MOVIE REVIEW: "Terminator Salvation" (2009)

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I know, I know: the only thing you’re really interested in is whether or not this movie contains the first-ever nude scene for an active republican governor. Well I’m not gonna’ tell you that.

This is a pretty good movie, better than the reviews, but it could have easily been a great movie. It just narrowly misses the mark, which makes it a bit frustrating. It is way the hell better than T3: Rise of the Machines, however.

John Connor is an interesting character. He’s a messiah, effectively. We learn about his superhuman status second hand, from someone who worships him in the first movie, but he remains essentially a Macguffin. In the second one we meet him *before* he becomes a messiah, he’s just a smart whiney-assed kid with a crazy mother. In T3 he’s front and center, but he’s curiously lacking in a personality or in that quality that will make men gladly live or die by his word, which is, at root, a large part of what’s wrong with that movie. For the record, my favorite John Connor was the Thomas Dekker iteration from T2.5: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I felt captured a lot of the nascent superman that was missing in the other films.

So the question becomes one of ‘how do you present a messiah?” It’s easy to *say* someone’s a hero, and accept it on faith, but movies operate on a ‘show, don’t tell’ basis, so we need to actually see the hero being heroic (Also missing in T3). The problem is that we’ve heard such hype about John Connor (Who not-at-all coincidentally shares the initials of the real Messiah) that nothing can really live up to our expectations. No matter what he does, it’ll still seem weak tea at best. Mel Gibson had a similar problem when he did “The Patriot.” All the major figures of the American Revolution are so steeped in myth and patriotic fervor that you can’t really tell a story about them because at this late date virtually anything you did would appear a poor second to the cult of personality that surrounds them. Gibson decided to sidestep the issue by telling a story that was effectively offstage from the “main” story of the Revolution, in which the Founding Fathers only have cameo roles. It was a wise move, as it freed him up to tell his own story rather than being a slave to people’s expectations.

Word on the street is that in the original script for Terminator: Salvation, John Connor was barely in it. We follow others around for half the film before we meet him, and then he’s a massive force to be reckoned with, not ‘one of the gang.’ I believe it. The structure of this film has all the earmarks of having originally been a “We’re off to see the Wizard” plot which was then overhauled to give the Wizard more screen time. This is, I think, ultimately to the movie’s detriment because if you squint real hard you can see a better movie buried beneath plastic surgery inside of this film, and you really want it to come out.

Alas..

PLAY BY PLAY

In 2003 a murderer named Marcus is on death row. He signs his body over for scientific experimentation after he dies, as a way of ‘giving back.’

In 2018 John Connor is evidently the Resistance Leader for all of Southern California, but, interestingly, he’s not the leader of the entire resistance. His men are on a raid to get some intel, but it goes bad and Connor alone escapes a self destruct system. Connor leaves. Shortly thereafter, Marcus the Murderer comes wandering out of the gaping hole the destruct left in the ground. He wanders to the ruins of LA, and meets the young Kyle Reese.

Connor, meanwhile, meets up w/ the Heads of the Resistance in their super secret base (Which is sensible and pretty cool, actually), and discovers that the Terminators are trying to kill him and Kyle. They also have a new weapon that’ll effectively turn off skynet, and want him to test it. He agrees.

Reese and Marcus leave LA and run afoul of a Hunter/Killer and some other big new ‘bots, which leads to a pretty eye-popping chase that for whatever reason never quite leaps to the level of the Tanker Chase in The Road Warrior, though that’s obviously what they’re going for. Marcus takes many pratfalls that no one could possibly survive in real life. Kyle gets captured, and taken to San Francisco. Marcus wanders through the desert and meets up with - essentially - Starbuck from the new Galactica. The two of ‘em fall in love or something (Deleted sex scene, apparently, in order to get a PG13 rating rather than R), and then they’re off they’re off they’re off to see the wizard.

Surprising no one, Marcus is a terminator, the prototype for the infiltration model. Some time-wasting shenanigans ensues and he and Connor start working on a two-pronged plan which, unfortunately, turns out to be a trap. More fighting ensues, and then it ends with - I guess we’re supposed to believe - the first major defeat of Skynet, but the war is just beginning.

OBSERVATIONS

This is not a reboot as has been previously said, nor does it just ‘pretend T3 never happened.‘ Instead it’s a solid sequel to T3, and makes some very deliberate references to that movie. Sarah Connor is still dead, and most notably he’s married to Clair Danes’ character from T3. She’s conspicuously pregnant throughout the film.

In fact, given the time-traveling nature of the film, this could be considered a prequel to the original Terminator since Connor hasn’t sent Reese back in time yet, nor won the war yet. That’s a bit confusing, I suppose, so let’s call this an “Interquel,” it sort of takes place between parts of the other movies. There is not, however, any time travel in this film.

