Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer School: 'Terminator Salvation' (2009)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Initially, the idea for Terminator Salvation seemed promising: After three movies in which agents of both sides in the human/machine war travel back in time to kill and/or save John Connor, it made sense to move forward and stop rehashing the same plot, to spend an entire movie in the future depicting the war itself. The conclusion of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, in which John and Kate Brewster fail to stop Judgment Day, afforded the perfect opportunity to do just that. Judgment Day has happened, there's no more stopping it, and now all that's left is for the humans to fight the machines directly.

Unfortunately, writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who also wrote T3) and director McG don't seem to have any idea how to make the future war interesting or exciting, and instead they fall back on re-creating the characters from the past movies in a new context. Salvation comes up with the least interesting versions of John Connor, Kyle Reese and the "good" Terminator, though, and the promising casting of Christian Bale as John turns out to be a complete misstep. It's hard to believe, but Bale's John is easily the worst in the series, a generic, shouty guerrilla commander who has none of the angst or inquisitiveness of the previous versions of the character. He could be pretty much anybody, and his interactions with the new human/Terminator hybrid (played by a typically wooden Sam Worthington) and determination to save Kyle (Anton Yelchin, also woefully miscast) carry no emotional weight from the previous movies.

Although saving Kyle so that he can fulfill his destiny to travel back in time is a key plot point, it doesn't have the same urgency as the prior races against time, partially because the characters' goals are often unclear. Really, this movie might have been better without Kyle or even John at all, since it's pretty much just a generic post-apocalyptic action movie. Not that Worthington's Marcus Wright makes for a worthwhile substitute protagonist, especially because his status as a human Terminator never really makes any sense. Worthington's bland performance doesn't do anything to elevate the material, and the movie ends up being a split between his soporific angst and Bale's apoplectic yelling. Poor Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Claire Danes as John's wife Kate Brewster, barely gets any lines, going from the awakened action hero of T3 to a hand-wringing baby incubator in this movie.

It's no surprise that the planned future-set trilogy that Salvation was meant to kick off never happened, and that the new movie in the series is returning to the time-travel concept and bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator (his only appearance in Salvation is a brief scene in which his computer-generated face is superimposed on a stand-in). Still, the idea of a Terminator movie set in the future and depicting the battle against Skynet is not a bad one. It just needs a more involving story and distinctive vision than anything that the creators of Salvation can come up with.

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