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Movie Review: Terminator Salvation
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Week of Geek: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation
Directed by McG
Starring Christian Bale, Anton Yelchin, Sam Worthington, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood, Common
Rated PG-13
Release date: May 21, 2009

The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

Being a big fan of the Terminator film series ever since I was in elementary school I always took those words to heart. Time is always in a state of flux and the most minor action could set forth a series of events that could impact future events greatly or simply peter out. The message was that we are all in complete control of our individual destinies and the possibilities are endless. The Terminator movies were not the kind most parents would usually allow their children to watch but my mom did not really care. Her and I, we had a trust. The concepts of time travel and how the slightest mistake in the past can have large scale consequences in the future have been explored in popular fiction for more than a century by authors such as H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury. The Terminator movies took these concepts and melded them with moral and philosophical ideals and hard-driving action under an umbrella of eternal darkness and storms of fire and rain. They made a movie star out of a Hitler-admiring bodybuilder from Austria, gave a prolific directing career to a former truck driver and Roger Corman protégé from Canada, and raised the bar for cinematic science fiction. Even the unnecessary third entry, Rise of the Machines, had its moments.

Seen in brief flash forwards throughout the first three films was the conflict that set the story in motion — Judgment Day and the war against the Machines. With eyes forced open we saw the grungy remnants of humanity valiantly taking the battle to Skynet and its mechanized band of hooligans with steel guts and plenty of high-powered weaponry as the sky burned cold with nuclear nightmares. Cameron (and for that matter Rise director Jonathan Mostow) never had quite enough money in the budget to show us the war in all its brutal glory and what they could show had to take place at night, mostly because in the pre-CGI days dark lighting helped to conceal the edges of the exemplary model and miniature work. Now with computerized digital effects able to bring the monstrous metal titans of Cameron’s stress-induced fever dreams to life in ways never seen before, we have a movie devoted solely to giving us a front row seat for the war to end all wars, and it has all been overseen by the man who brought the 1970’s jiggle-vision classic Charlie’s Angels to the screen not once but twice.

Ladies and gentlemen, both human and cyborg, I give you Terminator: Salvation.

In our last exciting episode of The Terminator, life as we knew it was thirty-one flavors of screwed. That dastardly sentient supercomputer Skynet stuck its grubby mitts into the military mainframe and downloaded the nuclear launch codes. Naturally the humans were a little peeved about this so Skynet made the rockets red glare over Red Square, and needless to say shit was on. Meanwhile John Connor, the lazy and quite bitchy delinquent gone transient who is fated to take the ultimate stand against those meanie machines, has tucked his tail between his legs and buried himself inside a mountain with his cutie pie sweetheart Kate just as Skynet goes all Greg Stillson on us. I guess there was a Soloflex and an organic grocery store inside that mountain because when John reemerges some time later he has gone from 98-lb. weakling Nick Stahl to a growling Method acting he-man from England who has played a Yank so many times he tends to misplace his English accent. Plus the in-mountain plastic surgeon has transformed pouty-lipped Claire Danes to the deer-caught-in-the-headlights daughter of Opie, who I am told is also a great actress even though I have only ever seen in her in complete crap. Is it too late to meet Claire’s asking price? Oh bloody hell.

The year is now 2018 and the war is in full swing. John Connor (Christian Bale) has not ascended to his super-prophesied role of resistance leader just yet. He’s a platoon leader under the command of scarred hard-ass General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), who runs the resistance’s many military operations from the confines of a submarine, while his wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), formerly a veterinarian serves as a doctor on the frontlines. In between bouts of kicking Terminator ass Connor broadcasts inspiring fireside chats to his fellow tired warriors around the world, keeping hope alive where it would typically die. Meanwhile after a botched raid on a Skynet facility that leaves Connor the sole survivor, a man emerges from the depths of the deserted laboratory screaming to the heavens, naked as the day he was born, and covered in mud like he is going trick or treating dressed like a Uruk-Hai. Taking the clothes of one of Connor’s fallen troopers, the mystery man named Marcus (Sam Worthington) makes his way across the scorched earth where civilization once prospered. His last memory was being executed in 2003 via lethal injection for the murder of his brother and two cops but not before signing his body over to cancerous scientist Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter).

