Thursday, June 04, 2009

Terminator Salvation (2009)

In order to enjoy Terminator Salvation, you need to approach it as if it were pornography. Ignore all the people talking, the story, the characters, the dialogue, focus in on the big set pieces, and enjoy the explosions. Nothing but the action in Terminator Salvation matters, which is good because the film makes absolutely no sense, even by the already low standards established by the three previous logic-challenged Terminators.

For instance, a young man by the name of Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) factors heavily into the plot. The machines, you see, have put out a new Terminator's Most Wanted list, and his name is right at the top. Why? Because in the first Terminator (directed by James Cameron), Reese (played then as an older man by Michael Biehn) travels back in time to destroy the T-800 trying to kill Sarah Connor and inadvertently fathers humanity's eventual leader John Connor (Christian Bale) in the process. If the machines can kill Reese before he goes back in time, they can ensure Connor was never born and wipe out their biggest enemy. Which begs the question: how do they know Kyle Reese is the guy from the future who becomes Connor's father? My guess: these machines are cutting-edge. They have the Terminator Blu-Ray and they took notes.

The story spirals downward from there. Connor actually shares the spotlight with a new character, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who we see put to death by lethal injection over the opening credits yet find miraculously alive after the machines have beaten the holy hell out of civilization. Slowly he comes to learn what anyone who has seen the Terminator Salvation trailer knows before they walk in the door: Wright's second life comes at a terrible, mechanical cost. He provides the narrative connection between Reese and Connor as well as the closest thing Salvation has to any thematic resonance with Terminator 2 and its examination of the unquantifiable things that separate a human and a robot. Worthington is Australian, and to hide his accent he speaks in the same gravelly whisper as Bale, which makes the pair's dramatic confrontation unintentionally hilarious. Bale keeps leaning closer and closer as he speaks to Worthington, until the two are inches apart, whispering at each other (see the picture above). Y'know if either of these guys could speak at normal volume, they wouldn't have to stand so close together to hear what they're saying.

Terminator Salvation's plot is like a house of cards built on a pit of quicksand. Really the last thing you want to do when you're sitting watching this movie is ask questions, because that could ruin the entire experience for you. It's best not to consider why, for example, if the machines have yet to invent time travel (Salvation takes place in the year 2018, some time before Connor becomes the outright leader of the Resistance and before the off-camera events that prompt the first three Terminators) they don't simply travel back in time from the point they have invented it and provide themselves with the necessary technology or information needed to create it ahead of schedule. Or why they don't just send Terminator after Terminator to kill Sarah Connor back in 1984, or John Connor back in his Edward Furlong days. In the very first Terminator, Kyle Reese claimed that the Resistance destroyed the time portal after he and the first T-800 went through to ensure that no one else would follow. Of course, if the Resistance destroyed the time machine after Reese went through it, how could Reese know that they actually did it? Maybe they didn't after all because seven years later we got the temporal shenanigans of the Cameron-helmed Terminator 2: Judgment Day and twelve years after that, Jonathan Mostow's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, each with their own pair of time travelers. By 2009's Terminator Salvation I guess anything goes (again, like porn).

I'm giving the movie a hard time, but I do want to give credit to director McG for putting together at least three truly outstanding action sequences, including a horrifying helicopter crash done in Children of Men-style long takes, a grisly gas station siege that culminates in a crackerjack motorcycle and truck chase, and finally a full-on battle royal between Connor and a familiar looking Terminator. Kudos also to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and the various FX teams for creating as seemless and convincing a blend of old-school practical effects and modern digital ones as I've seen in a film. Plus the widely spoiled CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo is surprisingly convincing; infinitely superior to the similar gag in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and so good that a colleague of mine assumed he was watching Schwarzenegger beneath a heavy amount of makeup when he first saw it. It's an honest mistake; the guy did say he'd be back.

