Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Terminator Salvation

I freely admit to being an easy-to-please slut when it comes to action sci-fi. I tend to take what the genre offers with nary a word of protest - it doesn't even need to buy me a drink first - and while you'll never hear me say, "├ćon Flux?! Sounds great!!", I am willing to forgive a brainless flick like Terminator Salvation on account of it being an orgy of bullets and robots and explosions. Despite acknowledging where a lot of the negative reviews are coming from I found plenty to enjoy amidst the plot holes and flat characters.

First, I do have to clarify that in my heart, the real, complete, and only Terminator story is James Cameron's, i.e. The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Both are ingenious science fiction masterpieces, among the best movies of the last quarter-century with two of the greatest villains of all time, and they tell a complete story where everyone has a full and rich character arc and it comes to a satisfying ending. Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation are an alternate universe what-if (and let's not even get into Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which is literally an alternate universe what-if even within the show).

And as Terminator 3 cleanly excised the "no fate but what we make for ourselves" theme as if it had never existed, Salvation has nowhere to go except balls-out brainless sci-fi war movie, humans and robots killing each other for two hours. It makes halfhearted Blade Runner-esque hints towards exploring the nature of humanity versus that of machinery, but make no mistake, this is glossy and brainless summer fare, not a movie of ideas even by the pop-philosophy standards of the first two films.

So, begs the filmmaker, don't bother asking yourself those nagging little plot hole questions like, "why is Skynet's base not a hundred times more well-guarded?" I mean, I've never been a robot superconsciousness ruling over the remains of the human race in a desolate nuclear wasteland, but if I were, I would position goddamn thousands of T-600 sentries all over my base. Under no circumstances would I arrange my security so that a human can reach my core after sneaking by literally one guard.

It's also, unlike Terminator 2, not a movie of rich characters who develop throughout the film. John Connor in particular is a frightfully flat character given the faintest smattering of gruff military personality and basically nothing to do except growl, shout, and shoot robots through the film's entirety. A lot of critics attacked Christian Bale, which I believe is called classic internet backlash, but I honestly don't know what anyone expected him to do with his part as written in the script. He might as well have been a walking mannequin with "GOOD GUY" written on his face.

So what, pray tell, did I like? Well, I offer exhibit A:

Pretty. Look how nice this movie looks. Ridiculous name aside, McG seems to know his shit behind the camera, and the whole movie pleases the eye from the lighting to the robots (in skeletal form I honestly couldn't discern when they were animatronics and when they were CGI) to the general design of post-apocalyptic earth. Apparently the silver was enhanced by 300% in every frame and I really like the exotic, monochromatic sheen it gives the film. The first view of Skynet's base very nearly made me let out one of those descending whistles of "damn!" that only assholes let out.

And this movie has plenty of cool action: one-on-one fights, car chases, motorcycles, flamethrowers, hoverships, mine fields, crashing helicopters, small explosions, medium explosions, nuclear explosions, and perhaps most importantly, no shakeycam! This pleases the retard that dwells within me (or is me, you decide). It wasn't nearly as funny as Star Trek and it lacked that film's round characters and dramatic tension, but from a pure action standpoint I found Terminator Salvation nearly as enjoyable.

Speaking of Star Trek, while I found Anton Yelchin's Chekov in that film fairly unremarkable, I really liked his Kyle Reese in Terminator. I almost believed him as a young Michael Biehn. But it's unquestionably Sam Worthington who dominates as new character Marcus Wright. Yeah, his accent slips a little bit here and there, but he has great screen presence and an actual character arc (despite being second billed I really consider him more the protagonist than John Connor), making him certainly the most engaging character in this film.

Neither Bryce Dallas Howard's Kate Brewster or Moon Bloodgood's, uh, Blair Williams (I love how the actress's name sounds much more fictional than the character she plays) have much to do but they're both pretty. Moon Bloodgood's topless scene was famously cut to obtain a PG-13, which like the forced PG-13 on Live Free or Die Hard is admittedly sort of lame. I'm not saying it would have enhanced the movie artistically, but as long as a movie is already brainless action, extra gore, extra f-words, and extra tits really only help.

In the end the movie's biggest problem isn't its lack of heady themes or its lack of breasts, but its lack of a central villain. The entire plot of the first two movies, especially The Terminator, literally is the villain; the T-800 hunting down Sarah Connor. And the T-1000 in Terminator 2 is miraculously even cooler than Arnold. Terminator Salvation only has a faceless army of evil robots without any single true badass for you to love to hate, which is so important in an action movie. I think that I and a lot of critics would have been a lot more willing to forgive the film's intellectual shortcomings if it featured a killer antagonist.

But despite playing the negative nancy, like I said I enjoyed the movie overall. You won't have to fire a single brain cell and it's not a pockmark on the ass of The Terminator or Terminator 2, but as far as cheesy, dumb, enjoyable action goes, it got my adrenaline pumping and I had at least something resembling a grin on my face when the end credits rolled. I'll put it this way: it's better than Terminator 3. Take that as you will.

3 Stars out of 5

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