In his travels he encounters fellow stragglers Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and Star (Jadagrace), a mute little girl Kyle plays guardian to. After stopping at a burned-out 7-11 for food and supplies they encounter a giant steam-driven robot called a Harvester that is imprisoning humans and taking them back to Skynet. Kyle and Star are captured and Marcus manages to escape an attack from Moto-Terminators (Terminators in motorcycle form). He rescues downed resistance fighter pilot Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) and in return she offers to take Marcus to John Connor in hope of getting some of the answers he seeks. The resistance is preparing to mount an assault in the heart of Skynet’s operations using a new weapon Ashdown believes can help them change the course of the war. Connor offers to lead the assault with the weapon but his entire preconceptions about the machines are soon forever altered when Marcus is revealed to be a Terminator after triggering a magnetic landmine at Connor’s outpost, only Marcus never knew it. Once discovering that Connor has been searching for Kyle Reese, Marcus offers to help him infiltrate Skynet and rescue Reese before the machines find out who Reese is and what he is fated to do, and from there on we can kiss the survival of the human race goodbye.

Terminator Salvation, which sounds like the title for a comic book miniseries set within the Terminator universe rather than a legitimate sequel, never quite lives up to all or even most of its expectations. There seemed to be a lot of bad juju hanging over this movie since the project was announced several years ago. After Rise of the Machines was greeted with lukewarm box office and widespread indifference the future of the Terminator series may not have been set but it did not look good either. Schwarzenegger was elected as Governor of California soon after Rise was released so he was not going to have the time for reprising his signature role as the monosyllabic cyborg assassin. Besides the first three films essentially all had the same plot. There was nowhere else to go but back to where it all began….the future! It was high time we loyal fans got the epic scorched earth war between man and machines film that had been in the offering ever since James Cameron first put pencil to paper in the early 1980’s but could not be credibly realized until now.

It is in the story area, written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (with un-credited assists from Jonathan Nolan, Paul Haggis, Shawn Ryan, and Anthony B. Zuiker), that Terminator: Salvation suffers the most. Sad, especially given that the writing in the first two films by James Cameron (joined by William Wisher on T2) provided the strong foundation without which the movies would have fallen apart. There has been a lot of pre-release speculation as to how great John Connor’s role originally was in in the script since the character does not seem to have an arc at all. One of the great disappointments of the movie for me was seeing Christian Bale, one of my favorite actors working today, give a performance that positively reeks of doing it all for the payday. Bale is probably one of the most intense and dedicated performers of my generation, a marvelous actor who can take an iconic character like Batman and make it his own with the greatest of ease, and can bounce between artistically-crafted summer blockbusters and riveting independent films without giving any less of a performance in either. Bale takes every role he gets seriously, but as John Connor he barely makes an impression. Nick Stahl may have not been that good in the role either but he at least injected a little personality into his acting and thus was able to elicit our sympathy as an ordinary man who felt burdened by the great responsibility he was charged with. Not Christian Bale. His Connor is a pale imitation of his Batman but blanded down into a dour cipher who exists merely as an action figure, no more a robot than the Terminators but at least they have more character. What a letdown. I wonder what happened to that big emotional moment Bale had with leading lady Bryce Dallas Howard that got ruined by director of photography Shane Hurlbut and prompted Bale’s infamous “What don’t you fucking understand?!” rant that made some waves earlier in the year because there are no such big moments to be found here.

Then again the acting in general is not exactly one of this movie’s strengths, and it’s a shame because director McG managed to assembled a pretty decent ensemble cast. The aforementioned Bryce Dallas Howard does what little she can with her underwritten part. Something tells me that a lot of the cast’s best moments were left on the cutting room as to not disrupt the movie’s many action beats. Anton Yelchin is here too, and after this and the recent Star Trek flick (where he played Chekov) he is determined to be in every major sci-fi blockbuster until he fulfills his dream of headlining the inevitable Space:1999 motion picture. On the acting front that fares the best with his prepubescent looks toughened up slightly and the innate skills as a soldier that will serve him well down the line beginning to surface. It is too bad his character vanishes for most of the movie’s second half after a bang-up introduction in the first. Moon Bloodgood was hired most likely to amp up the sex quotient because she sure as hell is not here to add to the acting quotient, although she certainly gives it the old college try. Michael Ironside is also part of the cast and that right there is a surefire sign that there will be an awful lot of teeth-grinding and bulging forehead veins. My man Mike never disappoints but at times he comes off like a power-mad pompous ass. The character he reminded of the most was the eternally unsmiling Commander Lock, played by Harry J. Lennix in the Matrix sequels.