When Salvation goes into action mode, it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside this summer's best blockbuster, Star Trek. Like Star Trek, Terminator Salvation's villains' time traveling plans don't make a whole lot of sense, but at least J.J. Abrams' film had a clearly defined enemy, something it shares with all the previous Terminators and their big, imposing singular bad guys. In Terminator Salvation John Connor and the rest of his intrepid crew are up against an endless parade of indistinct machines with no personality and no goals beyond their ongoing attempts to eliminate every bit of organic matter on the planet. If the machines were to kill Reese, kill Connor, kill all of what's left of civilization, what would they do next? Scaring the hell out of the vestiges of humanity is all they seem to know how to do. My guess is if they ever succeeded in wiping out mankind they'd immediately travel back in time and stop themselves from killing us all, just so they could do it all over again.



Blogger Pete said...

This sums up my feeling pretty much to a T, I think. (ugh, no pun intended). The plot doesn't make sense, the characters don't really make sense, but I had a pretty great time watching it. I wish the Marcus Wright reveal hadn't been in all the trailers, because it's not a *terrible* twist. After having seen the trailers, though, it was just... nothing.

I thought the effects were across the board super solid, the action was really pretty great, and honestly, in a summer blockbuster, if they can pull that off, who really cares about the plot?

4:58 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

My theory that explains Terminator I:

My theory, however imperfect: the unseen John Connor from Terminator 1 who sent Kyle Reese back to protect his mom existed before Kyle Reese was ever sent back because he had some unknown father who will never see, somebody that waitress Sarah would have met in the course of her average life, if she had never met Kyle. When Kyle went back, he stopped that other track Sarah's life would have taken. The first John Connor ceased to exist. This John Connor knew nothing of the future way but was talented enough to rise to lead the human resistance.

The baby born to Sarah and Kyle will be a different person, maybe not as talented but with the foresight that Kyle was able to give to Sarah. As we see from Terminator 2, Sarah has made it her mission in life to protect John but also train him. This John Connor would also rise up to lead the human resistance.

Again, not a perfect theory. But to state my theory simply - it is nature versus nurture. The original John Connor was an example of "nature." An uninformed Sarah Connor would have had children. One of them would be John Connor. The John Connor who was Kyle Reese's son would have been a prime example of "nurture." The Sarah Connor made aware of the future trained young John extensively in weapons and gave him insight into the future. "John Connor" could result from a few different circumstances.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

(These comments contain T3 and T4 SPOILERS!)


Agreed regarding the Marcus Wright reveal in the trailers. Interestingly, although it's not held for as long, I remember hearing something similar about T2. Schwarzenegger and Patrick both come back in time, both act violently, but it's not entirely clear who is good and who is bad (and since Schwarzenegger was evil in T1, it stands to reason he is the same here), but all the advertising for TERMINATOR 2 sold the fact that this time he was the hero, effectively killing the surprise. Having watched T2 plenty of times, I don't know that it's really designed to shock, but it's interesting to discuss in this context.


An interesting theory about T1. It would have been interesting if they had tried to suggest that the events of T1 had altered the future John Connor in T2. Then again, in T3 they say that Connor had such a strong attachment to he Schwarzenegger model Terminator that it was able to infiltrate his base and kill him in the future, which is a way in which the future Connor is changed by the time travel to the present. Then again, most of these additions are negated, contradicted, or made altogether impossible by TERMINATOR SALVATION...

8:52 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...


I remember reading an interview with James Cameron at the time Terminator 2 was released. He said wanted to hide the fact that Arnold was good in this movie but couldn't quite figure how to do that. He also said he cast Robert Patrick because his lean look was supposed to remind us of Michael Biehn from the first movie.

11:14 PM  
Blogger JvD said...

I'm with you on Terminator Salvation.
My analogy would be that you have to approach Terminator Salvation like eating a Twinkie.
You know its no good for you- in fact you could articulate everything wrong with it. But it tastes good.
As far as summer blockbusters go, it works and I had a good time...

Here's an interesting thought- if you take Heath Ledger out of The Dark Knight, you would be left with a summer blockbuster not too unlike Terminator Salvation. Yup, I said it...

11:48 PM  

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