May 27, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Humans battle machines in 'Terminator Salvation'"Come with me if you want to live," Kyle Reese barks at Marcus Wright and it's to Anton Yelchin's credit that we aren't distracted by the callback. His performance, quickly following his take on Chekov in the rebooted "Star TreK" in a grim commentary on Hollywood originality, channels Michael Biehn's crazed eyes and unwavering intensity. His supporting role is one of the few highlights of McG's strange little hybrid of a movie, a frustrating war epic that marries the mythology of the earlier Terminator films with the iconography and sensibility of the Mad Max films.

This is not the Future War we saw flashes of in the earlier films; it's browner, dirtier, more rural. Unanchored from the real world of the present, there isn't the same tension and weight to the proceedings. Cameron's films and Mostow's follow-up were all deceptively intimate films; two or three good guys at war with one seemingly unstoppable bad guy in a world that largely failed to acknowledge either. With more primitive machines hunting far better trained and equipped humans, McG's end of the world feels far less threatening than 1984. A rotating roster of protagonists and the lack of a clear villain results in a two hour epic with shockingly little character development.

After opening in 2003 with Marcus Wright donating his body to science minutes before being executed, the film quickly jumps to 2018 where John Connor and Kate Brewster have emerged from the fallout shelter and joined the burgeoning resistance. Despite repeated successes on the battlefield, Connor's superiors are highly suspicious of him. Their unease has a lot to do with his ham radio broadcasts, which mix seemingly uncanny predictions about the enemy with the gospel of the late great Sarah Connor. Christian Bale's performance doesn't help either; Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl played Connor as compassionate, brilliant and visibly tormented by the weight of destiny. Both played the character with a warmth that made them easy to like and trust. Christian Bale's steely and impenetrable performance keeps us at arm's length, one of the most crucial missteps of the film.

The closest thing to a human performance is Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright. His character development, while sparse, far exceeds the glimpses we get of Bale's John Connor. Worthington gamely works his way through action setpiece after action setpiece with obvious athleticism. The twist involving his character, spoiled in seemingly every trailer and TV spot, raises some of the film's more interesting questions. Nothing were shown, however, demonstrates why a new protagonist had to be created when fans walked into the theater far more interested in what Kyle Reese and John Connor were up to. Had the focus been on either of those two as the sole protagonist, the result would have been a far more cohesive final product.

And yet for all of my criticisms and disappointments, the film remains an enjoyable two hour thrill ride. The use of apocalyptic cliches like the mute child sidekick and the roaming nomadic tribe led by a frail old lady don't seriously detract from what is already a flawed enterprise. McG's elaborate pyrotechnics and action choreography are unlikely to be paralleled again this year. Compared to Mostow's slavish recreation of Cameron's style and pacing, the production here feels like a bold leap forward.

As a preposterous but entertaining ride that showcases key events from the Terminator mythology, Terminator Salvation is perfectly satisfactory. The disappointment comes from remembering that it is the successor to one of the most critically acclaimed action series of all time. Sometime around Judgment Day, the franchise lost track of its characters and story.(**½)

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