Review: Terminator Salvation

My friends, I have seen the future. To be more specific, thanks to last night’s preview screening of Terminator Salvation, I have delved forward through the dank and surprisingly gritty mists of time and glimpsed the world through the eyes of Charlie’s Angels director McG. And now I have returned, a bit shaken and worse for wear, to share what I have learned.

Okay, first of all, the future can pretty much be summed up in three basic concepts: constant yelling punctuated by frequent explosions, killer robots, and then more yelling, punctuated by the occasional guffaw-inducing cliché. The movie opens with a clunky, uncomfortable scene in which convicted killer/brooding slab of man-candy Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) agrees to donate his body to science on the day of his execution, only to awaken in 2018 to a post-apocalyptic hellscape with no memory of the intervening 15 years. In the interim, the rogue AI network Skynet has unleashed nuclear annihilation upon the world, wiping out modern civilization. Human existence is sustained by small pockets of survivors organized into a Resistance, continuously threatened by the ever-evolving Skynet and its unstoppable army of Terminator robots. Many in the Resistance believe that their only hope lies in the hands of John Connor (Christian Bale), who claims that it is his destiny to win the war against the machines and save humanity.

Wright and Connor are thrown together in their search for Kyle Reese, the teenager who will eventually be sent back in time to protect Connor’s mother, ultimately fathering the future savior. At this point, an interesting fact becomes painfully apparent: in the future, it seems, believable character development is considered to be a complete waste of time. When Wright crosses paths with Reese and the young Star (an absurdly adorable, mute feral moppet), fending for themselves amidst the crumbling rubble of L.A., his transition from hardened killer to nurturing protector is effected so rapidly that I half expected him to be breast-feeding abandoned kittens in the next scene. When the kids are seized and imprisoned at Skynet headquarters, he doggedly pursues them only to be thwarted by Connor when it is revealed that Wright has been reanimated with a “dual cortex,” half-human, half-machine. Cut to the obligatory human/cyborg identity-crisis scene, in which there is much screaming, some bellowing, and at least two pointless gunshots (while somewhere in my imagination, Sean Young lounges languidly under a Blade Runner poster, chain smoking and rolling her eyes).

Eventually, Connor reluctantly agrees to trust Wright in a last-ditch effort to save Kyle Reese, ensuring his own birth and humanity’s eventual salvation. Together, they break into Skynet Central, a.k.a. “Bad Rave Night at Dante’s Techno-Inferno,” and the screaming and explosions really screech into high gear. Unfortunately for Skynet (and the audience), it seems that even super-evil artificial intelligence networks are not immune to the classic bad-guy mistake of divulging all the details of a treacherous scheme before said scheme is a verified fait accompli. I’m actually somewhat surprised that Skynet didn’t opt for the sharks-with-frickin’-laser beams option, in the end, or at least throw in some villainous, high-tech mustache twirling for good measure. Instead, Wright anticlimactically chooses to embrace his warm, gooey humanity over his cold, shiny robot side, surprising no one in the process, in plenty of time to fight the evil machines, help Connor rescue everybody, make the ultimate sacrifice in order to preserve the human race, earn the love of a small child, save the princess and learn the true meaning of Christmas. Or something.

If this movie had put in even half the effort into developing its characters’ backstories and relationships as it does into its action sequences and special effects (both of which are extremely impressive, but become utterly overwhelming), then I think it could have been a film well worth watching. As it is, we’re never given any insight into Marcus Wright, except that he’s responsible for the deaths of several people, including his own brother. So, he’s a fratricide, like the Biblical Cain, who ends up redeeming himself and all of humanity in the process—unfortunately, the movie never delves beneath the dullest surfaces of this material. Instead, Marcus Wright is basically a Tin Man for the 21st century—he’s dropped in as a plot device, gets a heart, and then becomes instantly irrelevant again in terms of the larger John Connor saga.

As Connor, Christian Bale tries far too hard to forcibly insert gravitas into every line and facial expression; coupled with the unfortunate fact that he’s still got some leftover Bat-gravel stuck in his craw, he ends up achieving a level of brooding intensity that borders on the absurd at points. Most of the other characters barely rate a mention, and the female characters seem little more than afterthoughts. Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the role of Kate Connor, seems to be on hand mainly so that her pregnancy can serve as an obvious reminder of What Is At Stake Here; she’s basically a luminous, wide-eyed, walking reminder of humanity’s precarious future.

On the plus side, Anton Yelchin (who also appears as Chekov in the new Star Trek movie) plays Kyle Reese with a nice blend of adolescent vulnerability, idealism and quiet determination. He also seems to have fun taking on the Terminator mythos, delivering lines like, “Come with me if you want to live!” and pump-loading a shotgun with one arm with an ease that would make Linda Hamilton proud.

For the most part, though, this film takes itself far too seriously; ultimately, it feels exactly like watching a really well-designed video game being played by someone else, albeit a video game with severe delusions of philosophical and narrative grandeur. For those of us who want a little more from a movie than being screamed at by characters we don’t care about for two hours, things look awfully bleak, and unfortunately, it’s far too late to change the future: the movie hits wide release on May 21 in the U.S. But perhaps if we all ignore it, it’ll just go away… Frankly, resistance through apathy may be the only genuine response directors like McG and Michael Bay seem capable of evoking anymore.

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