Sunday, May 24, 2009

No Fate

The Terminator has always been a compelling series for me. I'll admit that I didn't see the first film until after I'd seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day but the ideas, the concepts and drama that drive this series were extremely exciting from the moment I'd first seen the trailers for T2. Even my parents were excited by the trailers. People who to this day probably can't name a single film as their "favorite." But here they were hyped for a film about killer robots from the future and consequently I became excited as well.

It's a pretty common joke around That's a Wrap! that I will like anything with killer robots in it and while that is a little broad of a generalization--I do adore stories about robots...oh and time travel too.

I had quite the love/hate affair with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles(which I'm sad to say was canceled way before its time) and it's willy-nilly timeline and age changes(not to mention the blatant canon broken in the first episode with the T-800 head going through the time portal) before I gave in and enjoyed the series for what it was, warts and all.

The Terminator franchise for me has always been sort of like a horror story. Honestly the first movie is the only one that can really even be likened to a horror film, but the basic story is somewhat endemic to horror movies: Evil thing hunts an innocent and cannot be stopped. Without all the sci-fi trappings that plot description could fit any number of horror movies. The Terminator could be a proxy for The Mummy. They share the same basic conceit Not to mention the Terminator Endoskeleton--fucking frightening.

Now, of course, the Terminator films have always been about action(T2 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines more so than The Terminator but the idea of an unstoppable metallic horror from the future hunting someone is just a frightening proposition. One of the things that worried me about Terminator Salvation was that it was set in the future.

Yes, it's set in the time period that we've all wanted to see since the first time we viewed The Terminator and saw those tantalizing glimpses of the future war. But can Terminator stay frightening if it's about a war with hundreds of thousands of endoskeletons? Thankfully, the answer is yes--at least when it needs to be.

Everyone worried when McG was announced as the director of this film. Truth be told, I've never seen one of his films. I know that his take on Charlie's Angels was well received if not well reviewed and I knew that he was an action focused director. I tried to give the man the benefit of the doubt and I'm glad I did, because aside from a very few nitpicks Terminator Salvation is a very fun and exciting summer movie.

It is the year 2019(a good ten years before John Connor "smashed SkyNet's defense grid," won the war and sent his father back in time) and things aren't looking good for the human race. SkyNet is ramping up to something big--the T-800, and the human resistance(not yet lead by John Connor) is looking to find a way to end the war for good.

Marcus Wright(Sam Worthington) a death row inmate from 2003 wakes up in the aftermath of a Connor-led infiltration of a SkyNet facility. Though nearly fifteen years have passed since his "death." The big question is, who is Marcus and is he what he seems to be?

The big difference between the past Terminator films and this movie is that this isn't a road/chase picture. The past Terminator movies have all had the main characters running from a terminator until the inevitable showdown at the end. Salvation shirks this format and is truly a different film. Look, I'll admit it doesn't have the heart or mind of The Terminator or T2, but what it does have is a competent story with some great set-pieces that never overstay their welcome.

The main problem with this film is that McG splits the time between Marcus and Connor. We never really get to spend enough time with either of them and the film never seems to know who the main character is. Is it John Connor(Christian Bale), the most important person in the Terminator franchise or Marcus Wright, the random dude we've never heard of before and truth be told--is kind of a dick. Because we split our time between the two stories there are things that get left by the wayside such as the relationship between Kate Connor(Bryce Dallas Howard) and John. Ideally this should be the emotional core of the film but it never really goes anywhere.

In addition to this, some of the acting is shoddy at best. Christian Bale...well, he's Christian Bale. This guy could read the phone book and make it at least worth paying attention. Howard is serviceable in what is sadly a marginal role. Worthington as Marcus is downright awful. The guy can't say a line without waffling between his American and native Australian accents. Worthington's character is also a total ass making me want to follow Connor again whenever he's on the screen. Thankfully most of Marcus's screen time is shared with Anton Yelchin's Kyle Reese. Now, I had major issues with Yelchin in Star Trek but here he's an absolute joy(aside from his attempt to replicate Michael Biehn's voice) to watch.

The special effects are fairly well done, though there are a few places where they look incomplete or just lame(wait till you see Marcus hanging out at the Hollywood sign). Though the Hunter/Killer effects look nice enough, they don't have the same impact as the model work from the earlier films. Computer graphics are an incredible tool for filmmakers but they seem to have become a crutch in recent years. Model work doesn't always look convincing but combined with convincing CG it can look amazing. More directors should look to Peter Jackson's work in The Lord of the Rings for an idea of how to make models and CG work together. McG does have some excellent traditional effects peppered throughout with some of the T-600 endoskeletons and again, most of the CG looks impressive enough(the giant terminator Harvester immediately comes to mind).

Where this movie bests T3 is in the humor department. One of the only complaints I really had with T3 was the pathetic attempts at humor. Salvation(written by the same people who wrote T3) thankfully does not have this problem. There are humorous portions written into the script, but they are mostly understated and will probably only be noticed by Terminator die-hards. The requisite "I'll be back" moment is probably handled the best since the original film and doesn't come off as cheesy like it did in T3.

And finally, the terminators are still scary. The first time we meet a T-600 endoskeleton it is gripping and frightening. There are moments later that continue this tension. I am glad that McG was able to keep these moments scary while still portraying the future war with the machines.

All in all Terminator Salvation is a worthy addition to the Terminator franchise. Though not nearly as gripping as the first two films it is a compelling action movie and the first summer movie that I've genuinely loved. You can't and shouldn't compare it to the first two Terminator films. If you can do that then you will probably love this flawed but fun film.

Plus it's got killer robots IN the future. Can't go wrong there!

3.5 Polymemetic alloys out of 5!

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