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movies / May 24, 2009
By Eileen Jones


I seriously thought my eardrums had burst a couple of times during Terminator Salvation. The movie sounds like jets crashing into a junkyard, one after another, with intervals of loud pompous narration delivered via public address system between the screeching collisions. The movie looks like that same junkyard in the immediate aftermath, twisted smoking metal and grit everywhere. But I’m making it seem kind of good, and I don’t mean to. It’s not good. It‘s a sadly complete illustration of how to cock up a film.

The director, McG, whose first mistake is calling himself “McG”, has an uncanny ability to do the dumb thing cinematically, probably picked up while directing music videos and then perfected with the Charlie’s Angels movies. Admittedly he has some rotten material to work with; the script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris is a mass of rancid clichés, including lines like, “If you’re going to pull a gun you better be prepared to use it,” and the in-your-dreams scene at the campfire when the beautiful action babe asks the stolid action guy she just met if they can huddle together for warmth.

To be fair, it’s no joke trying to write the fourth part of a beloved genre film franchise, even if Terminator III dramatically lowered the bar for you. Tough assignment, no question about it. But on the other hand, it’s a movie about a future war between humans and machines, and what’s not to like about that? Intrinsically interesting, I mean, loads of approaches to that scenario. It’s almost a shame to have to carry on with the Terminator time-travel conundrum that’s getting pretty threadbare by now. Here we get the recap again with John Connor (Christian Bale) listening to tiresome tapes from his deceased mom Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton’s voice-over) about how he has to rescue his father, the teenaged Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, the actor also playing Chekhov in Star Trek ’09) so Reese can go back in time to impregnate Sarah with John and blah blah blah, I’m my own grandpa, whatever.

That’s a drag, but fortunately there’s another storyline and set of characters that briefly promise to enliven the proceedings.

The film starts with a guy named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) on Death Row having a perverse last meeting with a scientist (Helena Bonham Carter, bald, in a thick middle-aged fat-suit), who is herself dying of cancer. She’s trying to persuade him to donate his body to her research project so he can “live again” and redeem himself through saving someone else. He’s eager to be executed for the crime of killing his brother and some cops, or something—it’s never explained, what heinous thing he did. Anyway, he doesn’t want to come back in any form, but for some reason he agrees to her proposal in exchange for a kiss. Why he wants to kiss a dumpy bald cancer case is also unexplained—Death Row must really be hell, or else Helena Bonham Carter is hot no matter what—but let’s say it starts the movie off with a nice frisson of weirdness that quickly dissipates and never returns.

The unexplained stuff continues to pile up, though, and eventually obliterates the whole movie in what-the-hell moments.

Marcus comes back in 2018 and starts wandering around looking for explanations and the scientist who reanimated him, and at times he seems to be veering very close to a replicant character straight out of Blade Runner. McG knows just enough to steal from the best; the problem is he doesn’t know what to do with the stolen goods when he’s got them. Anyway, pretty soon Marcus encounters Kyle Reese and the obligatory war-traumatized child. This one’s female, mute, AND black, a heart-tugging triple-threat, you’d think. But keep in mind McG’s vast talent for neutralizing all emotional effects. The kid makes no impression whatsoever. Every time you’ve completely forgotten her existence, she pops up again to look soulfully at Marcus and cause him to clench his jaw, because life’s tough enough as it is without this kind of harassment.

And pretty soon we’re deep in stolen Road Warrior material. You know that great chase scene from Road Warrior, the one with Mel Gibson in the semi trying to outrace all the scary motorcycle freaks? Of course you do. Well, McG steals that sequence and then screws it up beyond what you’d think is humanly possible. He’s got Marcus in the truck, he’s got the motorcycles in pursuit, he’s got the long dusty road, he’s even got a mute kid, for Christ’s sake, so what can go wrong? Once you’ve gone that far, thievery-wise, just do a shot-for-shot recreation and you’re home, right?

