Movie review:Terminator–Rise of the McG

25 May

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Terminator: Salvation,2009, (PG-13), 116 min.

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After abstaining from blockbuster fever for the better part of this long weekend, my wife and I, with both sets of parents in tow, finally got a chance to check out Terminator: Salvation yesterday afternoon. There has been a dark cloud looming over this movie for awhile, and most of the fingers have been pointing at the film’s director McG, who constantly gripes about the attention his name brings and then allows it be featured not once, but twice, in the opening credits. Given that I didn’t see this one on Thursday, I got a chance to watch the reviews roll in and the critical consensus wasn’t good. Then I began to hear from visitors to this site, and from friends, that the film was just fine and worthy of the Terminator name. Now, having seen it, I’m ready to weigh-in. But first, a confession.

I really dig The Terminator films. Not just one, but all of them. The original is easily the best; a dark and thrilling triple-decker action film that blends time-traveling sci-fi paradoxes with a killer-stalks-girl horror motif, both being used to prop up the central speculative fiction that posits a world where the machines are the masters and they won’t give up their hold. The sequel is one of the greatest popcorn entertainments I have ever seen, and having just re-watched it this weekend, I can attest  to the fact it still holds up.  Arnold gives, allowing his limited range, what amounts to a great performance with plenty of humor and authority mixed in; I bought the fact he was a machine. Everything about the sequel is trumped-up but it works because the movie provides a heart. Enough of a heart, in fact, that it carried over to Terminator 3.

Rise of the Machines is the one I’m not supposed to like, but am actually quite fond of. Arnold more or less slept-walk through the role, but given the character, it was often hard to tell. I wasn’t a huge fan of the female Terminator, but the action scenes were terrific fun and the interplay between Claire Danes and Nick Stahl, including a fantastic ending, endeared me to it. It was a little too much like what had preceded it, but it got the job done. And now we have McG’s version in Terminator: Salvation, chronicling that long impending future-war.

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Turns out that not only does the film evade suckitude, it’s also a solid bit of summer sci-fi goodness that really captures that post-apocalyptic energy of many a forgotten 80s film. In the Terminator cannon, it can’t compete with Cameron’s work but is well above Mostow’s entry. I was entertained from beginning to end, and for the first forty minutes I was completely enthralled. Visually, the movie looks great. A gritty grimy filter covers everything, but instead of murky night scenery or dreary camera work , there is a hard-edged clarity to both the expansive desert and the movie’s extraordinary special effects. Without a doubt, the machines and terminators in the series have never looked this good. The sky is filled with menacing Hunter-Killers who patrol looking for human captives, giant Harvester robots crash and crunch across the California desert and creepy robo-cycles careen down the abandoned highways. In only a scant few years(the movie is set in 2018 and SkyNet went operational in 2003) the machines have appropriated the world their human creators once owned. And yet, with all of their resources and cold calculating logic they have failed to destroy the human beings. Enter John Connor and the resistance.

Christian Bale may be the epitome of professionalism, but he brings absolutely nothing else to this role at all. There isn’t a hint of shading or variation to John. He literally growls his way through the movie like he just wants it to be over. Granted, since he is playing the hardened leader of a resistance who has been hunted by robots since he was 12 and is now facing the possibility that the humans might actually win, maybe that actually qualifies it as a great performance.

 Bryce Dallas Howard, as his wife, manages to suggest that she is the same person that Claire Danes played in the third film, but the movie gives her so little to do that it makes Story the Narf look like a complex role. It doesn’t matter though, because John Connor is not the focal point of this movie. He isn’t even the prophesied full-fledged leader yet–that would be Michael Ironside,  playing General Ironside, I think.

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No, the spotlight this time out goes to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convict from 2003, sentenced to death by lethal injection, who sells his body to Helena Bonham Carter (representing Cyberdine) for a kiss. She’s dying of cancer and he tells her “So that’s what death tastes like”. Classy.

After that, he wakes up in the wasteland of 2018, wandering across the burned out cinder of Earth and runs into a spunky young resistance fighter and a mute child. The young man is  Kyle Reese and when he hears the voice of John Connor coming across a busted radio he knows he must meet the man. Anton Yechtin gives the best performance in the movie, channeling the essence of Reese from the original film but giving him nuances that clearly didn’t exist in the script itself. Yechtin, who has been nothing less than great in everything I have seem him in from Hearts in Atlantis on up, is definitely an actor to keep an eye on. If his Kyle Reese had been the focus of the story, Salvation might have been something more than just a couple hours of summer fun.

