A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, PG-13, 115 mins.
2009, PG-13, 115 mins.
John Connor: Christian Bale / Marcus: Sam Worthington / Blair:
Moon Bloodgood / Serena: Helena Bonham Carter / Kate: Bryce
Dallas Howard / Barnes: Common / Virginia: Jane Alexander
TERMINATOR SALVATION – aka
T4 – marks the second time in the history of the landmark and hugely
popular sci-fi/action thriller franchise that someone other than the
series creator, James Cameron, has stepped in to fill the shoes of
screenwriter and director. The last effort - 2003’s somewhat problematic, but unfairly
chastised and ridiculed TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES - was a solid
and enjoyably intense shock and awe time travel auctioneer that captured
some of Cameron’s past, aggressive minded mojo.
Now comes TERMINATOR SALVATION that – to loosely paraphrase the
advertising campaign from another recent big blockbuster summer film – is not
“your father’s TERMINATOR.”
The look, feel, and approach
here is decidedly different. Gone,
of course, is Cameron. In are
writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who both penned T3), who
apparently received some uncredited script doctoring from the likes of
Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of BATMAN BEGINS
and THE DARK KNIGHT) and Paul
Haggis (what screenplay has this multiple Oscar winner not re-written
lately?). Gone too is Cameron behind the camera and in is – heaven
help us – Joseph McGinty Nichol…or…pardon me…McG. Gone is the time-travel-to-the-past arc of all of the
previous films, which also positively means less pontificating on the bane
of all time travel films: paradox. And
finally, gone is the notion of a clearly defined villain – usually in
robotic/assassin form – and hero – sometimes flesh and blood,
sometimes kneecap shooting, but noble programmed, cyborg. In short,
TERMINATOR SALVATION definitely does not have the same outward façade of the type of
TERMINATOR film many in the fanbase are expecting.
Instead, T4 decides to hone in
on more satisfying grounds (c’mon: would we all really tolerate yet
another film where a post-apocalyptic robot from the future time travels
back to the present in order to kill the future leader of the human
resistance…sorry, been there, done that).
By utterly abandoning the format of all of the previous TERMINATOR
outings, McG and company potentially alienate Cameron fundamentalists while luring
in a whole new set of action aficionados.
Refreshingly, this TERMINATOR outing focuses on areas that were
only hinted at in previous installments – the future, post-nuclear war
between Skynet (the mechanized, humanity hating bad guys) and last human
survivors (yup, the good guys). Yes,
this new TERMINATOR outing may not be as intriguing as the past
incarnations, nor does it have as much heart and soul, but it does one
thing with incalculable skill and tact: it offers up a gritty, fast paced,
and feverously intense futuristic war picture and it wholeheartedly
delivers with a grimly bombastic and exhilarating efficiency.
You want a war
film…well…now you got one…and with a gnarly and cruel vengeance.
As stated, T4 does not engage
in the temporal travel game: it settles its story all the way through in
the not-to-distant future of 2018 (granted, back with the original
film’s outing in 1984, the future as presented then was
distant). Regardless, it is the
future and the
machine induced Armageddon that has been referred to as Judgment Day (aka
– nuclear holocaust) has just past, leaving the earth a scorched,
decayed, and atomic wintered wasteland.
Skynet has Terminator robots – coming in all shapes and sizes
(and, surprisingly enough, they inhabit vastly different environments)
vengefully hunting down humans one at a time until they are extinct.
However, humanity still packs quite a bit of advanced firepower
and, most importantly, a fiercely determined will to defend themselves
from the mechanized onslaught.
It is in this future where we
finally meet the adult – and not pre-pubescent version in previous films
– John Connor (Christian Bale, never missing a beat in a ferociously
intense performance), who is one of the local leaders of a worldwide
resistance, but still has not yet assumed the mantel as human-saving
messiah packing a machine gun. In
the film he has superiors, led by the cagey and stubbornly obstinate and
cantankerous General Ashdown (played with grizzled, scenery chewing bravado
by Michael Ironside, perhaps the only actor one could believe would have
authority over Bale). The
human resistance believes that they now have a computer-enabled weapon
that can shut down any machine if it is in close proximity to it (and, no,
this does not involve uploading Windows Vista to Skynet’s mainframe). If there is one thing that the film could have explained in
more detail than it would be how this gadget can shut down evil machines
but not the heroes' own at the same time.
