Wed
May 20 2009 4:26pm

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.

20 comments
James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
Oh man, I really hope you give bad and misleading reviews :)
trattman
2. trattman
Rough review. I like it.
These action movies need to find out that plot actually matters. Special effects are not enough!Star trek was the same.
- -
3. heresiarch
*didn't read below the fold*

You know, it's a little cruel to do a review w/spoilers of a movie that hasn't even come out yet. It kind of undercuts the whole "read someone else's take in order to decide if you will see it" approach to film criticism.

UM EXCOOZ YUR SPOILIN MAH MOOVEH
Andrew Ty
4. eldritch00
...while somewhere in my imagination, Sean Young lounges languidly under a Blade Runner poster, chain smoking and rolling her eyes...

*laughs*

“Bad Rave Night at Dante’s Techno-Inferno,”

*laughs*


Still, as much as I enjoyed reading your review, I also hope the film isn't as bad as this. Where will I get my robot fix? Because I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy the Transformers sequel even less.
Bridget McGovern
5. BMcGovern
@ trattman #2

Thanks! I personally didn't mind Star Trek, but I've heard the same complaint from a lot of people. This film took the problem to a whole new level for me, though :)

@ heresiarch #3

I don't agree that it's "cruel" in any way--as long as there are no spoilers above the fold, it should remain totally unspoiled for anyone who doesn't want to know what happens in the film. I thought about writing a spoiler-free review, but in this particular case I don't think it would have been particularly enlightening. Also, having now seen the movie, I actually think it's pretty difficult film to spoil, since it does a pretty great job of ruining any suspense or surprises on its own, without help from the likes of me.

For the record, though: I'm not trying to ruin anyone's movie, but what's most important to me is being able to write an honest, substantive review. I hope that some people will find it helpful, if they choose to read it. No cruelty intended.
Justin Adair
6. Hobbyns
Skipping the bulk of this "review" because it has spoilers in it. Basic tip: if Tor wants to be taken seriously in the review of SF and Fantasy, they'll have to find a way to convey their thoughts and opinions without giving away the entire movie/book/comic etc etc. It can't be that hard--many reviewers seem to be able to do it just fine, and make a living out of it.

Since Tor is still a relative baby in the online world of commentary and criticism, just a heads up: You're not Ain't it Cool News.
Bridget McGovern
7. BMcGovern
@hobbyns #6

As far as I'm aware, there's no standardized guideline for internet movie reviews, generally speaking--and there certainly isn't a uniform voice to Tor.com. I wasn't given this review as an assignment--I blogged about it because I found it interesting, and I had a strong opinion after seeing it. In order to best express that opinion, I felt that I needed to explain why the film didn't work for me, and I felt the need to be specific, especially since the problems of this particular movie serve to illustrate a larger point.

I don't presume to speak for everyone at Tor.com, but I personally have no problem NOT READING REVIEWS that contain spoilers. It's that simple. They don't upset me--I think there's plenty of room both online and in print for both spoiler and non-spoiler reviews. If I don't want to know too much about a movie, I simply don't read the reviews beforehand--I go back and check them out afterward. I can't imagine why a piece of criticism written the day before a movie comes out should be considered more or less valid than a piece written the day afterward. That makes absolutely no sense to me.
nat ward
8. smonkey
@Hobbyns

I totally disagree. Well, sorta totally kinda. Perhaps there should be a shorter, spoiler free option for the review (e.g. it sucks but feeds your action jonze) but most reviews have to give away what sucks or they aren't good journalism.

Personally I like the fact that Tor isn't just another blog that throws about un-referenced criticism.

Keep up the good work BMcG (who should henceforth be called McG because that's just too great a moniker to be wasted on a hack director ex-music producer/ass-hat)
Pablo Defendini
9. pablodefendini
Yeah, I have to agree with McG (our McG, that is, not the hack whose only good creation, afaik, has been Chuck): if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read the gorram review (yes, I've been on a Firefly kick lately).

That said, there is one caveat: People who enjoy our full RSS feed don't get the benefit of spoiler warnings in the jump text. Fair enough—we'll do a better job of screaming "spoiler alert!" in the actual body of the post.
Mitchell Downs
10. Beamish
I was sooooo hoping this movie wasn't going to suck.

Ima go cry now...
Justin Adair
11. Hobbyns
As a daily reader of Tor.com, I regretted skipping your post, BMcGovern, since I'm sure it was interesting and expressed well. I was mostly expressing (badly) that sentiment. I apologize for my harsh tone, and was mostly addressing those review concerns to Tor.com as a site (which I enjoy reading on a daily basis).

