Sunday, June 07, 2009

Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)

Terminator terminated

When I learned there was to be a fourth Terminator installment, first question I asked was "why?" When I learned this fourth Terminator was to be directed by the auteur responsible for the Charlie's Angels movies, I asked: "why him?" When I learned that the fourth Terminator was to star Christian Bale and run ten minutes past two hours, I asked: "why bother?"

It's not as if the franchise were all that good. The first, written and directed by James Cameron, was by far the best, taking as it does elements from two of Philip K. Dick's short stories, "Second Variety" and "Jon's World." The first story proposes a constantly developing robot series, designed to imitate human form and infiltrate organizations and communities accordingly (Cameron's original idea was to tell the story of a killer robot that resembled an ordinary human, and was to have Lance Henriksen play the terminator); the second story is a sequel, a time-travel tale where men attempt to go back to try prevent the invention of the robots in the first place (and here you see the seed of the idea that eventually became both Terminator and Terminator 2). Daniel Gilbertson, who was developing a script adaptation of "Second Variety" for Hemdale (his script eventually became the movie Screamers (1995)) claimed (in the January 1998 issue of Cinefantastique) that Cameron had a look at the script back when he was developing The Terminator.

(Yes, Cameron did openly admit that he was partly inspired by two Outer Limits episodes written by Harlan Ellison--"Soldier," and "Demon with the Glass Hand;" yes Ellison sued and got his names on the movie's final credits. But Dick had died two years before Cameron's movie was released, and (unlike Ellison) was in no condition to bring suit against Cameron for copyright infringement.)

Cameron went for gigantism in the sequel (a mega-sized version of "Jon's World," in effect) with a dubious anti-violence message grafted on; he abandoned the franchise (he'd since won gold doorstops for Best Picture and Best Director for Titanic (1997)), handing over directing reins to skilled craftsman Jonathan Mostow for the third picture in the series.

Unlike the previous three movies, where cyborgs and humans from the future invade present-day Los Angeles, the fourth picture foregoes the present altogether and is set entirely in the future. McG has opted for a washed-out cinema verite look--plenty of handheld shots, a gritty desert palette (you can see the attempt to evoke the Iraq war). Thank goodness the shaky-cam footage doesn't involve too much shaking--the action sequences are blessedly shot and edited with an attempt at coherence, and you can follow what's happening without suffering too much of a headache (though McG is apparently far more skilled at depicting machine-on-machine or machine-on-human action than he is at depicting simple hand-to-hand combat). Plus there seems to be a partial return to puppeteered machinery (a la the late Stan Winston, to whom this movie is dedicated), as opposed to your boringly standard-issue digital effects.

To say the script has problems is to put matters too kindly. The picture seems to break down into two main lines of action: one involves killer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is executed in present-day and resurrected in the future; is captured by the rebellion; is possibly a terminator sent to kill John Connor. The other involves the legend himself, John Connor (Christian Bale, who seems to be taking himself entirely too seriously) trying to find his father/friend Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).

I understand why Wright is here and why what he is trying to do is important--in effect, he's our eyes and ears, a figure from our times thrust into this unfamiliar world. But what about Connor? Aside from testing out a signal that might shut down Skynet machines and (when he remembers to do so) worrying about his unknown father, Connor seems pretty much relegated to the bench, constantly waiting to be called into play (there's this visually impressive sequence where Connor boards a copter, takes off, is buffeted in-flight by an explosion, crashes. All happening within a single lengthy shot that unfortunately also seems to sum his problems in a nutshell). When Marcus escapes the rebellion and heads into Skynet headquarters, Connor defies orders and does the same, and you want to ask: couldn't the two have simply joined forces and gone to the Emerald City--sorry, Skynet headquarters--together? That would have cut, oh, maybe twenty minutes of unnecessary parallel action right there.

(Apparently (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the picture) there was an original script that envisioned Christian Bale as the terminator (talk about typecasting) not Connor. John Connor was to make a brief appearance in the picture's final moments, having kept himself hidden for most of the film (which would have made sense, considering all the robots that have traveled through time to try kill him). Bale signed on wanting to play Connor, not the terminator, and demanded that his role be built up accordingly, hence the narrative fat.

None of which is necessary to appreciating--or deprecating--the film. All one needs to realize is that the picture seems to wander aimlessly here and there, trying to find something to do; there's none of the hurtling, race-against-time quality that made Cameron's original B movie so memorable

But issues with script and director and unnecessary leading man aside, the picture is really struggling with two more basic issues. First: setting the story in the future instead of present robs the picture of whatever sense of evocation and poetry it might have had. Seeing the future through glimpses and brief flashes (as we did in the first three pictures, but most effectively in the first) actually increases our interest in it, makes us want to see it; any attempt to actually show said future kills the fascination right there. Think of a striptease--it's the dance that excites and arouses; when the last piece of clothing falls, so does your interest. The final revelation can only be an anti-climax no matter how much money you throw at it.

Second: this particular tomorrow is so damned grim. Cameron had many flaws as director and writer but at least he had a sense of humor. Probably the best dialogue scenes in his Aliens (1986) are of the space marines indulging in sophomoric quips; possibly the best dialogue scenes in the original Terminator was between Lt. Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Det. Vukovich (Henriksen)--Cameron seems to have a gift for depicting working-class camaraderie. Unrelenting gloom doesn't enhance intensity, it just enhances boredom; McG in his bid for dramatic greatness might have done better to remember this, and allowed the audience a bit of fun along the way.

First published in Businessworld 5.29.09


jayclops said...

Yeah, I really liked that chopper scene, arguably the best one there. I can't take it off my mind after. TS is obviously a Bale vehicle, because everytime Connor inhabits the scene, it's usually a close-up of his face. It's like saying, forget Marcus Wright, it's all about me John Connor.

Noel Vera said...

One reason I've stopped being a fan of actors--any actor--is that their ego can get in the way of the storytelling.

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