Needless to say, Connor agrees
to test this weapon in the field, forever cementing his reputation of having balls
of steel. He also has a
secondary objective at the same time: locate and protect a teenage Kyle
Reese (Anton Yelchin, a far cry from CHARLIE
BARTLETT here in a mature and world weary performance) who Connor has learned has been targeted for
termination (this would be catastrophic for Connor, seeing as he sends the
adult Reese back in time, who in turn knocks up his mom in 1984, which
culminates in his birth – damn you, time paradox!).
While Connor engages in his mission we have a side story (which is
surprisingly given as much narrative weight) of a mysterious,
amnesia-plagued stranger named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington, in a star
making role), who bumps into Reese while strolling through the bombed out
remains of L.A..
to have no clue about Judgment Day, the future war, and so forth, but he
does agree to head to San Francisco (where Skynet is located) with the
plucky and resourceful Reese. Unfortunately,
Reese is captured on route by the machines and is taken to a human
concentration camp in the machine city. This event unavoidably leads to a very shaky partnership between Connor and
Wright, which is made all the more dicey considering that Wright is
not what he appears to be…even if he fails to acknowledge or
understand it himself.
the most unexpected and satisfying aspects of T4 is its astonishingly
first rate production design. McG, a director who has rarely inspired confidence in me (he
made two of the most cringe-worthy and bloated films of the last decade in
the two wretched CHARLIE’S ANGELS films, but followed that up with the
very decent WE ARE MARSHALL), really gives T4 a
provocatively disturbing and bleak vision.
Liberally mixing stylistic references from works as far ranging as
George Miller’s MAD MAX films, to STAR
WARS, to CHILDREN OF MEN,
and to the post-apocalyptic writings of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, T4
emerges as an absolute tour de force of visual invention.
Using Technicolor’s Oz processing (which gives the film negative
a sharply desaturated and bleached out appearance), McG develops a
look of a 2018 America that looks suitably worn, withered, and decayed.
At times the film has a granulated, near black and white aura that
contributes to its overall nihilism and despair.
No doubt, the way Mr. Nichol here gives the film a gritty and
unforgiving tactile sensation is to the film’s credit.
Besides the second film in the quadrilogy, T4 is the finest looking
of the lot.
surprise is how well McG handles the pulse-pounding and amazingly realized
action sequences, which combine cutting edge special effects, computer
trickery, and that top notch war torn aesthetic just mentioned.
Using machines designed by Martin Lang (who worked on TITANIC)
alongside the late Stan Winston’s fully mechanized creatures (he died
shortly after the film wrapped) and seamless computer effects, T4 spares
no expense in order to thrill viewers.
The film has several memorable – and haunting – scenes of flesh
against metal mayhem. An
early scene in particular shows McG’s gutsy and daring innovation, which
shows Connor’s awesome battle against T-800 robots, which culminates in him
boarding a helicopter, attempting to fly to safety, and then later crash
landing it, all apparently in one smooth shot (it could be the product of
some very slick editing as well, but no matter, the set piece is
sequence – which shows a 50-foot tall Skynet marauder grabbing humans right
off the ground to transport them to a Skynet death camp – is
effortlessly creepy and thrilling. One
of the film’s most breathtaking action set pieces has a nail biting
chase involving a fuel filled tanker truck trying to outrun flying hunter-killer
drones, a building sized human harvester robot, and two nifty motorcycle
propelled robots that morph out of the giant harvester’s legs.
moments also pack a forcefully tense and scary wallop, which are high in
the “boo!” fright factor: one involving small snake-like robots in a
lake bed trying to feast on Connor is gripping, as is a early sequence
involving Connor trying to rid the world of a T-800 cyborg skeleton that
– like the dismembered knight in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL – just keeps on coming
and coming (clearly, T4 is following Cameron’s lead in the
past TERMINATOR films, but some of the moments of frightening ingenuity actually owe more to his ALIENS, which is nonetheless a good film to
reference for inspiration). The
exemplary pacing and break neck speed of the action really hits its stride
in the final, climatic showdown between Connor, Wright, and Skynet, which
also manages to offer up a few well-hidden surprises.