But no. McG is so stupid that he fails to recognize what George Miller accomplished in that sequence, which is to maintain the precise sense of where all the moving vehicles are in relation to each other in the landscape. That’s what makes the tension so incredible, knowing moment-by-moment how far the semi has to go, how many pursuers are left, how close they are to the truck, etc. McG makes a sloppy julienne salad out of all that spatial clarity. Then he tries to recover some thrills by adding a totally gratuitous CGI’d bridge-over-the-gorge chase, with the truck crashing into the railings and nearly plunging into the abyss and all that familiar guff. Pathetic, really. One pities the man.

There’s an occasional half-hearted spark of invention in the film that always gets snuffed out promptly. The scriptwriters, probably when pulling a desperate all-nighter, remembered something from high school English class and decided to work in a Red Badge of Courage metaphor. So they have Marcus, wandering through the future wasteland, stealing a coat off a dead resistance fighter, and it’s a knee-length knock-off of a cool Civil War coat with a red patch sewn onto one arm. All righty then! A Civil War theme might just get us somewhere. When Marcus runs into Kyle Reese, the little punk berates him for wearing the coat with the red thingy, which Reese himself refuses to wear because he “hasn’t earned it yet.” Doesn’t make any sense, really, since the kid is holding down the fort alone in a vast hostile territory, taking care of the mute girl, fighting off machines all over the place, and if he hasn’t earned a red arm patch nobody has. But presumably it’ll be a big deal watching Reese earn his red badge, or watching Marcus earn his red badge, or both together maybe, who the hell knows.

Then absolutely nothing is made of this. You forget all about it for an hour. Only in the very last scene is the whole red badge thing brought up again in a kind of oh-yeah way, when Marcus gives the coat to Kyle, and it’s clearly supposed to be a big moment, and it isn’t. By then, of course, you’re used to everything falling flat, and going nowhere, and making no sense, and being stolen from other movies. One especially baffling loose end is Bryce Dallas Howard, that annoying pale daughter of Ron Howard with the pop-eyed stare, who stands around hugely pregnant as John Connor’s wife and, uh, that’s it. She just stands around looking protuberant. Nobody ever asks her when the baby’s due or how’s it going or anything. Awkward.

Plus there’s the scene with respected actress Jane Alexander, slumming like mad as the old alpha-female member of a band of desert rats hiding out in a ghost town. There she is getting lots of camera time fussing over the mute girl when all of a sudden—well, have you ever seen what happens to Samuel L. Jackson in that Renny Harlin movie Deep Blue Sea? There’s a similar abrupt exit from the screen here. Another moronic scene-theft by McG!

The only thing holding all this quivering junk together is the act-off by the two male leads, Christian Bale’s John Connor vs. Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright. Worthington takes it without breaking a sweat. Solid yeoman acting there, unflashy, and yet he still blows Christian Bale off the screen. Why? Well, that’s the burning question.


Bale vs. Worthington: The Act-off

Maybe somebody could explain to me about Christian Bale as movie star. I didn’t want to say anything—I know how people admire him—but after this latest dreary experience of Bale in a big starring role, I just can’t maintain my usual dignified silence. The guy’s a stiff, a drip, a zero, a bore, an ossified man, Mr. Low-wattage, a black hole in the screen. Where he is, light and energy are not. I realize he stares unblinkingly, and frowns a lot, but let’s not mistake that for intensity or depth. It’s indigestion, maybe. General prickishness, sure. Nothing interesting, though. You could take one shot of Bale staring frowningly, or frowning staringly, and just reprint it over and over a million times and composit that into different backgrounds and nobody’d know the difference. Bale is like that old Russian film experiment with the shot of the man’s face intercut with shots of a baby, a bowl of soup, and a coffin. Supposedly viewers interpreted the man’s “performance” as charmed, hungry, and sad, and the big reveal was it was the same shot of the man reprinted over and over. That’s Bale for you. He’s a long-running Russian experiment on us all.

