Movie Review – Terminator: Salvation

terminator-salvation

The first two Terminator films are bona-fide American sci-fi/action/thriller classics.  Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is quite the opposite (in fact, its mere utterance is considered blasphemy in some circles – namely around Crystal).  So where does the new, McG-directed Terminator Salvation stand?  Somewhere in between.

It’s impossible to deny the sheer filmmaking willpower and effort put into McG’s “I swear I’m not a tool with a name like that” Terminator stint.  Production values are top-notch, CG is seamlessly integrated into action shots, acting is exactly what it should be and the cinematography is amongst the best I’ve seen in recent action fare.  Unfortunately, there are aspects of the script that are extraordinarily weak, loopholes and implausibility within the plot that really made me shrug (then cringe), significant lack of character development in favor of massive action set pieces and the worst Danny Elfman film score since Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake.  Add to the mix a rather anticlimactic (and CLEARLY sequel-friendly) conclusion and the film feels superfluous.

I’ll be honest.  The chess pieces at the end of Terminator Salvation are where they should have been at its beginning.  In other words, it was an intense, well-acted, well-shot, explosion-laden 2-hour journey to nowhere.  The script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris is sophomoric at best.  I was (and I think we all were) expecting the full-blown machine war as led by John Connor, but instead we get a resistance led by scarred American and Russian generals who ignore Connor’s conscience and common sense at every turn, always reminding him that he is a subordinate.  The human vs. human conflict here is unnecessary and annoying, essentially consisting of poorly-veiled insults and no existing back-story about WHY they are conflicting.  Sam Worthington’s character of Marcus Wright is introduced in the first scene as a death-row inmate whose execution by lethal injection (after signing his body away to Helena Bonham-Carter’s cancer patient) involves him being strapped to a cross-like table (yes we get it, he’s our own personal Jesus Christ).  He wakes up years later in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of 2018 and miraculously meets a young Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin, Star Trek’s Chekov).  The following journeys ultimately intersect.  Epic words are said.  Many things explode.  By the end of the movie, all the pieces are in place for John Connor to lead the resistance, which is ultimately the film’s greatest weakness: we already know that’s gonna happen.  As a result, there’s a lack of edge-of-your-seat tension throughout the film.  You know Kyle Reese survives the ordeal to go back in time and get it on with John’s mom Sarah.  You know John becomes the leader of the resistance.  Because of these two simple facts, all other characters (even Marcus Wright, who’s clearly supposed to be the lead protagonist) don’t matter jack squat.  There is also a sequence where a puttering helicopter escapes a nuclear blast with less than a scratch, but I digress.  Such an escape is at least excusable in an action flick.

Acting on a whole is pretty decent.  Christian Bale uses his “gritty badass” voice (not unlike his Batman voice) to its grittiest, most badassiest effect as good ole’ John Connor.  He’s dour, intense, hardened and grim while still maintaining a degree of humanity.  Bale is the future Connor I imagined, equal parts brawn, brains and heart.  Sam Worthington carries the film in my opinion as the mysterious badass Marcus Wright (yes, this film has two good-guy badasses).  Worthington could have hammed it up a bit more, but instead decides to play it subtle in expression and body language, which I actually liked.  There aren’t enough strong, silent types in film these days.  It’s nice to get an old-fashioned snark-free action hero once in a while.  The other breakthrough role in Terminator Salvation is Moon Bloodgood’s Blair Williams.  I will self correct myself.  As good-guy badass character number THREE, Bloodgood is that hardened, tough-as-nails-with-a-soft-side-but-could-clearly-kick-your-ass action chick that’s fiery as all hell and rippingly hot to boot.  I thought she did a fantastic job.  Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese is a far cry from Ensign Chekov.  A survivor in LA, Yelchin’s Reese is resourceful and charismatic, and he plays him with just enough sympathy that his character’s inclusion does not seem entirely pointless (because we know what’s going to happen to him).  Reese’s mute companion Star, played by the adorable Jadagrace, just might be my favorite character in the entire film.  I’m a sucker for sidekicks that do funny things, and Star is one of the few bright spots of chuckle-inducing comedy throughout the movie.  Bryce Dallas Howard’s Kate Connor doesn’t really have much to do but play doctor, but BDH does an admirable job bringing sympathy and resolve to the character.  Common’s Barnes is a good best friend type, but gets little development.  Hopefully he’ll get more time to shine as the films progress because I think he did a good job with what he was given.  I was shocked to see Ivan G’Vera (of the Russian Night Watch series) in this film as General Losenko (he gets two lines but it was still sweet to see him breaking into American film).  Weakest performances for me include Michael Ironside’s useless General Ashdown (all he did was scream into a radio) and Helena Bonham-Carter’s Dr. Kogan (who’s just so creepy you can’t feel any sympathy for her).

Special props go to cinematographers Michael Fitzgerald and Shane Hurlbut for some spectacularly staged action sequences (WITHOUT THE OBNOXIOUS SHAKY CAM!).  There were some really unique shots, both close-up and panoramic.  All were motion-sickness-prone audience member friendly and tightly edited.  Special effects were stunning as well.  I particularly liked the Skynet aircraft.

Danny Elfman’s music, on the other hand, was terrible.  The reason it was terrible was because I noticed how bad it was throughout the film.  When a film score is excellent, you should not notice its effect on you but still walk out of the theater whistling the theme songs.  When a film score is bad, you walk out whistling nothing because there was nothing memorable to remember, but you also paid attention to it during the film because it detracted from your film-viewing experience.  Elfman’s really slipping.  Gone are the days of Batman, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas and even Spider-Man.  He’s slipped into mediocrity and for a man of his talents, that’s TRAGIC.

Director McG has allowed a lot to slip past him (to be fair, I don’t think he even knows what was wrong with the film due to ego-filled interviews I’ve seen).  Fortunately, his visual eye, casting of some excellent actors, awareness of pacing and creation of a believable post-apocalyptic world has combined to save the movie from being an outright disaster.  A decent effects-laden summer action tent-pole that could have been excellent with a bit of story revision, Terminator Salvation is a 6/10 in my book.  See it for the badassery, special effects and “wow” factor.  Avoid it if you’re looking for substance, cohesion or have no previous affection for the franchise (see Star Trek instead).  Necca out.

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