and the current "Governator’s" approval – we get to see a vicious one on one battle between Connor and the same T-800 model that Skynet sent back in time in 1984’s film (the body is provided by Auh-nald look-alike, Roland Kickinger, while Schwarzenegger’s own mug was digitally grafted onto the body rather seamlessly).  It certainly was hard to not be taken in by this moment: my fanboy geek impulse was cranked to eleven. 

Aside from the film’s first rate production values and powerfully invigorating action scenes, T4 may not get very much credit for its interesting handling of its characters.  Bale’s Connor, as expected, is the epicenter of the human led resistance, and the Brit more than delivers on expectations to play his part with the requisite seething, icy demeanored, and teeth gritty vigilance.  However, what’s really surprising is how Bale’s Connor defers much of the character interest to the Marcus Wright character, whom is given equal screen time and, inevitably, is the more compelling creation.  What’s so fascinating about Wright is his character arc: in a brief prologue snippet we see him as a death row inmate circa 2003 and then we later see him alive and well in 2018, not having aged a day.  As we suddenly learn the true nature of his futuristic appearance, it provides for an intriguing conflict between his character and Connor’s mission to eradicate the machines, all while allowing Wright to confront his own mortality and humanity.  

What’s really shocking is how the advertising for the film has gone completely out of its way to utterly spoil the secret of Wright’s character (the trailer’s are indefensibly spoilerish), which would have allowed this plot thread to be much more satisfyingly shocking.   Rarely have plot twists in a film been so telegraphed by the film's trailers and TV commercials.  No matter, because Australian newcomer Sam Worthington (who will later be headlining Cameron’s long awaited AVATAR) is the find of the summer movie season: he is unavoidably electrifying as his brooding, tough as nails, and profoundly conflicted anti-hero.  

TERMINATOR SALVATION is not a film that completely avoids road bumps through its lean and mean 115 minutes: There are times where the doom and gloom of the film overrides any sense of wry humor that its predecessors had (although some moments between Wright and Anton Yelchin’s solid turn as the baby faced Reese garner some much needed – but not force-fed – laughs).  Bryce Dallas Howard - much as she did in another summer tent pole series, SPIDER-MAN 3 – appears here in a completely throwaway role as Connor’s preggers wife; the part is dreadfully underwritten.  Furthermore, having one of the first film’s most iconic and quoted lines uttered at one point by Bale gets more unintended groans and giggles than it should have.  I am all for the inclusion of Easter Eggs for series fans in sequels and remakes, but the words “I’ll be back” just don’t have the same broken and staccato inflection when spoken by someone other than an emotionless robot played by an muscle-bound, Austrian actor.  Trust me.

Ultimately, though, McG and company have done a totally thankless job here and certainly have very large shoes to fill when Cameron long since vacated the TERMINATOR universe (he apparently neither cursed nor gave his blessing to this project).  Yet, even without Cameron at the helm I was quite astounded by what a hard-hitting, swiftly-paced, and consummately made sci-fi/action film that resulted here.  Truth be told, the film sometimes lacks an strong emotional discord (which is, no doubt, overwhelmed by the film’s aggressively mounted special effects and production scope), but – let’s be fair – TERMINATOR SALVATION promised exactly what it advertised: an all out war film involving the last of battered and blue humanity against the cold, calculating, and lethal machines.  Taking into account the relative early competition of the summer movie schedule thus far (like the disappointing X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, the insipidly plotted ANGELS AND DEMONS, and – let the hate mail flood in – the wrongheaded STAR TREK reboot), I guess I was ill-prepared to concede that this prequel-sequel to one of the genre’s most revered franchises would be the salvation of the season.  Considering that this is the fourth film in a 25-year-old series, this new TERMINATOR unequivocally and successfully appeases both diehards of the past Cameron-centric entries as well as to newcomers to this film universe.  As a rousing, action-packed, and armrest grabbing bit of thrilling summer escapism, this series is back…with a real gusto. 

 

CrAiGeR's other reviews from

Q U A D R I L O G Y:

 

THE TERMINATOR: 25th Anniversary Retrospective Review  (1984)  jjj1/2

 

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's  ranking of THE TERMINATOR Quadrilogy:

1. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) jjjj

2. THE TERMINATOR (1984) jjj1/2

3. TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009)  jjj1/2

4. TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003) jjj

 

 

 

 

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