Terminator Salvation is my first McG movie. I didn’t see Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and I didn’t see We Are Marshall. But I did see the trailers for those movies. And like everyone else I cringed when I heard that the guy responsible for those trailers was the one chosen to be in charge of the fourth film in the beloved Terminator franchise. The fact that he has the gall to go by the name of McG didn’t speak to well to his character, either.
And then that first teaser trailer came out and I pretty much felt as if I had been proven right. But then, when the second trailer–the full trailer–came out, I started to draft my apology letter to that little man named McG in the honest-to-god hope that I’d be able to bust it out when we found ourselves warmly greeted by an amazing movie.
Today, Terminator Salvation opens in movie theaters all across this fine country. Its existence is now fact. Is it everything we hoped it would be? (What is?) Does it merit a McG apology letter? Sadly no. Is it good at all? …You know what?? Yeah! Yeah, it is!
What’s interesting about this movie is that McG shows himself off to be something of a (latter-day) George Lucas type of filmmaker. And in that statement of mine that I so boldly made just now, you can go ahead and include all the good traits and all the bad traits of Lucas’s prequel trilogy. Translate them over to the Terminator franchise, and you’d have a pretty good idea what to expect here. It’s got a lot of problems, folks. But it’s also got a good head on its shoulders, and the fundamentals of its story add up to a very solid piece of mainstream science fiction.
Before I get to my plot synopsis I’d just like to make a brief mention of the fact that this movie has not one, but two title shots in its opening credits. Now, having two title shots isn’t really that unusual. Offhand, I can think of both Children of Men and There Will Be Blood, which both had two title shots apiece. But both of those pairs of titles bookended each film–one at the beginning and the other at the end. It worked. Terminator Salvation‘s two title shots come one at the beginning and the other…at the beginning. Maybe I’m being nitpicky, but I feel it indicitive of McG’s obvious sense of self-satisfaction with this immensely flawed film. It bugged me. You have not earned your two opening title shots, sir. The DGA should kick you out for that. If you’re even a member…
Anyway. The film opens in the year 2003. Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) sits in a jail cell awaiting his death sentence. He has a final visit from a dying cancer patient (Helena Bonham Carter) who convinces him to donate his body to scientific research after his execution. He reluctantly signs away and goes to die.
Cut to several years later. Some helpful on-screen titles get us up to speed on the history of Skynet, Terminators, and the war between man and machine. And we are then introduced to the prophet known as John Connor (Christian Bale), the “leader of the Resistance” against the machines, the one who will surely save humanity. He and his people seem to have discovered a way to air a certain radio frequency that will render all the machines within a certain radius deactivated. They rejoice.
Many, many miles out, in the obliterated wasteland that once was Los Angeles, good ol’ Marcus Wright (the guy who was executed oh so many years ago) finds himself wandering alone with no idea of where he is, what’s going on, or what year it even is. He does, however, know that he wants some damn answers. Which I get. He’s able to get those answers when he is saved from a Terminator by none other than tough teenager Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin–Chekov in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek).
For the uninitiated, Reese was a character seen in the original film as an adult, having been sent back in time by John Connor to protect his mother from being killed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reese became romantically entangled with Ms. Sarah Connor, which led to the birth of John Connor. So, in layman’s terms, teenaged Kyle Reese is actually the father of adult John Connor. (It’s a bit of a paradox, but that’s why we love it.) So, you can imagine that Connor is quite concerned with keeping Reese alive after he gets captured by the machines. Because if Reese dies at their hands, Connor can never send him back in time to mate with his mother and ensure both his existence and the salvation of mankind in the war against the machines!! Get it? Good. Saving Reese (and…y’know…all the other human prisoners, too…) soon becomes the top priority of Connor’s small faction of the Resistance.
And what of this Wright guy? If he was executed several years ago, what’s he doing here? Well, if you’ve seen a trailer for this movie, then you probably know the answer to that question. If you’re good at drawing logical conclusions you’ll probably figure it out pretty soon, as well. If you’re stupid, then you are in for an awesome surprise!!
Now I’m not about to deny that there are several logic flaws in this movie. Like, why don’t the machines just kill Reese immediately? That would certainly take care of their John Connor problem that they’ve been trying to take care of for four movies now. But for one thing, this is the kind of big, loud, wild ride of an action movie that you just kind of have to accept, logic whoopsies and all. Also, though, I think it’s worthy of mentioning that these movies have been rife with logic flaws from the beginning.
First of all, I know we like to regard the whole Kyle-Reese-is-John-Connor’s father thing as more of a “cool paradox” than a logic flaw, but seriously–it makes no sense. But we accept it because it’s cool and I’m okay with that. And here’s another one: why, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, wasn’t anyone concerned about the fact that attempting to stop Judgment Day (the day when the machines became self-aware) from happening would surely blink John Connor out of existence? If there’s no war, then he’ll never meet Kyle Reese and never be able to send him back in time to mate and produce himself. When that last chip was destroyed at the very end of T2, John and Sarah Connor should have looked at each other and upon noticing that John was still in existence, hung their heads in the shame of their failure that was only confirmed by Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. (And speaking of T3, we have Bryce Dallas Howard in this movie, stepping into the role vacated by Claire Danes. I think the character is just here for continuity’s sake, because she has absolutely nothing to do at any point.)
