5 June 2009

Movie Review: Terminator Salvation


B

Terminator Salvation
2009, 115mins, PG-13
Director: McG
Writer (s): John Brancato, Michael Ferris
Cast includes: Christian Bale, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter
Release Date: 21st May 2009

If summer blockbusters are meant to be big, brash and full of explosions then “Terminator Salvation” has landed in the correct season because if spectacle equates to box-office gold then this is 24 carat magic. Director McG has composed a wham bam sort of event movie that Michael Bay could take notes on; certainly in terms of pure effects driven aesthetic the upcoming “Transformers Revenge of the Fallen” will have a tough task to upstage this effort. That’s not to say the “Terminator Salvation” is the best offering of the summer so far but for my money it amounts to a solidly crafted and entertaining continuation of the season and its legendary franchise. James Cameron is still king of the robot realm but McG might be a perfectly acceptable prince.

The film deserves credit for working itself so meticulously into the Terminator timeline and for bucking the formula for the series thus far. In terms of a genre this one slots far more comfortably into war than the chase movie template utilized on the previous three outings, McG having forgone intimate and closely knitted tension for something on a far larger and more expansive scale. This is the first picture in which the humans are outnumbered by Terminators, and which the world of Skynet isn’t just an opening slice of prologue or a foreboding whisper of doom. This is a world where the man vs. machine mythos is no longer an avoidable prophecy but a harsh and gritty reality.

The year is 2018 and the war between humanity and Skynet is raging, with the latter’s Terminator filled armies winning the engagement. All around the globe pockets of resistance fight the machines for their lives and the future of humanity. The resistance enjoys a change of fortune when it’s leaders come to the realization that they might have a weapon that can end the war, if operated close to Skynets headquarters the tool might be capable of shutting the machines down long enough for a massive airstrike to annihilate them for good. One of the key figures amongst the humans offers to test it out, the future savior of the mankind, John Connor (Christian Bale). Connor however has an ulterior motive, in line with advice passed on by his mother John is looking for a teenager called Kyle Reese, who will later become Connor’s own father. Reese needs to be kept alive if humanity stands a chance of survival. At the same time Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) has awoken from a coma, last he remembered he was on death row in 2003 and now he’s been unwittingly plunged into a futuristic apocalypse. He quickly runs into the teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and together they set a course to find Connor after hearing one of his radio broadcasts. On route Reese is captured by the Terminators and taken to their concentration camps, leaving Marcus to find John Connor and plan some sort of rescue mission.

In order to stand a chance of following “Terminator Salvation” audiences should be made aware that viewing of at least the first two films is crucial, without prior knowledge of the saga this is a sequel that will simply make no sense. In the way that the recent reboot of “Star Trek” was fully accessible to fans and newcomers alike, “Terminator Salvation” is dependent on your familiarity with the previous installments. Without the necessary backlog of knowledge and mythology, people will find “Terminator Salvation” a narrative nightmare. Those who have dabbled in the Sci-Fi delights of Cameron’s opening pair and the unfairly maligned third film will notice that in terms of formula “Salvation” is vastly different, the chase elements that provided the core for the other movies are absent and “Salvation” has no clear antagonist for the heroes to fight. The villains on show here are the legions of malevolent machines at Skynet’s disposal and not an individual robotic adversary. This is probably one of the weaker elements of “Salvation”, by taking out a central figure of unimaginable power and ferocity some of the dread that made previous installments so exciting and appetizing is removed, the bad guys here are vast in number and certainly nasty but they never generate the all encompassing terror that previous fiends did. “Salvation” is a full frontal war movie never attempting to mimic the style and flow of the opening films, instead building its own identity as the apocalyptic hell oft talked about in the past features, now a fully realised reality.

The performances are decent but constantly upstaged by the viciously entertaining and well shot set-pieces, if ever there was a case of effects trumping actors then “Terminator Salvation” stands a good chance of being considered for the honor. Bale makes for a gruff and satisfyingly empowering John Connor, the performance is totally one note but in turn the actor’s screen presence keeps it in the realms of credible. Worthington’s interpretation of the confused and mysterious Marcus has more depth and ultimately resonates with the audience to a more emotional degree. For two thirds of the feature Marcus is an utter enigma and the actor does a good job of maintaining the aura of unknown, whilst consistently engaging on a human level. Playing Reese in his teenage years Yelchin does a good job of channeling Michael Biehn who portrayed him in the 1984 original. After being one of the few problems in the recent “Star Trek” Yelchin curries a little of his reputation back with “Salvation”, his performance actually fully formed rather than an irritating cartoon style display.

The two female players fare the worst, Moon Bloodgood is her own destruction as a potential love interest for Marcus, her mediocre acting the only reason why she fails at cooking up a potentially interesting entity. On the other hand Bryce Dallas Howard is limited as John Connor’s pregnant spouse, the screenplay allowing the talented actress very little to work with. Following “Spider-Man 3” this is the second time the actress has stumbled into a big Hollywood production that thoroughly underutilizes her abilities.

The movie looks terrific, a combination of eye popping effects and masterful cinematography ensure that “Terminator Salvation” is seasonal eye candy of the most welcome kind. Director McG has conjured up a bleak and nihilistic atmosphere and completes a series of superb set-pieces to fill out his world. The action in “Terminator Salvation” is really special, virtually every big bombastic moment captures the audience’s attention and the movie rarely sinks into lazy and expensive genre conformity. At times it almost seems like the director is actually slipping slightly closer to a massive scale “Transformers” style of action movie, though admirably he avoids the current craze of shaky-cam shooting that has plagued multiplexes for the last 18 months or so. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the picture offers anything iconic in terms of set-piece but in the moment they’re really enjoyable and nothing short of visually lavish. Due to a PG-13 certificate the picture is less hard edged than its predecessors, but the carnage on screen remains aggressive enough to thrill without bloodshead. The movie was made in the memory of FX guru Stan Winston, and in truth with the exceptional use of CGI and digitals on show, it’s a fitting tribute.

There is a logical debate that “Terminator Salvation” is more about the technical aspects than the characters, ironically the picture could be very much a case of machine over man. However whilst the well crafted action beats are probably a notch above any character of actor on display it’s only fair to acknowledge that “Terminator Salvation” is skillfully worked into the universe and harbors clear reverence for the material from the start. Fans will notice that composer Danny Elfman works the legendary original music in from time to time and the amount of wink and nudge references to the previous installments is off the charts. We are also treated to a CGI reincarnation of a particular figure long associated with this series but absent on this outing, you can probably guess who, but this reviewer certainly isn’t going to confirm those suspicions. This a film made by fans for the fans, and both camps should be pleased with the final product.

“Terminator Salvation” has its faults and the lock down on non-devotees is bound to perturb a few but overall this is an agreeable and well intentioned blockbuster that stumps up the booming goods. How many more installments of this franchise we’ll have to stomach is unknown, and of course it will have to reach a point where some young slickster farts all over the beloved enterprise. However despite what many are expecting, it’s not going to be McG’s fourth entry which is guilty of such vile cinematic crimes. “Terminator Salvation” is an enjoyable continuation of the franchise and a mighty fine way to enjoy a summer evening. I didn’t expect to be saying it, but this is a sequel that actually adds a little more to the classics it follows even if it doesn’t reach their levels of grandiose sci-fi joy.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

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