Worthington, as Wright, is just fine but his role is clearly designed to sort of echo Arnold. He’s a tough but compassionate warrior, fighting against his nature to be something more than what he is. He doesn’t understand this new world, or the fact that while his heart beats human, the stuff under his flesh and blood is all metal panels and circuitry. If Arnold had played this role, it would have had more impact, and made more sense. Marcus is the latest and greatest from Sky Net but when Connor comes up against the newest model later in the movie, it bears not the visage of Sam, but Arnold–looking buff and imposing despite the fact he’s pretty much just flawless CGI. So, at some level, it feels like the script was written with someone like Schwarzenegger in mind for Wright. When Worthington fails to mine it for subtlety or variation, thats probably more a fault of the writing than his acting.

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The script is the weakest aspect of Salvation, and really brings the picture down. There is a revelation late in the game involving Sky Net and their knowledge that Kyle Reese is Connor’s father. Instead of killing him, they hold him hostage for Connor and the Resistance. Maybe I was just operating in a post-lunch haze, but I couldn’t figure why they didn’t just cap him right there unless the Machines are covering their bases and decide that killing Connor and his father would be  like an insurance policy. More importantly, it fails to truly humanize any character in the movie with writing alone. Some of the actors manage to find sparks of individuality on their own, but none of it exists in the writing which feels like a cold exercise in franchise building.

Which is why the credit for this film rests primarily on the shoulders of one individual: McG. Terminator: Salvation would be a wet-rag of a movie if he wasn’t at the helm. He pulls all the pieces together and delivers some really exciting action scenes while building the world after Judgement Day with a realistic and not overly cluttered sense of the desolate. I enjoyed a scene where Bale uses an old boombox and the Guns N’ Roses T2 anthem “You Could Be Mine” to bring down one of the machines.

The movie is fast-paced and exciting even when it isn’t giving us any in-depth human drama. In this way, McG is borrowing an important page from the Cameron playbook. Emotional responses aren’t elicited solely from character depth or dramatic interaction, but can be sparked too by well-structured action that is both clear and dynamic. There is no shaky cam in this film and the battles between the humans and robots don’t have that feel of being heavily edited so we never see the blows and the movie gets a PG-13. There is a strong sense of the craftsman at work in this pic, and yea, maybe it doesn’t get to the heart of the Terminator franchise but that isn’t because McG hasn’t given the film his all. His Terminator film is perhaps the most spare of the three, and the one with the darkest tone but in its own way, and despite its flaws, it adds to the series without detracting. So in the end, McG came through just fine.

Mark my words. He’ll be back.

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4 Responses to “Movie review:Terminator–Rise of the McG”

  1. DGDB May 26, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    There is no such revelation that the machines are aware that Kyle is John’s Father.

    Cool of you to give props where its deserved…..McG!!

  2. Bartleby May 26, 2009 at 10:38 pm #

    Actually, *spoiler* there is. When Skynet tells Marcus it used him as bait, it shows him a feed from his brain showing Connor telling Marcus “and you killed my father, Kyle Reese”. They would have had the entire feed, so they would have heard this piece of information. I suppose it is possible they misunderstood this, but I still say it’s a plot hole.

    Unless, of course, this is the point where Skynet figures out the time/space relationship of kyle to Connor. As a result, why would they send the terminator back to kill Sarah Connor, if they knew that’s what would lead to John’s birth. Maybe, if there are future installments this will be explained.

    All in all, though, it’s a fun little summer picture and as far as I’m concerned, a success. Now lets see if Bay can throw down a comparable giant robot flick.

  3. altmar June 20, 2009 at 3:54 am #

    Nice review….
    I think more will be revealed as this is the start of a new trilogy.
    Nice popcorn movie, still liked the second one better though!

  4. fandangogroovers June 26, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    Great to find someone who agrees with me that the first film is the best. Everyone I know tells me the second one is better. My only real criticism of Salvation is a lack of a decent female character. The first two films and therefore the franchise was built on Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Kate was hardly used. Moon Bloodgood’s Blair Williams could have been that strong character but she wasn’t given enough screen time. That is something to work on for the next film.

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