Bale makes Worthington seem so interesting, it reminds me of the same effect years ago in Minority Report, when the star and reigning King of Dullsville, Tom Cruise, made the guy in a supporting role named Colin Ferrell seem so riveting by comparison that many of us are still waiting for him to fulfill his early promise. (I know, I know, In Bruges was pretty close. Somebody get that Ferrell into a string of dark comedies, stat! He’s not getting any younger or prettier, y’know!)

Anyway, to be fair—and we are consistently, nay, obsessively fair—Worthington’s got the better role, the endlessly shat-upon Marcus, who’s decided he’s so guilty of something we never get told about that he has to keep on redeeming himself for all eternity. A slew of heroic deeds gets him nothing but another chance to sacrifice himself for John Connor. And everybody’s always willing to see Marcus take another one for Team Connor. It’s pretty tragic in an excessive Greek sort of way, actually, and it’s the only powerful emotion the movie creates, an intense feeling at the very end that if Marcus dies for him, and he goes along with it, then John Connor is an unworthy prick and his mother’s prophecies are bogus propaganda.

I read somewhere that there’s an alternate ending to the film, one that reveals John Connor as a machine under his human skin. But unlike Marcus, he’s a malevolent one who picks up a gun and blows away the entire remainder of the cast. The End.

I want to see that ending. It may actually make me believe this film has hidden depths.

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Add your own

  • 1. Andrew  |  May 24th, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Before I went to go see this film, I read the reviews and was disappointed that some dude with a three letter name who directed Charlie’s Angels had fucked up one of my favorite movie series. Then my boy scout training kicked in — be prepared. So, having seen the movie with a bottle of JD in my stomach, (why yes I had to go to the bathroom four times during the movie, thanks for asking) I was still terribly disappointed. Many of my gripes simply ape Ms Jones’ (and what I missed, my friend covered — “yo you notice that Bale sounds just like he did in Dark Knight “RAWR ARWR IM DETERMINED AND ANGRY””) but I did have a few specific ideas for improvement.

    First of all, post-apocalyptic human society is simply not given any consideration whatsoever. To the extent that it is, it was bit from Road Warrior. That’s all that needs to be said on that. A chimp with fetal alcohol syndrome could fill a notebook with story ideas to that end.

    Other thing was, it seemed that people seemed to be aware that John Connor had been fathered by a time traveler, and that he knew what shit was gonna go down. He’d definitely be a religious figure on the level of Jesus. In fact, the intro text says something like “…but some regard [Connor] as a false prophet.” Yet this theme doesn’t make it into the movie at all. Bale growls at Ironside, the resistance leader, about the desperate need to ensure Reese’s survival, but the leadership is all “yeah whatever.” The fuck?

    I could have done a better job making this movie.

  • 2. rick  |  May 24th, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Hollywood is interesting, anthropologically, as one of the few industries regular people can actually see how the pitiful-minded executives of this generation “think.” As in: they don’t. McG and the guys who wrote Catwoman, huh? But Charlie’s Angels and Terminator 3 were technically profitable. That’s all these morons consider. I was watching the action scenes from T3 again, and stumbled into the scene where John Connor asks the new Arnold if he’s the same Terminator. WHAT!? How fucking stupid is this “savior of mankind?” 12 year olds with 85 IQs know it’s a new fucking Terminator, and the writers care so little about the material they have our hero ask him this? Christ Almighty. It’s right there on the page: the guys can’t write.

    All capitalism can do well is verifiable technical skills (like make-up, special effects). Anything subjective (vision, writing) is utterly baffling to executives, even though you can call a film’s final quality almost perfectly by reading the script (try it, next time a script gets leaked…I’ve never been wrong, on 7 or 8 leaked scripts I cared enough to read.)

