Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Terminator Salvation - False Prophet

Salvation seems appropriate given that some fans of the Terminator franchise have been anticipating this particular kind of Terminator movie as if it were the second coming. Terminator Salvation, the action packed fourth installment to the franchise, is a bit of a false prophet in that regard. The film recovers some of the ground that many feel the franchise surrendered with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but even with a perfectly awesome John Connor and lots of big summer action, fans will find it hard to escape the feeling that the film fell well short of its potential.

Directed by McG, Terminator Salvation takes place in the post apocalyptic world that we’ve seen in flashbacks throughout the previous films over the course of the last quarter century. John Connor (Christian Bale) is the prophesied leader of the human resistance against Skynet. On the brink of a major breakthrough in the war against the machines, Connor must decide whether or not to trust his instincts when he encounters one of Skynet’s latest creations, a part machine, part living human entity. The hybrid character remembers a human life and goes by his human name, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington).

Salvation takes a duel protagonist approach with Connor and Wright, surprisingly giving both characters fairly equal screen time throughout the movie. Christian Bale has a serious approach to his role, and he truly makes you believe that most of John Connor’s life has been dedicated to the fight against the machines. His routine consists of sending radio addresses to the fragments of humankind around the world and obsessing over his mother’s recordings, searching for any bit of intelligence that will give him an edge in his fight. John Connor has spent the majority of his time in the franchise running for his life, but Bale presents us with a Connor that’s ready to stand and fight, and more than qualified to do so.

Skynet’s design of Marcus Wright is very complex, but you don’t leave the movie thinking he’s a complex character. There’s a simplicity to him that I enjoyed. Similar to Connor, he’s a bleak individual, a man of few smiles. He’s in search of redemption for actions undertaken in the life he remembers, but for him redemption doesn’t seem attainable for much of the film. He carries his emotional pain while distributing physical pain to any man or machine that gets in his way. It’s easy to watch Marcus Wright in action. He’s bad ass to the point where you kind of want to see more of his story in the pre-apocalyptic world.

What I appreciated most about John Connor and Marcus Wright was that their attitudes fit what I envisioned to be the world of Terminator Salvation. Unfortunately, the nuclear devastated world as presented by McG, was hardly what I was hoping for in this installment. There just isn’t really a sense of dread surrounding Skynet and their operations. The conflict between man and machine appears be a fair fight, a far cry from the hopeless world we saw in flashbacks where dozens of terminator infantry were annihilating humans with the support of heavy armor and aircraft. In post-apocalyptic Los Angeles Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) fights a single bungling terminator with the use of silly pulley system traps. For over twenty years our imaginations ran wild about what an impossible obstacle Skynet must be. In Salvation we get to see one of the Skynet bases and it’s defended lightly enough that a helicopter can swoop in and land right in the middle. Most of the characters look clean, trimmed, and in some cases salon styled. If you’re a fan of the previous films and love the gritty world they painted of the future, the world of Salvation was a flat out disappointment. All in all, if you don’t dread the terminators and fear the outcome of them catching up to the main characters, a Terminator movie can’t succeed. The film made the worst possible mistake they could have by having terminators that absolutely suck at terminating.

It would be hard not to blame this failure largely on the PG-13 rating, something that made all fans cringe when first discovered. The violence the terminators inflict is hardly intimate, because the rating prohibits it to be. Most of the time we see a huge explosion and surmise that several humans must have just met their end. Terminators in the previous films were a force to be reckoned with, primarily because they could get up close and personal and do things like gun down a police station, punch out somebody’s heart, or spear somebody through the mouth. That is not mindless violence. It reinforces the idea of a purely lethal force that only exists to find our protagonist and extinguish his/her life. Considering that John Connor and Kyle Reese are such high priority targets for Skynet and given the lethality of the terminators in previous films, it’s just frustrating to see terminators get their hands on the characters over and over again and fail to kill them.

After seeing Salvation I couldn’t help but think back the original Terminator and admire everything they accomplished. Michael Biehn was simply amazing as Kyle Reese. From the moment he comes scurrying into pre-apocalypse LA, we see someone who has been entirely consumed by an almost hopeless fight for survival. What fuel he has left in the tank is solely dedicated to finding and protecting Sarah Connor. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was equally excellent as she presented a completely overwhelmed and utterly terrified woman who is suddenly confronted with her grim destiny. Let’s not forget about Arnold, whose terminator is still the standard for what every killing machine should be. “Are you Sarah Connor?” The moment that unfortunate lady said yes, there was absolutely no escape. But had that been Salvation she would have been able to run out the backdoor with the terminator firing inaccurate shots into the ceiling.

Thematically, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris focus on what separates a human from a machine. Marcus Wright provides the perfect vehicle for exploration of this, but the film doesn’t seek to dive in too deeply to the questions it poses. Instead John Connor and Kyle Reese have thematic blurbs that do little more than reinforce the thematic conclusions the audience already had in their heads. Zombie seemed concerned because this is the screenwriting team that gave us Catwoman. Rest assured, Salvation is far from Catwoman, but you won’t be studying the script much. Most of the story’s disappointments will most likely be overlooked because something else will disappoint viewers or audiences will be distracted by a fairly quick pace and blockbuster action.

Salvation does leave things open for future John Connor adventures. There’s no doubt that they’ll stick with the PG-13 rating and cash in on Christian Bale’s fantastic box office run, but fans will cling to hopes that the fifth film will tap into the full potential of the world the first three movies established. Salvation was the skirmish in man’s fight against machines. What we want to see is the all out war.