by Mel Valentin
"Terminator Salvation," the sequel/prequel to the "Terminator" franchise created by James Cameron ("Avatar," "Titanic," "True Lies," "The Abyss"), arrives in movie theaters with the same mix of anticipation and dread that greeted the prequel/reboot of the "Star Trek" franchise two weeks ago. Expectations are understandably high for the long-promised exploration of the post-apocalyptic future only glimpsed in the earlier films. With a director, McG ("We Are Marshall," "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "Charlie's Angels"), in search of redemption (or at least respect from moviegoers and critics alike), an oft-revised script (including on-set rewrites by Jonathan Nolan, the co-writer of "The Dark Knight"), and an intense lead actor in Christian Bale, abject failure (at worst) or uninspired mediocrity (at best) seemed likely. Sometimes, the most (or more) likely outcome isn’t the one you actually get. This isn’t one of those times.In The Terminator, a lone warrior sent back from a post-apocalyptic future, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), tries to save Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the future resistance leader, John Conner, from a T-800 Model 101 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a cyborg killing machine sent back in time by Skynet, a genocidal self-aware computer defense network. Sarah survives, but Reese doesn’t. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah Conner, her teenage son John (Edward Furlong), and a reprogrammed terminator (Arnold again), sent back in time by a future John Conner, to stop a more advanced Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), and prevent Judgment Day. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines pitted a twenty-something Conner (Nick Stahl), living anonymously "off-the-grid," his future wife, Kate (Claire Danes), and yet another “good” Terminator (Arnold again, one last time) against the T-X (Kristanna Loken). Conner, however, couldn’t stop Judgment Day.
"Not even Mr. Intensity himself, Christian Bale, can save..."
Terminator Salvation is set in 2018, fourteen years after Judgment Day. John Conner (Christian Bale), now thirty-four and married to a pregnant Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a leader of the human resistance against Skynet, but not “the” leader. Conner frequently butts heads with the actual leader of the resistance, General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), while trying to find his teenaged father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), before Skynet can find and eliminate him, thus negating Conner’s existence, if not in this particular timeline, then in another one where Skynet doesn’t lose. While Conner continues to chafe under Ashdown’s leadership, he agrees to field test a new communications-jamming program that interferes with Skynet’s control over machines. Ashdown hopes to cripple Skynet in a surprise attack.
In another part of a post-apocalyptic California (near LA, presumably), Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a one-time, death-row inmate awakens from a fifteen-year coma, the sole survivor of the massive underground explosion that almost wiped out John Conner in Terminator Salvation’s second scene. Compelled to travel north, to Skynet’s facilities in San Francisco, Wright almost immediately stumbles into a firefight in Los Angeles as Reese and Star (Jadagrace), a young mute girl, attempt to outwit and defeat the T-600 terminator, an earlier, cruder terminator. Wright and Reese are separated; Wright meets Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), a downed resistance pilot, and eventually crosses paths with the distrustful Conner, who suspects Wright's motivations (and identity).
The Terminator franchise has a backstory structured around time travel. The Terminator treated time travel as a “closed loop,” the future as unchangeable as the past. Judgment Day was unstoppable, but the future of the human race depended on the survival of Sarah Conner and her unborn son. Terminator 2: Judgment Day changed that formulation: change the past and save the future (paradoxes aside, of course). Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines changed that formulation again: Judgment Day can be only postponed, not stopped. Another alternative, used recently for the Star Trek reboot/prequel, is to set the new film in an entirely new, if related, timeline that, in turn, gives the filmmakers the opportunity to cherry-pick events and characters from earlier entries in the franchise. That’s more or less what McG and his credited (and several uncredited) writers, John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, the writers of the third entry in the franchise, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, did on Terminator Salvation.
Franchise-specific themes, e.g., man vs. machine, free will vs. determinism, and the evolution of machines beyond sentience to empathy and compassion themes, are present in Terminator Salvation as well. Unsurprisingly, the exploration of these themes take a back seat to the set pieces, some, to be fair, well-choreographed shot in a desaturated color palette that signals McG’s attempt to get “serious” as a filmmaker (well, as “serious” as a commercial filmmaker working in Hollywood with a $150 million dollar budget and anxious producers can be). McG and his production designer, Martin Laing, and the late Stan Winston created new Skynet-controlled robots (or modified preexisting ones), including Transformers-inspired Harvesters (giant robots used to collect humans for experimentation and extermination), Aerostats (flight-enable recon-bots), Hunter-Killers, eel-like Hydrobots, Transports (for human cargo), Moto-Terminators (half-motorcycle, half-terminator robots used to round up human), and the aforementioned clunky T-600, the T-800’s predecessor.
Terminator Salvation shows every sign of being cobbled together from various drafts, rewrites, and polishes (the last, reportedly, by Jonathan Nolan). Terminator Salvation consists of two major storylines, one following John Conner's struggles to bring down Skynet and become the prophesized leader of the resistance and the second Marcus Wright's journey to San Francisco, which gets sidetracked once he meets Reese and Star. Some characters are superfluous (e.g., Kate Conner, Barnes, Star), while others are woefully underwritten (e.g., Blair Williams). Dialogue is, at best, functional and expository and, at worst, awkward and banal. Scenes are rushed, leaving characters undermotivated for actions they take later on in the film. With two many characters vying for screen time, the result of multiple screenwriters attempting to accommodate Christian Bale’s demands to increase Conner’s role in Terminator Salvation, Conner, Wright, and Reese, not to mention every other supporting character, are badly shortchanged, their characters reduced to clichés.
Conner's attempt to postpone the attack on Skynet so he can save his teenaged father, Kyle Reese, the same Reese who, as an adult in his mid-thirties, goes back in time and becomes John Conner's biological father, leaves zero room for logic and not just for the time travel paradoxes involved. If Conner succeeds, but Skynet doesn't go down, then Conner bears responsibility for the survivors Skynet captures and kills before it’s finally destroyed eleven years later, in 2029 (if the original timeline is still “active”). If he doesn’t, of course, then Reese dies and presumably, Conner disappears from the timeline (or maybe it’s just “a” timeline, just not this one). If anything, the Terminator franchise, with its shifting rules about time travel (not to mention multiple time-traveling humans and terminators), is an object lesson in how not to handle time travel as a plot device, especially if you're going to change them in mid- or late-franchise (in other words, don't).Neither Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristically mediocre score (little of Brad Fiedel’s original music is used) nor the hurried, slapdash ending involving a character’s undermotivated act of self-sacrifice help. The rumored “fake” ending (scripted, but never filmed) has been watered down into yet another undermotivated scene moment emotional weight or significance (which in turn reverts the "Terminator" universe to the pre-film status quo). Not surprisingly, the final scene leaves the door open for additional sequels, but if "Terminator Salvation" is any indication, the "Terminator" franchise’s time has come and gone.
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originally posted: 05/21/09 03:23:59