When Arnold Schwarzeneggar first uttered the words “Ahl be bach!“, people laughed and cheered. James Cameron’s The Terminator was suspenseful, exciting, and funny in a way that only the best B-movies can be. We loved the idea of an android assassin from the future hunting down a pregnant SWF who had no idea that her son would grow up to be humankind’s savior during an onslaught of rebel machines. Arnie’s wicked killing machine quickly became an iconic big screen monster. We loved him, and we wanted more.
When Cameron’s ginormous sequel arrived, the first film’s simple ideas swelled to epic proportions. With Planet Earth on a course for nuclear devastation, another Terminator came back to try and kill young John Connor. But a “good” Terminator came after him to save the day. The time travel aspect was interesting, but simple enough that it didn’t disrupt the action. And Terminator 2: Judgment Day set a new standard in special effects and action set pieces, becoming one of the biggest sci-fi action flicks ever released. Cameron managed to enthrall us with by developing a style that was both fun and dire, exhilarating and exhausting, clever and cacophonous. He surpassed the Road Warrior franchise by framing his explosive marathon chase sequences within a compelling story about three characters who made us care: Sarah Connor, her son destined for greatness, and their otherworldly protector.
That all feels like a long, long time ago.
Since then, Cameron left the franchise for even more ambitious projects. Jonathan Mostow tried to keep the series going with a third Terminator film — Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — that was, thank goodness, only disappointing, not a disaster. The action was frantic, the effects impressive. By preserving the personality and humor of our favorite Terminator, Mostow narrowly avoided joining Bret Ratner (X-Men 3) and Richard Lester (Superman 3) on the list of directors who have ruined franchises with lame third installments. But the storytelling began to show signs of strain. Things were getting complicated, as time-travel convolutions became more complicated. And the story’s chase-movie conventions began to feel a little too familiar. The obligatory echo of Arnold’s famous line began to sound more like a threat than a promise.
Today, the fourth movie in the Terminator series, Terminator Salvation, is here. This time the director is McG (Charlie’s Angels). And if that name makes you think of McDonald’s, you’re on the right track.
Just as McDonald’s burgers never look like what you see in McDonald’s commercials, this movie is a betrayal. T4 tastes like it was thrown together in a greasy kitchen by folks who ignore instructions for good hygiene, press heavily processed ingredients together into cardboard containers, and hand it to us with a scowl. And when Arnie’s favorite line occurs at last, you’re likely to hear the audience protest: “No! Don’t come back!” Especially since it comes this time from the film’s most annoying character.
But let’s focus on the positive. I’ll review some of my favorite memories from seeing Terminator Salvation:
- Christian Bale’s feverish intensity as the leader of the resistance in a post-apocalyptic world where human beings are struggling to survive in dark, hidden bases around the world. Oh, wait. That was Reign of Fire.
- The slow reveal of the glittering skyline by night, punctuated by bursts of flame. I’m sorry, that was Blade Runner.
- The scene in which ragged, dredlocked survivors try to escape the bad guys in a fleet of 4WD vehicles, leading to a long freeway demolition-derby marathon action scene. Gotta love The Road Warrior.
- The conflicted anti-hero who is “more machine now than man” (I’m sorry, I’m thinking of Star Wars) struggling to know what he/it really is, wrestling with what he’s been programmed to do and what his remaining traces of humanity want him to do. Oh, wait. That was… sheesh, where do I start? Blade Runner? Battlestar Galactica? A.I. (Artificial Intelligence)? Rintaro’s Metropolis?
- When those nasty, swimming, tentacled beasts with clusters or red eyes — the Sentinels — attack our heroes. I’m sorry, am I thinking of The Matrix? And look, here they come again in Shane Acker’s upcoming sci-fi actioner 9.
- When John Goodman staggers through a rainstorm in the night, covered in mud, roaring like a beast. Or was that Raising Arizona?
- The moment when one of our heroes, Bishop (Lance Henriksen), is suddenly impaled by an enormous spike and raised up off the ground spewing “blood.” Ah, right: That was Aliens.
- And, awwwww… such a cute-as-a-button kid hanging around with the heroes, serving little purpose except to increase our anxiety when the enemy attacks. That seems awfully familiar…
Has there ever been an action movie that is a great amalgam of other action movies?
Terminator Salvation director McG has constructed what may as well be the first cut-and-paste feature film. It’s a flashback-inducing fever dream in which familiar ideas come so fast and furious that you have no room to think about the plot’s confounding time-travel convolutions. “A person can go crazy thinking about this,” groans the voice of Sarah Connor through a voice recorder. Viewers may conclude that’s exactly what happened to these storytellers.
(Note: These are the screenwriting geniuses responsible for Catwoman and the unforgettable The Net 2.0.)
