Spectacle Trumps Satire in 'Terminator Salvation'

Warner Bros. Pictures

City Pulse | May 18, 2009
More of a 21st century Mad Max than a continuation of the Terminator franchise that seasoned audiences are familiar with, director McG's post apocalyptic man versus industrial-robot-military-complex lurches through fits and starts of spectacle that almost add up to a story. Helena Bonham Carter plays mad scientist Dr. Serena Kogan who uses the body of executed convict Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington) for her latest and last -- she's dying of cancer -- experiment of creating an indestructible human/machine hybrid. Christian Bale plays alpha male Resistance leader John Connor, whose blanket radio transmissions begin with "If you're listening to this, you are the resistance." With his pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) awaiting his return, Connor sets off on a mission to rescue a group of prisoners from the country-occupying robot clutches of Skynet, whose prisoner Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin) is of special importance. From an action standpoint, Terminator Salvation is an eye-blasting fiesta accompanied by good performances from Bale, Worthington, Yelchin, and Moon Bloodgood as a hot shot soldier. However, the film comes up short with an underdeveloped story and some abysmal performances from actors in secondary roles--reference lackluster efforts from Common, as a Resistance soldier, and child actor Jadagrace playing a mute witness.

Bale's John Connor works under the gruff leadership of Michael Ironside's General Ashdown, whose guts-for-glory presence gets hung out to dry thanks to inattention from screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). Known for his performances in Paul Verhoeven's Robocop and Starship Troopers, Ironside effectively chews what little scenery he's given but gets lost in a shuffle of gonzo Transformers-styled spectacle.

Where the movie excels best is in all things big, fast, and metal. In the 2018 prophesized world of perpetual darkness, Skynet's arsenal of bots includes articulated Hydrobot creatures that swim like snakes and have extracting tongue-and-claw mouths -- think Alien, and colossal spider-like Harvester aircraft capable of plucking up humans in their gigantic claws. The Harvesters go all Transformer when they eject high-revving motorcycle bots called Moto-Terminators that enable a thrilling chase sequence when Connor hot wires one.

As a sequel to a sequel of a sequel, Terminator Salvation doesn't waste time with how-we-got-here exposition, but as such doesn't connect easily to the rest of the franchise either. The tone here is distinctly more downbeat as reflected in the film's drab color palette and muted lighting. And if you're looking for humor, you've come to the wrong movie. John Connor is the now-grown character that Edward Furlong played in T2, and whose purpose -- to defeat Skynet and save the world -- depends on his ability to rescue Kyle Reese as the man who will eventually father him. (Got it?) The future-past-future time device comes off as an obvious ploy designed to milk more sequels. The trouble is that the screenwriters don't build enough character development around the quirky plot anchor. Chemistry between Bale and Bryce Dallas Howard is zilch, with Howard visibly straining to work up some crystal of romantic attraction with a character over-amped about his responsibility to save humanity. Connor listens dutifully to cassette recordings his mother made to guide him on his mission, but he doesn't share as much communication with the woman who will bear his child. As a result, Sam Worthington's cyborg-with-a-beating-heart Marcus presents a more interesting character, and steals the movie as a rival anti-hero. A chance meeting with Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), the last badass woman on the planet, gives the movie a much-needed jolt of sensuality.

Terminator Salvation isn't the sci-fi extravaganza I'd hoped for, but it does fulfill on its promise of visually articulating the robot mentality that America's military seems geared to accomplish. Without a someone like a Paul Verhoeven writing and directing it, the Terminator franchise will slug out another sequel every so many years for audiences to get to the bottom of their popcorn. The opportunity for loaded satire of colored thematic fruits from such ripened narrative soil will likely go unseeded. There is, however, a wellspring of potential in the franchise for the right filmmaker to generate a Starship Troopers kind of frisky movie that goes beyond the constraints of spectacle-generated entertainment toward sophisticated sci-fi satire. Until that time comes, take what you can get.

Rated PG-13. 116 mins. (B-)
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