Connor’s efforts to coordinate the initial survival and relief efforts at the close of T3 are evidently what netted him the job as Leader in SoCal. Making him merely a regional commissar and not the high lord grand poobah of the resistance was actually a pretty clever move, though Michael Ironside isn’t given much to do besides snarl in a forceful Michael Ironside way. His character is set up for an interesting conflict, and is telegraphed as the good guy who’s really not all that good, which will come back to bite the good guys later on, but nothing really comes of it. It’s frustrating. If Ironside had actually tried to take Connor down, either as a false prophet or an insubordinate threat to his power, that would have been interesting. If the Resistance had schismed between Connor and Ironsides factions, that would have been interesting. What we’re given, alas, just smacks of wasted potential.

No one seems much concerned about Radiation in this movie. Connor is very close to TWO nukes in the film, and Marcus and Reese are walking through the nuked ruins of LA, and no one seems much concerned about cancer or radiation sickness. Later a pregnant woman is near an exploding nuke, and no one seems much concerned about it.

As Marcus, Sam Worthington’s accent is kind of all over the place, and changes from scene to scene. He’s good in the part, and really this is his story, but, jeez, just have him be Australian already! There’s no reason he couldn’t be.

As “Starbuck,” Moon Bloodgood doesn’t make too much of an impression beyond her hopelessly hippie/Wicca name. Which, as fake-sounding names go, is nowhere as good as “Lex Shrapnel.” Lex isn’t in this film, but I just love saying his name.

Danny Elfman does the soundtrack this time out. The music is quite a bit better than the previous films.

When Connor turns up in the post-titles sequence the movie divides it narrative, and thereby the attention of the audience, since most of Connor’s bits don’t really *come* to much of anything. My hunch is that the original plan was for Marcus to get executed in 2003 then wake up in an exploding lab in 2018 with no idea how he got there, and we’d just follow him along until about the one-hour mark when we finally meet Connor as a looming and somewhat distant figure. It would have played better that way, I think, since the divided narrative early on effectively robs both story lines of their impact. This is basically a story about a guy getting dropped in to the middle of a vast conflict unawares, and following him along as he becomes integral in it - much like Luke in Star Wars. If Star Wars was continually cutting away to Admiral Ackbar requisitioning MREs for the Rebel Marines and conferring with the brass back on Yavin, it really wouldn’t add anything to the story, and it would actually pull a lot away from Luke, don’t you think? (Shhhh! Don’t tell Lucas!) So that’s the fundamental flaw here. If, on the other hand, it had stayed with it’s theoretical original structure, then it clearly was intended as a device to introduce the grown up badass John Connor so that it could deflate and re-structure our opinions of him, and then he’d be front-and-center in the next film. Clever, but, alas, it didn’t happen.

Another fundamental problem, I think, is that there are some periscopes in the script from earlier drafts that come to nothing. After the titles, for instance, we’re given a title crawl explaining the franchise to this point, and then mentioning that some believe Connor is the new Messiah, and others believe he’s a false prophet. Now *That’s* an interesting notion, right? Cool! They do nothing with it, though, never even TOUCH that plot element again. So why even bother to mention it in the opening crawl? Obviously an artifact of earlier drafts.

The Direction in this movie was, to me, kinda’ weak. Yeah, I know that McG is a successful director, and he did an adequate job in the film, I’m not saying he sucked. I’m just saying that I don’t think the executive producer of “The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious” was the best choice for the material. You need to have a kind of Cammeronesque tone with the material, and he just lacks that gravity. He does a better job - by far- that Johnathan Mostow did with the previous one, but…eh. No spark, no flash, no magic, no lightning in a bottle. Example: none of the fight or chase sequences here have that grueling ‘it just keeps going and going and going’ quality to them that we find in the first two films. It’s not that they’re not long enough - they’re plenty long - but they lack the emotional wearing down quality that the action sequences in the Cameron films had, the thing that makes them feel like everything is coming apart at the seams.

Finally, I don’t think Christian Bale quite had a bead on Connor. Again, as I’ve said, that’s a tough nut to crack and he isn’t given much to go on, and half his scenes are borderline-irrelevant. Still I’m a little disappointed by him. Conversely, I love Worthington’s “Marcus.” Connor’s wife doesn’t make that much of an impact, though I liked the relationship they were *trying* to have in the film, even if it didn’t really telegraph on an emotional level. I liked the idea, if not the execution. That’s true of a lot of this movie. I can totally see the script blowing people away, as it takes a lot of chances with the formula. (And why must they completely re-cast these movies every time? I mean, why not actually use Claire Danes? It’s not like she’s doing anything else…)

So it’s a better movie than I was expecting, and in the hands of a better director, with a less doctored script I think it would have been completely brilliant. As it is, I find myself wondering if there’ll be a sequel. I know one is planned, but the theater was mostly empty on opening weekend, reviews have been bad, and no one but me seems to like the basic idea behind this film. All anyone really seems interested in is whether Arnie is in it or not, and as I’ve already said to start with, I’m not gonna’ tell you that.

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