We’re living in an age where to recycle is a virtue. But that doesn’t hold true for movies, unless you bring something new to the process that infuses the result with freshness and usefulness. Compared to its already-derivative inspirations, Terminator: Salvation is too familiar, too frantic. It’s so derivative, even its lessons seem wrung out.
Oh, from time to time there’s an impressive flourish of cleverness in the action. There’s an insane bravado in the film’s gigantic chase sequence across a bridge. But that’s not enough to justify the headache-inducing marathon of demolition derbies. It eats up the screen like some acidic secretion from other action movies. Any given five-minute stretch seems to be based on not one but several other popular sci-fi action films. It may well turn out to be a black hole, that sucks so many greater experiences into itself. It’s telling that the character who gets the biggest cheer of the movie is, in fact, a sort of digital cut-and-paste taken from another film’s footage.
There have been other arguments made in recent years that mainstream entertainment is no longer relating to real human experience anymore, because entertainment is feeding on itself, becoming more and more removed from anything relevant to our lives. I’m more inclined to say that this is nothing new: Storytelling has always been a matter of combining elements borrowed from other sources. There’s nothing new under the sun.
But there’s something to be said for combining ideas with creativity, and for fusing them into a meaningful whole, in which nothing is gratuitous.
Case in point: Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, will open soon. It’s an amalgam of 2001: A Space Odyssey and several other sci-fi films. But it combines these elements with admirable cleverness. It gives us an interesting central character who wins our sympathies. Its special effects are employed in ways that create a mood and an environment we can believe in. It makes us think, ask questions, and want to watch it again. It’s not perfect, but it gives us a unique experience that prods us to consider the human condition in new ways. I highly recommend it.
Terminator Salvation has Sam Worthington, a heavily hyped talent from Australia who seems to be making a career of “re-making.” He’s already signed on for a remake of Red Dawn (I’m not making that up) and a remake of Clash of the Titans. (Maybe his performance in James Cameron’s Avatar will give be as visionary as it’s cracked up to be; that could help Worthington escape his likely nickname of “The Recycler.”) He may as well be an actor receycled from other action actors, perhaps a fusion of Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Jason Statham.
Truth be told, Worthington’s the most interesting presence in the film. But that’s more of a slam against his costars than a compliment to him.
The less said about Helena Bonham Carter, the better. It seems like she’s decided to draw from her worst big-screen turn — as the Bride of Frankenstein in Kenneth Branagh’s laugh-out-loud production of Mary Shelley’s Frankstein, instead of from her best work. How can this be the same actress we knew in A Room with a View, Howard’s End, or even Fight Club?
What’s concerns me most is this: Christian Bale, who is capable of subtlety and nuance (see his turn in Malick’s The New World) seems increasingly crippled by Tom Cruise syndrome. He equates one-note intensity with acting. He chooses determination over dimension, angst over exploration. He looks like he is constantly suffering from a migraine. Even the skull-faced androids have more range than Bale in this movie. All of his energy is in his furrowed brow, giving us no sense of any intelligence behind those eyes. Apparently Bale demanded a revision of the script to give his character more screen time. That’s a shame; his perpetual brooding burdens the movie, adding to what was already an excess of “grim and bear it.”
It may be that his obvious anxiety comes from the fact that the script has given him ludicrous things to say. He’s assigned to recap the plot for us every few minutes as if he’s been informed that the theater is full of idiots. We know Connor’s gone back in time to save his father in order to preserve hope for the world, and yet, late in the film, he’s still explaining to his pregnant wife, “No Kyle Rees, no John Connor.” The only way to make this John Connor seem like a leader is to make his followers little more than automatons… and that’s the case here.
If anybody has done their career a favor in this film, it’s Anton Yelchin, who somehow manages to play a convincing, younger version of the Michael Biehn character from the original film. And not once does he make anybody think of his delightfully funny turn as Chekov in Star Trek.
But Yelchin can’t save the film. At this point, I doubt even James Cameron himself could pull this series from the damage it has done to itself. It’s sinking farther and faster than the Aliens franchise did, diminishing the memory of its previous episodes by dulling the impact of its trademark names, images, and lines—recycling them until they give new meaning to the term “Post-Consumer Waste.”
At the climax of the film, Christian Bale staggers into a factory where Terminators are made. He doesn’t see anything there that we haven’t seen before. “There are so many of them,” he gasps, pointing out the obvious yet again. Yep. And yet, the more of them we see, the less interesting they become. That’s how it is in this business. Too bad. There was a time when the sight of those red eyes sent shivers down my spine. The thrill is gone.
This franchise, like it’s villains, has become more machine than man. We’ll have to hope that what Michael Ironside says early in the film is true: Every machine has an OFF switch.
Moviegoers… if you’re out there reading this… you are the resistance.