Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Salvation" is nowhere to be found

Terminator: Salvation


* ½ / * * * *


What does it mean to put the name “Terminator” in front of your film?  For director McG and screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, it seems to serve only as a convenient way to write a movie with no backstory, and to further lure franchise fans into the theatre.

            There’s nary a hint of James Cameron’s original conceits in this post-apocalyptic war film, and usually I’d say that’s a good thing – a new director should explore different territory (it’s the difference between Nolan’s Batman and Ratner’s X-Men 3), especially when shouldering a franchise many declared dead years earlier.

            McG realizes a fundamental truth of science fiction – it has historically been used to create social, political, and psychological allegories, and exploits that fact to mind-crunching tedium while veiling his film in an unending ricochet of explosions.

            For it seems McG never really realized the pleasure of Cameron’s original Terminator – the low-budget creativity.  Granted, I still feel T2 is a glorified inversion of the same formula with a higher budget, but the reverence of the original film breeds out of its ability to develop surprisingly deep ideas out of silly, if endearing and clever, film school tricks.

            To get back to the “Salvation” at hand, the war against the machines is in full swing, but what was only hinted at through dark flashbacks (or flashforwards, depending on how you think of chronology) in twisted and demolished cities, is now full of bright desert locales and desaturated colors that reduces the entire film to varying shades of greens and browns.

            And for its opening ten minutes, “Terminator Salvation” is surprisingly captivating, with McG using extended handheld tracking shots to capture a Resistance attack on a Skynet base, complete with dozens of explosions and a visceral one-take shot of a helicopter crash from inside the chopper.

            But then it starts to become clear – the year is 2018.  In “Terminator,” John Connor sent Kyle Reese back in 2029.  In effect, what could have been a singular bridge film detailing John Connor’s overthrow of the machines is instead a childish plea for another trilogy.

            Not even Christian Bale’s monotonous charisma, which shifts rather inexplicably from his raspy Batman voice to lots of screaming, can save a screenplay where nothing happens.  Even as the action entertains, Brancato and Ferris arrive at no larger point or any advancement of the story beyond what we already know from Kyle Reese’s flashbacks in “Terminator.”

            Which, of course, opens up another question – how do you create a captivating film out of a story that fans already largely know?  We know Kyle Reese’s fate, much as we know John Connor’s fate, which makes much of the perilous and increasingly preposterous action feel moot – fun to stare at, but impossible to become involved in.

            To try and negotiate a solution, the writers invent Marcus Wright – a death row convict who donates his body to Cyberdyne before Judgment Day, only to become the test subject for a Terminator model that mixes robotic chips and human organs.  Sam Worthington, who plays Marcus, seems to have been cast solely because of his modest physical resemblance to Bale, for the whole film pivots around a scene where Marcus and Connor stand face-to-face and the latter reveals to his captive that he is in fact a machine and not a human.

            The implications of this scene feel more like explications under the redundancy of the writing and the framing of the shots: McG has created a Lacanian mirror scene, where John Connor stares at the face of his own potential monster, while the monster stares wistfully back at the man he wishes he could be.  It should be a moment of stark recognition, where Connor could realize that his mechanical military operation endangers himself and those around him of becoming their enemy.

            Instead, the scene plays like something out of Frankenstein, with Marcus’s skin tattered, revealing mechanical gears underneath.  Exasperation sets in when Marcus confronts his “creator” at Skynet and decides to revolt against it, an act of human rebellion and spiritual redemption that, had “Terminator Salvation” been written with a hint of emotional honesty or narrative tension, could have been the lynchpin to the parallel action between John Connor and Marcus Wright.

            Even worse is the depiction of Skynet’s human internment camps, which feel modeled straight off of “Schindler’s List.”  Images of humans boxed into tiny transport vehicles and being shot down by guards come off as nothing more than cheap Holocaust allusions.

            It’s hard to figure out why so much time is spent away from John Connor, who by all rights should have been the film’s sole point of interest.  There’s only one real moment between him and his wife, Kate (played forgettably by Bryce Dallas Howard), and very little time is invested in showing his military prowess or potential leadership.

            Bale’s physical presence is used to tremendous effect throughout the action scenes, where his primal screams only add to the suffocating sound mix, but his performance is surprisingly generic, with writing that seems to care little about his plight as mankind’s prophesized savior – the internal conflict that binds the rest of the films.

            This is, of course, glossing over the fact that nearly half the film’s dialogue rather stupidly restates something we just watched happen (“Look, the signal is working!”), or goes through great pains to cram the original dialogue in somewhere (“I’ll be back” shows up for some reason, and provides a moment to remember that this is actually a Terminator film).

            To McG’s credit, there are some great images of wrecked landscapes, where the desert seems to stretch on forever and human figures feel dwarfed against a landscape that is alternately alienating through its bleakness and frightening in its cold plasticity.

            The tone is decidedly a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men,” where the desperation of life after Earth’s death is met with extended tracking shots of intense action.

            The more McG throws at the screen, the less it all seems.  As “Terminator Salvation” goes on, any hint of narrative strength is diminished against the weight of its cacophonous action, where fight scenes and escape scenes drag on and on.  What was even daring and appealing about its literally explosive elements end up feeling derivative by the time Connor and Marcus band together to fight one of Cyberdyne’s latest Terminators (take a guess as to who shows up via full CGI) – a moment that should have produced unbridled glee, but instead generates a collective sigh.

            If we are to believe that “Terminator Salvation” is about the success of humanity against the monstrosity of machinery, it would help to have made a film that doesn’t feel so cold and calculated in its movements, that lacks a single moment of organic emotion or surprising humanity. 

Perhaps the bluntness of its psychology has a deeper point – could McG have realized, when watching the moment that Connor stares at the machine he risks becoming, that he himself was something of John Connor, poised threateningly between humanity and his camera’s artificial machinery?  Too bad he unwittingly surrendered to the nuts and bolts, for unlike Marcus Wright, there isn’t even a human heart embalmed in this mess of technological vomit.

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