So, you see? These are all imperfect movies with faulty logic, and Salvation is merely keeping up that tradition in the same fun and exciting way that we’ve come to know and love. And frankly, it really does have a few pretty clever cards to play in its plotting: the crux of the story–the mission to save Kyle Reese and thus John Connor–is a rather creative twist on the classic “let’s stop the machines from killing John Connor” Terminator formula. It’s a very inventive way to work within the same perameters established from the very beginning without simply imitating them. (Lookin’ at you, T3.)
However, on the subject of John Connor, it should be noted that he is surprisingly underexposed. He’s sold to us as the lead character of the film, but he ends up feeling more like a side character. The real star of the show is Marcus Wright. His emotionally journey (while massively derailed by trite buffoonery towards the end) is what lies at the core of the movie. Connor is kind of an afterthought and we have to just accept the fact the he’s extremely important to the Resistance without really having anything about that to go on. Anyone who hasn’t seen any of the previous movies would probably not only have a hard time making sense out of many of the character relationships and such (particularly the whole Reese-Connor thing), but they would also wonder what’s so damn special about this Connor guy anyway. The movie doesn’t really demonstrate his importance to the resistance so much as just talk about it and assume that we trust them. It’s actually kind of interesting, because it does leave open the door for the audience to doubt his greatness, just as some characters in the film do. I don’t know if that was quite McG’s intention (because if Connor wasn’t so damn important, then why would the machines have spent four whole movies trying to kill him?), but I’m kind of into it anyway.
You see, McG actually does get the character of John Connor down really well. He isn’t afraid to show him as kind of an arrogant prick. Given his upbringing (with his mother raising him since birth on the notion that he was going to be the one that would save the world), it’s pretty understandable that he would have such a huge damn air of self-importance. You know that scene in the trailer where he’s shouting into a walkie talkie “If we stay the course, we are dead!! We are ALL DEAD!!” Well, in the context of the situation, he’s basically saying “I’m so awesome and if you let me die, you are sooooo fucked.” Pretty high and mighty, but I dug it.
He had a similar attitude of arrogant brattiness in T2 as well–sympathetic and human, but still kind of a douche. The John Connor in T3, however, was way too much of a nice guy. I guess they needed him to be more sympathetic if they had a prayer of furthering that romantic subplot. It’s always important to ground the movie on someone we can get behind. In this movie, though, John Connor is not that character, and I have no problem with that.
But, I mentioned earlier that McG has a total George Lucas thing going on in this movie, so let me address that. First of all, just like Lucas the director, he starts out with the benefit of working with a very solid, entertaining, and just plain interesting story. So that part kind of does itself. And he’s also got technical prowess flying out his ass; the movie looks great and the robots–er, “machines,” sorry (it’s so much cooler when you call them machines, anyway)–are about a million times cooler and creepier than any damn Transformer that I’ve ever seen. I could just stare at this movie all day. The photography is so bleak and cool, and the effects really deliver.
Diverging from my Lucas argument, for a second, let me just say that I really liked the action scenes, too. They had a kind of off-the-cuff absurdity to them that kept it all very lively and fun. It’s as if any moment that one of the writers said “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?!” they put it in, despite any common sense. It’s fun to watch an action movie that’s clearly being made by people who watch too many action movies and yet feel no need to adhere to Michael Bay’s Action Sequence Handbook. Some may roll their eyes at some of this stuff, but I found it to be a blast.
But back to Lucas. With the good, comes the bad. And boy can it be really bad. The dialogue, in classic George Lucas fashion, is often quite cringe-worthy. A moment of tenderness in the cold desert night between Wright and a female Resistance member played by Moon Bloodgood is rendered laughably terrible by maddening cliche and awkward dialogue.
McG also has the same taste for over-the-top theatricality that Lucas loves so much and utilizes to the fullest extent in his quest to make a balls-out “space opera.” When Wright first emerges from the mud and yuck and filth into a world of which he knows nothing, he lets the pouring rain wash over him, as he stretches his arms out Shawshank-style and screams a cry of fury…yeah. Yeah, that really happens.
I’d really like to avoid the obvious pun here, but when McG’s thematic intentions are so obviously to make a statement about the values of real humanity, it does nothing but hurt everything he’s trying to say when his human characters are even more robotic than the machines they’re fighting. The guy definitely has some areas of talent, but directing actors into giving believable, nuanced performances isn’t one of them. Christian Bale has proven himself time and again to be an absolutely terrific actor, but there’s something a little off about him here–and everyone else, too. Like with George Lucas, who always finds a way to get a bad performance from a great actor, McG lets his outlandish misconception of cinematic spectacle get in the way of creating characters that could somehow be considered human.
Well, it seems I’ve gone on for a really long time about this movie, but I guess I just found myself with a lot to say about it. This was one of the movies I was most looking forward to this summer and now I have seen it. And while it’s surprisingly not as stand-alone and newbie-accessible as I would have expected (especially for a franchise that just traded in its R-ratings for a PG-13–a blatant attempt to grab a newer, younger, (sexier?) audience, it really does make for a strong chapter in the continuing Terminator saga. It’s by no means incredible, but it’s good. Certainly not as good as Terminator 2, but were any of us really expecting that, anyway? Apparently Quaid was. Check back tomorrow for his review, in which he rips this movie apart for not being on par with T2. If Terminator Salvation is on par with anything, then it’s Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. A solid three-star sci-fi story with a decent amount of execution problems, but a good story arc that more than satisfies.