People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, May 22, 2009
  Review: Terminator Salvation
Terminator Salvation is the first summer movie I’ve seen (I heard nothing good about Wolverine so I’ll probably wait for DVD, and I’ve yet to see Star Trek), and it’s a very good popcorn blockbuster. It definitely has its share of faults with the story and pacing, but overall it’s got exactly the sort of fun action that most of us look for in a good summer movie.

I wasn’t expecting Terminator Salvation to come anywhere close to James Cameron’s first two Terminator movies, and, lo and behold, it did not. That’s hardly an insult however, as the original two are both bona fide classics (T2 being one of the greatest action movies of all time, period), and Salvation doesn’t really aspire to being more than an above-average big-budget action picture. As a kid who always preferred playing with my Star Wars toys to my G.I. Joes, the post-apocalyptic future war between scrappy human resistance fighters and huge metal monsters only glimpsed in the first Terminator (and revisited in the sequel) always interested me more than the time travel angle that Cameron used to set the bulk of his movies in the present day. So by virtue of the fact that Terminator Salvation is set entirely in a bombed-out future wasteland (which owes more visually to the Mad Max movies than the short sequences in the earlier entries in the franchise), it’s automatically appealing to me. I love me some giant robots, and there’s quite a few of them in this movie.

Terminator Salvation follows John Connor (Christian Bale), a soldier in the human resistance in 2018, a man who’s been told his whole life he’s destined to lead humanity, but he’s not quite there yet, and he frequently butts heads with the resistance’s current leaders, who tool around in a submarine to avoid detection by Skynet. Into this world comes Marcus (newcomer Sam Worthington), a mysterious wanderer last seen on death row in 2003. He eventually meets up with a young Kyle Reese (the character who eventually goes back in time to protect Sarah Connor in the first Terminator movie, becoming John Connor’s father along the way), and later a resistance pilot (Moon Bloodgood), who leads him back to the humans. But, as the trailers all reveal (and the movie doesn’t really try to disguise), Marcus is actually a Terminator himself.

Director McG, who made music videos before breaking into film with the Charlie’s Angels movies, mounts several impressive action sequences, and the special effects are top-notch. The cast is uniformly solid, too; nobody does the grim hero better than Christian Bale these days, and Sam Worthington is very good as Marcus, which is impressive for a new guy (like a lot of other Handsome Australian Actors, he sounds American 85%-90% of the time). He's apparently the Next Big Thing – he, I guess sort of ironically, is also the lead in James Cameron's 3D sci-fi epic Avatar due next year, and he's also the lead in the remake of the beloved 1981 Greek mythology cult classic, Clash of the Titans – and he does the “charismatic tough guy” thing well.

But it was Anton Yelchin (who also plays Chekov in Star Trek) who really stood out for me as Reese. I’ve been an appreciator of Michael Biehn’s work as an actor for years (he was the hero in the first Terminator, and he turns up in a similar role in Cameron’s Aliens, and he’s wonderful as an evil outlaw in my favourite western, Tombstone), but I never could have imagined such a thing as a “Michael Biehn impression” until I saw this movie. I don’t know how he does it, but Yelchin manages to mimic Biehn’s voice and body language to an almost uncanny degree. He also has a lot of screen charisma, and I found his Reese to be the most compelling character in the whole movie, despite his relatively small role.

I did have some problems with Terminator Salvation’s story, and as much as I normally give movies like this quite a bit of slack in that department (really, I just wanted to see robots blow stuff up, which this movie has in spades), I couldn’t get them out of my head and they did detract a bit from my overall enjoyment. I don’t usually like to include behind-the-scenes rumours in a review, but in this case I think it’s useful for the sake of context. Apparently McG originally wanted Bale for the Marcus role (which was in earlier drafts the only lead; Connor was a secondary supporting character at that point), but Bale wanted to play Connor, and brought in a writer to beef up Connor’s part. I mention all of this because it’s actually pretty obvious from watching Terminator Salvation that Marcus was initially supposed to be the sole lead, because his character arc is far more interesting (he personifies sci-fi’s classic “what does it mean to be human?” debate). He’s the second-most interesting character in the movie (next to Reese, who, criminally, basically vanishes from the movie to become little more than a plot point less than halfway through), and his storyline has most of the cool action scenes. He also has younger sidekicks, a romantic subplot with Bloodgood, gets chased by giant robots and blows up two or three times – all the cool stuff, essentially. This is actually pretty normal for a Terminator movie – it's what Schwarzenegger spends all of the other Terminator movies doing – but it's weird in Terminator Salvation because he and Connor spend most of the movie apart (again, presumably because Connor's part was originally supposed to be smaller).

One of the other distracting plot details that comes about because Connor's part got beefed up is that it requires him to be one of the main characters trying to achieve the goal of keeping him alive. Having the main heroic character's primary motivation boil down to "I MUST SURVIVE! AT ALL COSTS!!" makes Connor seem unfortunately self-serving – and decidedly unheroic. (Though the movie goes to considerable lengths to make clear that Connor must live so that the future can live. Still.) And they do attempt to rectify it by having Reese be the token Character Who Must Be Rescued From The Terminator going into the film’s climax (though he shares this distinction with Bale, which, again, is weird).

Still, I'm probably focusing too much on the stuff I didn't like about Terminator Salvation. I enjoyed the movie for the most part, and it’s certainly fun to watch. The action is good-to-excellent (I particularly liked the digitally-fudged "single take" bit with Bale in the helicopter in the opening sequence), which, really, is all I was looking for out of it. On that level, Terminator Salvation an above-average summer blockbuster, although it doesn't hold a candle to the first two. And it is considerably better than Terminator 3, which, I guess, is a higher note on which to end the series. Not that I think that'll be the case (I assume that like any blockbuster nowadays, the producers are hoping it’ll become a new franchise), because if it rakes in money, well, everyone knows how Hollywood works. Maybe the next one will be the leap forward that Dark Knight was to Batman Begins. The kid in me who loves giant robots can dream.


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