Mr. Beaks Finds Nothing Horribly Wrong With TERMINATOR SALVATION!!!
Published at: May 21, 2009, 9:14 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
This review is fucking festooned with spoilers.
The big copout with time travel narratives is that you can always explain away the most horrible, unthinkable events with two words: "alternative timeline". No matter what occurs in this timeline, you can always say that there still exists a version of reality in which everything shakes out the way it's supposed to - e.g., while you feel just terrible for the Vulcans who went boom in the Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman STAR TREK timeline, you can at least take comfort in the fact that the planet's still whirling in the official, sanctioned-by-Roddenberry timeline. Yay. And yawn.
Basically, the only way to introduce any element of jeopardy into time travel movies is to give us a protagonist who hails from the timeline that served as our way into the universe. That's why the BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels work so well: we're always with the same Marty McFly that we started with. And we desperately want him to get back to the 1985 where Jennifer and that Toyota Pickup are waiting for him. In lieu of making any real-world sense (which is a given because time travel is utterly fucking impossible*), a palpable emotional connection to the characters goes a very long way.
There is an emotional connection in TERMINATOR SALVATION, but, oddly enough, it's not John Connor. At least, it's not for me. Up until now, the only portrayal of John Connor that's worked dramatically came courtesy of Michael Edwards, who only had to look the part of a capable badass at the opening of TERMINATOR 2. The other two JCs (Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl) have been whiney and eminently strangle-worthy. Connor's best kept as a far-off-in-the-future idea. The real hero of THE TERMINATOR series is Kyle Reese.
This is because Reese eternally gets the shit end of the stick: he spends his first few decades ducking Skynet's murderous contraptions, and then gets sent back in time to deposit Connor in Connor. His reward for co-authoring the kid who'll give humanity a fighting chance against the machines? Death. Look, I understand John Connor does most of the heavy lifting once things go south for mankind, but, frankly, that's what he gets for being such an insufferable brat for a good deal of his pre-apocalypse existence. Reese is born to the wasteland. He knows one night of happiness in his entire life. He owns the rooting interest in this series.
While Cameron pulled off a neat trick by having Arnold Schwarzenegger fill the hero void left by Michael Biehn in the second film, this unfortunately cemented Arnie's Cyborg Shane as the face of the franchise - especially since the majority of viewers in 1991 probably hadn't absorbed THE TERMINATOR as anything other than a pop cultural touchstone (shades, leather coat, "I'll be back", etc.). Suddenly, Reese was just some dude who barely merited a mention in JUDGMENT DAY, while the woman he loved had transmogrified into a sinewy, chain-smoking harridan. By the third film (which is the beginning of the alternate timeline as far as I'm concerned, since every last trace of Skynet was plunged into molten steel at the end of T2), they'd both been shoved aside in favor of a borderline bonkers JC and an even quippier T-800.
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES may not be as bad as its reputation (it's got one impressive action sequence and a chilling ending), but it did lower the storytelling standard set by the first two movies to the point where this is now just a run-of-the-mill franchise. Worse, it all but guaranteed that the third sequel would be spent exclusively in the dour company of post-apocalypse John Connor. Two problems with this: first, we can barely tolerate Connor as a human being; second, there's no jeopardy because there's no possible way he's going to get killed at this point of the narrative unless you resort to the alternative timeline cheat.
Rather than do the least objectionable thing and attempt a Kyle Reese origin story (with added, if absolutely bunk peril in that Skynet somehow knows he's the daddy-to-be of the resistance), screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris have, with TERMINATOR SALVATION, given us dual protagonists in glowering ol' John Connor (Christian Bale) and sorta-spared death row consignee Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). Originally, these characters were to merge in a shocking way. Now, they literally bleed together in a treacly resolution that closes the film off as a standalone, "Whew, that was close!" narrative of no consequence.