    For more on idiotic empty suits, read Taleb’s “Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness”…best books I’ve read in a couple years. I’m not seeing Terminator Salvation…I watched the first two again, and was happy. On August 29, 1997, it’s gonna feel pretty fucking real to you too.

  • 3. wengler  |  May 24th, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Christian Bale is good in The Machinist and great in American Psycho, but unless in the highly unlikely case an American Psycho II comes out, he is vastly overrated as a leading man.

    This movie was made to hit a certain demo, a certain opening weekend profit, and crumble away into insubstantial dreck after that. There is no meat to this story, no background worthy of being retold, no story elements to at least make the people watching pretend that the creators of this movie gave a damn.

  • 4. McMoviemaker  |  May 24th, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    McG sounds like a McDonald’s product, didn’t anyone tell him?

  • 5. geo8rge  |  May 24th, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    One life lesson I wish to impart on the young’ns before I die. When a summer movie is released in the spring, it always sucks. In particular T-whatever was released in the spring, like Star Crap, because of the Transformers movie.

    As second mini lesson, if you cannot beat a Transformers movie, you really suck.

  • 6. harv  |  May 24th, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    american phsyco II did come out einstein

  • 7. Stephan Galvanocci  |  May 25th, 2009 at 3:03 am

    Eileen, how can you write about Russians conducting experiments on you (all) in such a -‘ha-ha don’t take it seriously’ way. I’m not a Russian myself, admitted, I’m a Greek living in Palermo, Italy, but I conduct experiments on you. My friend Max again I’m not sure if he’s Russian or not but I saw him with my own eyes conducting an experiment on you. There is no conclusion to my short remark. A smart man will understand everything himself.

  • 8. Eric F  |  May 25th, 2009 at 7:31 am

    Compared to all the science fiction and comic book trash that has been produced over the past decade in Hollywood, the last two Terminator installments have been solid contributions to American Big Budget Cinema.

    Listen folks, if you want to indulge in some real science fiction then head over to your local library and pick up any book by the master of the genre, Philip K. Dick.

  • 9. Plamen Petkov  |  May 25th, 2009 at 7:59 am

    I honestly cannot wait to read what kinda review you sneering punx would do for Cameron’s Avatar.
    It should have been fairly obvious this new terminator would suck. Badly. Hopefully the exile would reimburse you the money you spent. Or next time you should wait a day or two and get the torrent instead.

  • 10. mofolotopo  |  May 25th, 2009 at 8:23 am

    The kid was a girl? I seriously had no idea.

  • 11. alexa  |  May 25th, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Bale is the new Ben Afleck minus the huge-assed Puff Daddy’s leftover byatch.

  • 12. Eric F  |  May 25th, 2009 at 8:53 am

    I only paid 12 bucks to watch a movie that cost $200 million to make. As a consumer I would say it was a good deal. However, with that said, I still want every damn penny back from all those awful Seth Rogen movies!

  • 13. charlie  |  May 25th, 2009 at 9:25 am

    As a professional computer scientist, with experience working for the DoD, all I could do the whole time was pick apart the various technical inaccuracies in the film.

    For example, they’re fucking machines–why not just pump the atmosphere full of anthrax, botulism, or mustard gas. Or, for that matter, neutron bomb the fuck out of the planet (just be sure to shield the critical systems from the EM radiation).

    These movies arn’t about technology — otherwise they would have tried harder to make it fit — it’s about humanity triumphing over the inhuman forces of evil, which means it’s pretty much the same as Lord of the Rings, or every zombie movie ever made. Except they botch that part, too.

  • 14. texas  |  May 25th, 2009 at 11:40 am

    >> Terminator Salvation: The Future Will Be Loud

    does the ticket price include ear-plugs?

  • 15. aleke  |  May 25th, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    You know, it’s too bad it ain’t about machines, because the rise of robots is some serious shit.

  • 16. Evilcor  |  May 29th, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    This article was just plagiarized by the AP:

    I advise a vengeance-killing spree.