Hip hop artist and budding musician Common (his album Electric Circus is one of the best I have heard in years) has a few minor scenes as Connor’s right hand man Barnes but he really is not given much to do other than look tough. At least he can pull that off like a champ. Four-time Oscar nominee Jane Alexander plays a character named Virginia but she might as well have been called Old Woman because that is about as well as her character is developed in Salvation. Helena Bonham Carter is another acclaimed actress who has been better in almost every other movie she has done than she is here. You can almost see the dollar signs in her eyes when she was shooting her two brief perfunctory scenes. The big question we all must ask ourselves is, who in the hell is Sam Worthington? The dude practically comes out of nowhere (psst….he’s from Australia) and scams his way into a second-billed role, but he has been doing a lot of that lately. You can see Worthington later this year posing his way (or maybe even acting I hope) in James Cameron’s Avatar. Me thinks the Hollywood of the 21st century has found its Matthew McConaughey, or its Colin Farrell. Either way Worthington does not have a damn prayer. His performance in Salvation at times resembles a department store mannequin given a pulse. Skynet should have just made Marcus into a full Terminator because Worthington’s performance was pretty robotic to begin with. The guy plays it straight without an ounce of dimension and this does not do his character any justice since we are supposed to care for Marcus and his quest for answers.

Terminator: Salvation does a hell of a lot better on the technical front fortunately. McG’s direction is a huge step up from the Matrix-lite bubblegum action of the Charlie’s Angels flicks he started out with. From the looks of it, the filmmaker has learned how to hold his shots for longer than two seconds and embrace the widescreen action with his direction of the action sequences — from an exhilarating chase between a truck and two Moto-Terminators to some intense on-the-ground futuristic combat action including a harrowing helicopter crash (shot from inside the helicopter!) that brings to mind Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Hurlbut’s cinematography is first rate giving the movie the proper look of a charred and sandblasted distant memory that appears to have be recently clean with gun oil. Danny Elfman contributes a workman-like score that sounds like he, much like Bale, was merely going through the motions. Film editor Conrad Buff, a collaborator of Cameron’s from The Abyss through Titanic, keeps the scenes moving at an exciting clip but possibly cut too much character moments out as a result of keeping the running time to a rarely dull two hours. Production designer Martin Laing succeeds in making the world of Salvation a foreboding yet plausible one with visual nods to films such as The Road Warrior and Three Kings. The shots of Skynet Central towards the end immediately brought to mind the classic opening shots of a starkly beautiful futuristic Los Angeles cityscape from Blade Runner. The digital effects work by Industrial Light and Magic is better than usual but the real stars on the effects team are the people in mechanical effects who conjured some of the scariest-looking Terminators seen in recent memory. The T-800s look better than ever (even the Govenator makes a CG-assisted cameo during the finale with his digitally de-aged mug plastered onto the body of his fellow Austria weightlifter Roland Kickinger), but it is the T-600s that make the greatest visual impact, ghastly walking parodies of humanity that resemble wire and copper-tubing versions of the walking dead from E.C. Comics of the 1950’s.

The one thing about this movie I would have gladly done without are the multiple callbacks to Terminator flicks of the past. An in-joke or two here and there would have done the job, such as the surprise use of the Guns N’ Roses song “You Could Be Mine” from the T2 soundtrack which got me partying like it was 1991 for a few seconds, but McG and the writers overdo it. “I’ll be back”? “Come with me if you want to live”? It is all way too much especially since it is the only real source of humor in the movie. Now that I think of it, did we really need yet another scene where a bunch of evil armed survivalists show up and must have their sorry asses kicked?

I can only recommend Terminator: Salvation as a fun piece of popcorn entertainment, a summer slam-bang that occasionally shows greater ambitions than most Hollywood celluloid cash machines. I was expecting McG and his immensely talented cast and crew to deliver on all fronts, but with the exception of some stellar technical work and well-executed action sequences the movie is mostly a wash. This time they got to second base, so maybe next time they will knock it out of the park. Until then I’ll be looking forward to The Road later this year.

BAADASSSSS….will be back.

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