In other words, TERMINATOR SALVATION is a time travel movie situated at a point in the (alternative) chronology where nothing of real significance occurs. Threre's absolutely no reason to tell this story. And yet the film works to a significant enough degree because it embraces its inherent limitations without shortchanging the audience: the world is believable, the creature f/x are lovingly rendered (this is a fine swan song for the late, great Stan Winston), and there are two very effective action set pieces. Best of all, it manages to give us a believable Young Kyle Reese in Anton Yelchin. Welcome back, rooting interest!
The major conflict in TERMINATOR SALVATION is supposed to arise from the wild-card presence of Marcus, who could be (spoiler: is) an unwitting pawn of Skynet. While he does everything to prove his worth to the resistance (once he's been outed as a machine - a character beat that falls flat because Marcus means nothing to us), we've all seen too many movies not to ponder the likelihood that he's unaware of his programming. Brancato and Ferris hope we'll take our eye off the ball long enough to get caught up in Connor's quest to rescue a captured Reese from Skynet HQ (he hasn't been executed yet because Skynet is evidently dumber than a Vic-20), but there's no cause for concern here - after all, a dead Reese would mean a non-existent Connor.
We didn't come this far with the TERMINATOR franchise because it's a model of internal logic. No, we're still game for more of this nonsense because we've a childhood attachment to the universe created by Cameron; also, SALVATION offers us our first opportunity to hang out in the wasteland. Some may be disappointed that McG and his writers (including the uncredited Jonathan Nolan and Paul Haggis) only give us the prelude to the major man-versus-machine campaign. Whatever. Seeing as how this is a franchise relaunch, I didn't expect them to blow their wad in one fell thrust. (Honsetly, I think they'd be wise to avoid this period altogether, since there's no way they're ever going to outdo the versions of the war we imagined as kids.)
This is probably the most negative "positive" review I've ever written, but I'm giving the movie a pass for four reasons:
1) The Harvester. This is a giant robot who scoots around on a hover-bike that doubles as a people collector. He also has two motorcycle buddies who drop off his shins for pursuin' purposes. This big fella made the twelve-year-old in me very happy. The scene in which he chases after Marcus, Reese and Star (a useless little girl played by the uni-monikered Jadagrace) is a proficiently executed action set piece that gets the blood pumping for a good eight minutes. This is stellar second-unit work from visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson.
2) Yelchin. Casting him as a young Michael Biehn seemed like a deal-breaker a year ago, but he's both believable as a warrior and sympathetic as the TERMINATOR universe's most tragic figure. It's just a shame they saddle him with the kid.
3) The climactic rescue mission may not be as expertly staged as the Harvester chase, but the appearance of the T-800 replete with 1984 Arnie skin accomplishes what it's supposed to. True, the cyborg does enough damage to Connor to kill him several times over, but it'd be folly to start nitpicking this late in the film.
4) Run time. The film is something like 108 minutes sans closing credits. Yes, it all feels a little rushed (save for Helena Bonham Carter's momentum-halting expository conversation with Marcus), but at least it never overstays its welcome. That's saying something in this era of summer tentpole bloat.
While I didn't walk out of TERMINATOR SALVATION ready for a fifth installment in the franchise, it's not like I went in ready for a fourth. This isn't because I'm not a fan of THE TERMINATOR; it's actually because I'm a fan of THE TERMINATOR, and understand that the sequels (even JUDGMENT DAY) were made only to capitalize on our affection for Cameron's low-budget, B-movie triumph. And while I suppose it's possible that some upstart young director could one day conceive of an alternative timeline TERMINATOR that compares favorably to Cameron's original, I certainly wasn't expecting any such miracle from McG.
Grading on the summer movie curve, TERMINATOR SALVATION just barely passes. You'll see much, much worse over the next few months.
*Well, you could acknowledge the unending temporal wreckage that would ensue once you start hopping back and forth in time, but then you'd have to put on your thinking cap and make a brilliant film like Shane Carruth's PRIMER, and no one wants to do that!