And, yes, through the miracle of CGI compositing – and the
current "Governator’s" approval – we get to see a vicious one on one
battle between Connor and the same T-800 model that Skynet sent back in
time in 1984’s film (the body is provided by Auh-nald look-alike, Roland
Kickinger, while Schwarzenegger’s own mug was digitally grafted onto the
body rather seamlessly). It certainly was hard to not be taken in by this moment: my fanboy geek impulse was cranked to eleven.
Aside from the film’s first rate production values and powerfully invigorating action scenes, T4 may not get very much credit for its interesting handling of its characters. Bale’s Connor, as expected, is the epicenter of the human led resistance, and the Brit more than delivers on expectations to play his part with the requisite seething, icy demeanored, and teeth gritty vigilance. However, what’s really surprising is how Bale’s Connor defers much of the character interest to the Marcus Wright character, whom is given equal screen time and, inevitably, is the more compelling creation. What’s so fascinating about Wright is his character arc: in a brief prologue snippet we see him as a death row inmate circa 2003 and then we later see him alive and well in 2018, not having aged a day. As we suddenly learn the true nature of his futuristic appearance, it provides for an intriguing conflict between his character and Connor’s mission to eradicate the machines, all while allowing Wright to confront his own mortality and humanity.
shocking is how the advertising for the film has gone completely out of
its way to utterly spoil the secret of Wright’s character (the
trailer’s are indefensibly spoilerish), which would have allowed this
plot thread to be much more satisfyingly shocking.
Rarely have plot twists in a film been so telegraphed by the film's
trailers and TV commercials. No matter, because Australian newcomer Sam Worthington (who will
later be headlining Cameron’s long awaited AVATAR) is the find of the
summer movie season: he is unavoidably electrifying as his brooding,
tough as nails, and profoundly conflicted anti-hero.
TERMINATOR SALVATION is not a film that completely avoids road bumps through its lean and mean 115 minutes: There are times where the doom and gloom of the film overrides any sense of wry humor that its predecessors had (although some moments between Wright and Anton Yelchin’s solid turn as the baby faced Reese garner some much needed – but not force-fed – laughs). Bryce Dallas Howard - much as she did in another summer tent pole series, SPIDER-MAN 3 – appears here in a completely throwaway role as Connor’s preggers wife; the part is dreadfully underwritten. Furthermore, having one of the first film’s most iconic and quoted lines uttered at one point by Bale gets more unintended groans and giggles than it should have. I am all for the inclusion of Easter Eggs for series fans in sequels and remakes, but the words “I’ll be back” just don’t have the same broken and staccato inflection when spoken by someone other than an emotionless robot played by an muscle-bound, Austrian actor. Trust me.
Ultimately, though, McG and company have done a totally thankless job here and certainly have very large shoes to fill when Cameron long since vacated the TERMINATOR universe (he apparently neither cursed nor gave his blessing to this project). Yet, even without Cameron at the helm I was quite astounded by what a hard-hitting, swiftly-paced, and consummately made sci-fi/action film that resulted here. Truth be told, the film sometimes lacks an strong emotional discord (which is, no doubt, overwhelmed by the film’s aggressively mounted special effects and production scope), but – let’s be fair – TERMINATOR SALVATION promised exactly what it advertised: an all out war film involving the last of battered and blue humanity against the cold, calculating, and lethal machines. Taking into account the relative early competition of the summer movie schedule thus far (like the disappointing X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, the insipidly plotted ANGELS AND DEMONS, and – let the hate mail flood in – the wrongheaded STAR TREK reboot), I guess I was ill-prepared to concede that this prequel-sequel to one of the genre’s most revered franchises would be the salvation of the season. Considering that this is the fourth film in a 25-year-old series, this new TERMINATOR unequivocally and successfully appeases both diehards of the past Cameron-centric entries as well as to newcomers to this film universe. As a rousing, action-packed, and armrest grabbing bit of thrilling summer escapism, this series is back…with a real gusto.
CrAiGeR's other reviews from
Q U A D R I L O G Y:
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of THE TERMINATOR Quadrilogy:
1. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
2. THE TERMINATOR (1984) 1/2
3. TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009) 1/2
4. TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003)