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Not the End of the World, But...
Terminator Salvation

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Warner Bros.)

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Friday, May 22, 2009


Terminator Salvation
Directed by Joseph "McG" Nichol
(Warner Bros.)

Reviewed by Steve Dollar

With the real-life Austrian android-turned-politico Arnold Schwarzenegger struggling to terminate California’s cash crisis, the notion of a fourth Terminator film, set in a meticulously annihilated post-apocalyptic vision of the Golden State, is juicily ironic. It’s easy to image some laid-off breadwinner herding the brood out of his foreclosed suburban tract house for a day at the multiplex, gazing upon the $200 million, CGI-wizarded wreckage, and thinking, “Hey, that doesn’t look so bad.”

Visually, at least, T4 is stunning: The year 2018 looks like Hell on a popsicle stick, a desaturated shadow world overrun with endless species of killing machines. Small, scattered pockets of humanity combat the malevolent force of Skynet, the hive-brain artificial intelligence command that has taken over the planet. Directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels), this sequel is a single two-hour action sequence interrupted by patches of dialogue suitable for Twitter. Sitting in the front row, riding a carbonated sugar rush or perhaps a hit of something more psychotropic, a viewer could experience the choreographed mayhem and tech-noir topology as a killer video game. It’s not much else, even though McG evokes or outright steals ideas from almost any dystopian classic you can name. There’s lots of Road Warrior and RoboCop, although the director also cites Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (soon to hit the screen) and Alfonso Cuaron’s widely admired Children of Men.

The story, as such, concerns the efforts of resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) to rescue a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) from the forces of Skynet, so he can live to eventually go back in time to the early Eighties and inseminate Connor’s mother (Linda Hamilton in the 1984 original, here heard as a voice only). In the off-screen back story, he thus becomes Connor’s father before the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) can kill him. McG introduces a new character, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death row inmate who is reanimated after his execution as a — SPOILER ALERT — half-man, half-machine. The hunky semi-borg is written as a noir tough guy, who comes to life during a Skynet attack and joins up with Reese and his adorable munchkin sidekick (Jadagrace) to dodge the polymorphous terminators — kill-cycles, airborne harvesters, underwater flying eels, you name it. Worthington becomes the movie’s focal point, the only character with any arc of development — or ambiguity. Meanwhile, Bale seems to phone in his performance, more robot than the robots, showing none of the passion he did in his infamous leaked outburst on the set, when he went ballistic on an assistant cameraman.

The film’s lack of humor is more evident when it strains for a quick laugh. At one point, Bale uses the line “I’ll be back,” one of the phrases Schwarzenegger monotone turned into a pop culture meme in the original. This prompted only mild titters in the preview audience. Later, the Governator himself appears — in a CGI cameo — but the implicit gag feels out of joint with the grim, relentless tone of the rest. When it was released, 25 years ago, The Terminator was a low-budget B-flick, one that rescued Schwarzenegger from a lifetime of Conan-the-Barbarian buffoonery by the grace of — literally — killer punchlines that echoed that other actor-cum-conservative candidate, Clint Eastwood. This was, of course, the Reagan Eighties, rife with culture wars, Star Wars and “the bombing begins in five minutes.” T1 allowed a lot of play for anyone given to social analysis, and inspired some nifty, nervy insights from film theorists. Constance Penley’s essay, Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia remains a classic — you can find it online — delving into science fiction’s tradition of time-loop paradoxes, conjuring Freud, Oedipus and Robert Graves, and reminding us how James Cameron (who made the original with producer and then-wife Gale Ann Hurd) clearly employs the plot of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (and more adroitly than that uber-Reaganoid trilogy of Back To the Future comedies).

Terminator Salvation is brain-dead by comparison. It’s easier to watch the film’s pyrotechnic frenzy as the post-traumatic fever dream of a shellshocked Iraqi War veteran, not unlike the one played by Bale in Harsh Times. Or maybe, now that Obama is president, we’re meant to see Worthington’s man-machine as the new tragic mulatto, torn between two worlds yet belonging to neither. Nah! I think McG just wants to show he can spend more money blowing up more stuff more better than Michael Bay.

And that’s just McDumb.

 

 

 

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