Fourth ‘Terminator’ Fumbles the Franchise

[20 May 2009]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

It’s all so unnecessary. When he made Terminator 2: Judgment Day, franchise founder James Cameron delivered the ultimate action statement on his killer from the future formula. Combining then state of the art F/X with the storytelling acumen that often surpasses the subject matter, the man who made Arnold Schwarzenegger into a certified superstar provided the kind of closer that defies “easy” sequelization. Proof arrived 12 years later with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a wholly empty attempt at recreating the success of the first two films. And Fox has given a TV version the axe after a couple of successful seasons. Now Hollywood is back again, hoping it can resurrect the material and make it into a new commercial cash cow. Sadly, without the original artists at the helm, all we wind up with is hallow bombast - and far too much of it.

It’s 2018. The nuclear annihilation of the planet by Skynet - also known as “Judgment Day” - has occurred. There are packs of human beings left, but the machines, led by those android assassins the Terminators, are systematically rounding them up and wiping them out. Under the leadership of John Connor, the Resistance is trying to overcome the computer system that’s controlling these monsters. A shut off signal buried deep within the Skynet programming may be the key. In the meantime, someone named Marcus Wright wakes up to find himself in the future. He was originally part of a prison program helping cancer-ridden scientist Serena Kogan find a cure for her illness. Now, he’s part of a movement to keep mankind from dying out all together. Along with wannabe rebel Kyle Reese, he must make his way to Connor. Unfortunately, they all end up at Skynet, battling the faceless AI for control of the planet.

Here’s the biggest problem with Terminator Salvation, and no it’s not McG’s tireless desire to blow up everything onset in some manner of overwrought ballistic ballet (more on that in a moment). In fact, the real issue here is obvious - a Terminator movie is not a Terminator movie without a Terminator acting as the threat. Or sure, there are machines, gargantuan devices that no real human could ever take down, let alone sabotage and use for their own purposes, and every once in a while, a stuntman in a bad T-100/800 suit shows up to fire a machine gun and get smashed by some part of a factory. But without an Arnold, or a Patrick (or god help us, a Loken), we’ve got a war movie where the outcome is already known. And since the storyline has to maintain itself less we wonder off into reboot territory (which the series could probably use, by the way), we grow weary of all the John Connor as savior stuff.

For perhaps the first time in any genre effort, Christian Bale is relatively uninspired as our lead. He’s all gruff and grumble military tactics, without a bit of the cavalier heroism the character requires. He’s so pissed off all the time that you wonder how he managed to survive without some manner of mutiny within his ranks. Frankly, he makes all the time we invested in him from Terminator 2 on seem useless. Newcomer Sam Worthington’s not much better. As the man who’s not sure why he feels so “foreign” in his own skin, he’s a plot twist that never pays off. If you don’t see his purpose 15 minutes into the nearly two hour running time, you’re blind to the basics of sci-fi scripting. And then there is current It-kid Anton Yelchin, burning up the Cineplex as Chekov in J.J. Abrams sensational Star Trek. The best you can say is, as Reese, he’s no Michael Biehn.

As for the director, McG’s whole raison d’etra appears to be blowing up as much of the California desert as possible. Terminator Salvation sets a new benchmark for bombs blasts. The movie practically starts with an isolated nuke drop (during a battle over Skynet satellite dishes) and ends with the entire city of San Francisco going out with a bang! The sound design amplifies these explosions to the point where your internal organs start to vibrate from the seismic waves. But it’s all for naught - unless you like seeing fireballs rise above the set in an endless stream of conflagration. McG never guides the mayhem, never building the suspense or cementing the climax. Random acts appear to heighten the body count, while coincidence plays a bigger role in the resolution of conflicts than strategy or strength.

But there’s more to it than that. Unlike Shoot ‘Em Up, Wanted, or another similarly styled film that follows the “More is More!” school of hyper overdrive action, Terminator Salvation feels like nothing but noise. There’s no style here, not cinematic joie de vive. McG does experiment with angles and approaches, but in the end, it’s all about how big he can make his movie. But ‘epic’ doesn’t come from size alone. Ideas go a long way toward taking the average and making it mythic. Indeed, Terminator Salvation does nothing to stretch or excite the franchise folklore. It often seems like the studio hired certain actors - Bale, Bryce Dallas Howard, Helena Bonham Carter - as place holders, hoping this first overdone offering succeeds so that their characters will have some real purpose come sequel time (Ms. Burton is fairly bad-ass as the visual “voice” of Skynet, however).

For what it’s worth, Terminator Salvation succeeds within the boundaries of its already hampered history. You can’t top Cameron, and the third installment painted the series into a corner that even the most accomplished filmmaker would find hard to escape. True, an entirely different narrative could have been fashioned, one that doesn’t just lunge lockstep directly through the previous film’s talking points. If John Connor really does save humanity, wouldn’t a better attempt at restarting this series be initiated after said conclusion, set in a world still rebuilding? And then how about sending a Terminator to the future instead of the past? It seems like, once the cogs of this particularly obtuse time travel concept are in place, the machine can be led anywhere. This time out, the studio has gone for stuntwork. Here’s hoping that, once the inevitable follow-up hits screens, there’ll be more vision and less violence.

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