Again, I apologize.
seth johnson
12. seth
There aren't any spoilers in this review. Just looking at the poster should tell ANYONE exactly what to expect. Here are the spoilers:

1. PG-13 Rating. No other Terminator movie has been less than an R.

2. No James Cameron, no Linda Hamilton, no Arnold.

This is pure crap conceived of by producers. You know in the movie, Tropic Thunder, how they have that tool of a director named "Cockburn" who just does the bidding of the uninspired producer played by Tom Cruise? McG is Cockburn.

Seth
John Massey
13. subwoofer
Action movies and plot. Words I thought do not exist in the same sentence. Remember, Arnold started this franchise and the Guvonator and plot do not belong in the same sentence.

Oh well, this movie is hyped enough that it should do okay at the box office. For the rest, as RJ would say, RAFO, or in this case, Watch And Find Out. I sat through Titanic, 4 hours of my life I am never getting back. How bad could this be?
M G
14. Merin
The only upside to this movie that I can see is that it gave us this charming little review...

... thank you?
Bridget McGovern
15. BMcGovern
@ smonkey #8 and Merin #14

Thanks very much--it makes me very happy to hear from you both! Much appreciated.

@ seth #12

I think you nailed it. I found it almost impossible not to think about Tropic Thunder while watching this...

@ Hobbyns #11

No worries! I understand that spoilers are a touchy subject :) Glad you enjoy the site...

@ subwoofer #13

I hope you enjoy it! The explosions are truly excellent, as are the motorcycle chases and mid-air firefights...they just get repetitive after awhile :) I started to feel a little traumatized after the first hour...
Dave Thompson
16. DKT
@ #6 Hobbyns

Are you implying AICN doesn't put spoilers in there reviews? Because I've read their site every day for a decade now, and that just ain't true.

As for this review, it sounds pretty standard with what I'm hearing about the movie. Basically, John Connor is very flat as a character, the major spoilers have pretty much been given away in the trailer, and the characters' depths have pretty much all been fumbled (with the possibly exception of Kyle Reese, who isn't in the movie long enough). Which bums me out, because I was really, really hoping they'd be able to pull this one off.
Richard Fife
17. R.Fife
The One True McG:
(and my post is even more spoilerific, so be warned)

I agree whole-heartedly. Just got back from watching it, and yeah, what a jerky, uneven excuse to have high decibles and big booms. The action was nice, but the exposition was flat and nothing but pure exposition of plot without character development, and the big bad robot plan kinda confused me plot-hole wise. I mean, if the Robots are all trying to kill John, why not just punk Reese when they get him? Why did we have to have CG-Arnold lying in wait and Reese allowed to just sit around and live. Also, when rebuilding Marcus, why did they not have a couple of those mega-supe'd up T-800s standing by and ready for, you know, in case the human did win through?

I will give it a little more credit than you did, I think on Marcus's character. He was obviously repentant of his actions on his execution day, so perhaps he was always warm and gooey, and just rather self-hating over having caused the death of his brother (as I recall, he phrased it "Beacuse of me my brother and two cops are dead", not "I killed...")

And for as much as you think it would be kinda important to keep Kyle Reese's identity a secret (as is implied in the TV show), you'd think that John wouldn't have been screaming (with bat-gravel) about Kyle being his dad all over the place. Right?

Gah, Ni ta ma de. Tianxia suoyoude ren. Dou gaisi.
/firefly kickin' with Pablo
trattman
18. RyanKB
I feel that Bale can carry the series in Arnold's absence. I'm looking forward to it.
trattman
19. sofrina
i'll get into details later, but this movie was quite disappointing and i didn't even expect anything from it. whether or not bale can carry anything depends on the story. in this case it is both confusing and unnecessary. everything about this film flies in the face of everything we've ever known about the 'terminator' mythos. that includes anton yelchin's performance. none of it in a good way.

the one thing i'm sure i liked was the view of the original terminator. and that mostly because it had the longer hair which was left out of the sequels.

the only person who did anything understandable in this movie was the guy who pulled a gun when someone attempted to share resources with outsiders. that i could believe.

nothing against sam worthington, but i kinda wonder what luke goss might have done with the role. then again, worthington is not the problem. the writers, director and producers are.
Andrew Gray
20. madogvelkor
It's better than Wolverine, not as good as Star Trek.

In terms of the other Terminator movies, it's better than T3, not as good as T1, and too different from T2 to compare IMO. Where the others were Time Travel movies (and T1 and T2 with a touch of Horror), this one is post-Apocalyptic War. Different sub-genres.

There were some nice touches. I liked the T-600s -they looked a little like zombies, and I always felt at heart that the original Terminator was a zombie movie. Unkillable walking man-creature hunting you down without remorse, never tiring...

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