We're four movies in to the 2009 summer season, and boy has it been a disastrous start. Star Trek exceeded expectations for most people, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine was terrible. Angels & Demons, which I have yet to see, has received pretty disappointing reviews, and now Terminator Salvation, a movie with what are arguably the best trailers of the year, has proven our worst fears: McG was not the right choice for taking on such a decorated franchise.
Terminator Salvation is not your parents' Terminator, which means it also isn't your Terminator. From the first previews it was clear that this was going to be case - which is fine - but regardless of a different tone and look, McG's effort had some huge shoes to fill. And it doesn't come anywhere close, like a little person trying to walk around in Yao Ming's Nikes.
Terminator Salvation, unlike the previous three films, is set in the future, post-Judgment Day. The machines have taken over, most of humanity has been wiped away and the world is a nuclear wasteland. To be precise, it's 2018, and John Conner, played by Christian Bale, is a mid-level commander who has discovered that the robots are targeting Kyle Reese, his teenage-aged father (played by Star Trek's Anton Yelcin). On the eve of wiping out Skynet with a new technology, Conner defies orders to save Reese, himself and the future of mankind. Oh, and the resistance has also discovered a new half-human, half-cyborg dude, played by Sam Worthington, whose purpose is a mystery.
The movie looks pretty good and has some decent action, but it begins to fail to live up to its potential immediately. McG has strung together a series of cool little sequences, but strung together with what is the question. The movie lacks a plot and character development, and as The Dark Knight proved last year, plot, character development and action can go together. For instance, Kate, this go-around played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is both Conner's wife and a future mother, and yet the two don't get a single scene together where they get to prove that they have an authentic relationship. Strangely, Moon Bloodgood gets more screen time, despite being a ridiculously stupid character that, once her purpose is used up, is also relegated to almost no screen time. Even Bale gets very little time to reflect on his situation, resulting in the shallowest version of Conner in the franchise. Only Sam Worthington's character gets real treatment, and even he isn't all that interesting.
The problem with McG is that he doesn't know how to set up action sequences, nor does he have the faintest sense that action movies should spend time away from the actual action from time to time. This is what made the original Terminator movies so good, and why James Cameron is such a prized director. Cameron knows how to bring his characters together in a meaningful way and provide touching moments, such as the Sarah/Reese moments in the first film and the John/Arnold ones in the second. Furthermore, the action sequences in this new movie aren't even remotely memorable. Think of the police station sequence in the first movie, or the truck chase in the second. Hell, almost all of the action sequences in the first two films were spectacularly staged and brutal. In Terminator Salvation, McG bounces from one sequence to the next, relying on bigger and badder robots to cover up the fact that there isn't much creativity to be had.
Because of this, Terminator Salvation is a painfully shallow film.
Of course, not only McG is to blame. The screenplay, by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, is dreadful in more ways than one. The dialogue is cringe inducing most of the time, and this said by someone who was already not expecting much. The lack of good dialogue means some pretty bad performances. Bale gives it his all, but his gravely voice is a little too Batman-esque, his performance a little too shout-y. Worthington, though not horrible, is about as good at an American accent as George W. is considered a good president. He does fine for a while, and then, suddenly, his Aussie accent appears. Throughout the rest of the movie, he wavers between a variety of accents, all of them as distracting as the last. As mentioned before, Dallas doesn't get much to do.
The story itself is lackluster as well. The movie should have showed Conner's development to become leader, but instead decides to focus on Worthington's unique situation. There really isn't much plot for the first 90 minutes or so, though it's filled with absurd moments such as one character making a rash, illogical decision to break Worthington out, risking everyone. Oh, and what was the point of including the little girl in the story?
As for the visual effects, they're good, but not great. The detail on the robots is exceptional, but they don't blend into the background all that smoothly. Transformers, made two years earlier, featured notably better special effects. I liked the look of the Terminators in the first three movies over the CGI in this one.
When all is said and done, Terminator Salvation has its entertaining moments and is by no means boring. But if the same writers and director are brought back for the eventual fifth movie, I will be thoroughly disappointed. Terminator Salvation comes nowhere near its potential, and is by far the worst of the franchise.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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