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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