  • 17. JimBob  |  May 30th, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Read the AP piece, don’t see any rip-off. Care to elaborate on your claim?

  • 18. xymph disciple  |  May 31st, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    This movie has two opening credit sequences.
    One immediately following the other, with nearly identical information.
    I honestly think that was a simple error that some show business professional was supposed to catch and stop. This movie was bewilderingly depressing because it was made at a level inferior to third world cinema. There are objections that it raises that have absolutely nothing to do with disapproval of violence or noise level.
    The doggedly pointless flashback sequence could have been totally left out and then you could’ve tried too make the secret robot-ness a secret; instead it is telegraphed loudly from the beginning, to no effect whatsoever.
    the military details bother the hell out of me. Americans, Israelis and Brits are addicted to the dumbest and weakest kind of warfare possible, enjoying a huge tech and money advantage over third worlders who can’t compete, to the total and possibly religious exclusion of any kind of mental flexibility or backup plan. McG shows us a totally different human community from Cameron’s tunnel rats, with loads and loads of heavy machinery and computers (do they know what movie they’re in?), many of which are laughably maintenance-dependent. Helicopters especially need something like five hours of work to every one hour they fly. Why wouldn’t Skynet have torched or converted this stuff long, long ago? Stupid AmerIsraelis are not capable of imagining an world in which they do not have a Christmas List of Blackhawk helicopters to merrily throw away. Cameron implied he could and showed glimpses of the ultimate bourgeois horror: Americans reduced to fighting like third worlders against first world technology. McG reminds us that Americans can’t be bothered to do without the sort of overwhelmingly dishonest advantage that fixes Star Wars missile testing.
    There are mistakes in here that are unforgivable even from the 12-year-old perspective: I don’t think I’m being a prude at feeling positive anger that the near-sex scene so closely follows the gang-rape-rescue, but that is by no means the stupidest thing in this cavalcade of stupid, stupid stupidity.
    Crank 2 is more intellectually rigorous, internally consistent and deeply satisfying: in Crank 2 you get to see Bai Ling hit by a car and lit on fire. I’d happily pay a non-matinee ticket to see a variation of that with the grown man calling himself “McG.”
    I meant to distinguish mistakes from bad decisions: a mistake is something totally unjustifiable regardless of position and a bad decision is something ideologically defensible. So you can disagree with bad decisions but still accept them, but nobody should accept what I am calling mistakes. Of course that’s pointless because when you try to do that the whole damn project looks more mistaken than what Joel Silver and his evil twins did to the Matrix.

  • 19. Mark  |  June 1st, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I was never interested in seeing this movie, but to say that Christian Bale is a shitty actor really crosses the line of acceptable discourse. Both Rescue Dawn and especially Harsh Times were exceptional movies, largely because of Bale’s outstanding performances. Maybe Eileen Jones hasn’t seen these movies. Maybe she should.

    Also, Bale’s rant against the DP on the Terminator set is one for the ages…

  • 20. Dante  |  June 9th, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    What the hell are helicopters doing in this movie? What kind of hemorrhaging brain thinks we’d buy helicopters in a dirt-and-grit future? Like Xymph points out, it doesn’t fly, it just adds to the pile of evidence showing that Hollywood is finished, running in a hamster wheel without getting anywhere. Lucky for the Hollywood directors that they are writing for audiences dumbed down by decades of dumb schooling and dumb movies.

    I didn’t think anything could be worse than watching monkey-face Nick Stahl as a clownish John Connor in Terminator 3, but reading this review it seems McG has done his best to prove me wrong.

    Such a pity, too. What I really loved in the first Terminator movie, was every glimpse of the savage future. That scene with the grinning-skull robot walking over a landscape of twisted metal and human skulls. The machines rolling onward slowly, with humans hiding and trying to get a punch in every now and then.

    Ever since I was a kid I have waited for a Terminator movie that would do that futuristic vision justice. Guess I can stop hoping.

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