Friday, May 22, 2009

Terminator Salvation

The Terminator series is near and dear to me since I grew up watching these films throughout my childhood. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was one of the first R-rated films my parents allowed me to watch. And the original film scared the crap out of me. Arnold’s T-101 killer just... wouldn’t... die.

In 2003 I welcomed Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines despite James Cameron being replaced by Breakdown and U-571 director Jonathan Mostow. And while T3 surely wasn’t up to par with the first two films, it was a worthy continuation of the series.

I watched all 3 films over the course of a few nights earlier this week in anticipation of Terminator Salvation being released this weekend, and what struck me was how well each film advanced the Terminator mythology.

The plot of T1 and T2 are well known. Terminators are sent back in time to wipe out either Sarah (Linda Hamilton) or John Connor (Edward Furlong). Connor, after all, will eventually become the leader of the resistance in the war against the machines. After T2, we assumed that Sarah and John were successful in defeating SkyNet and avoiding Judgment Day.

But then T3 came along and changed all the rules.

In T3, the major theme is that the future is set. There is fate, regardless of what we make, which is why the events in T2 only delayed Judgment Day from happening. In addition to T3 changing the rules, we also learn that John Connor (Nick Stahl) will be killed by a T-101 sometime in the future and that he will marry Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a simple gal who is about to marry her fiancé.

So if the first two movies were about preventing the future, T3 and to a lesser extent, Salvation are about accepting fate.

Cameron’s first 2 films are classics. There is nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. They are some of the best sci-fi/action movies in the history of cinema. But if Salvation is to become a new trilogy, then T3 was the perfect bridge between the two sets of films. Most importantly, it’s fun. Sure it has its flaws, but what third entry in a franchise doesn’t?

Terminator Salvation picks up the action in 2018, 15 years after the events in T3. The resistance is up and running and John Connor (Christian Bale) has risen to the top of the pecking order with his knowledge of what’s to come.

However, the leader of the resistance, General Ashdowne (Michael Ironside) doesn’t believe in Connor. Instead, he believes the resistance has found a way to defeat SkyNet. Connor is on board with the plan until he meets up with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a former death-row inmate who upon his execution in 2003, signs his body over to science. He wakes up in 2018 with no knowledge of Judgment Day or the resistance. But there is something different about Marcus. And he hasn’t aged a day since 2003.

Meanwhile, John’s father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who is now just a teenager, is captured by SkyNet. And if Connor is to exist, he has to free Kyle so he can eventually be sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, as well as impregnate her so John can be born. And as Sarah Connor says on one of John’s old cassette tapes, “you can go crazy thinking about this”. Such is the case with all time-travel scenarios.

So can Connor and Marcus work together to rescue Kyle and defeat SkyNet? I’m pretty sure you know the answer, but the fun is getting there anyway.

McG (Charlie’s Angels, We Are Marshall) takes over for Mostow behind the camera, and while he makes the action gritty and somewhat realistic, he can’t milk emotional performances from his actors, save Worthington and Yelchin.

Christian Bale’s Connor is somewhat flat, but Bale is quickly becoming a flat actor. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Kate Connor, not looking a day older than Claire Danes in T3 despite it being 15 years later, is basically a cameo performance. She holds her pregnant belly and opens her eyes wide a lot. The rest of the supporting cast (Common, Moon Bloodgood, Jadagrace) sometimes aggravate with their one-note performances, and are other times mediocre-at-best.

I don't know what to make of the script, originally written by T3 duo John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Early on, reports were that Marcus had a bigger part than Connor, which may explain why the script's original ending had Connor dying and Marcus remade in Connor's likeness to lead the resistance in the next 2 movies. Since then, the likes of Paul Haggis, Shawn Ryan and Jonathan Nolan polished the script even though Brancato and Ferris were credited in the film. The end result of the script is mostly just a few words here and there to advance the plot and fill in the audience with some back story.

But the biggest drawback of the film is the editing. Some scenes end abruptly. Characters appear in places without the audience knowing how they got there. And crucial plot points are glossed over quickly to get to the action sequences. It feels like there is a good chunk of footage missing, and all reports indicate that there will be 30-40 minutes of extra footage on the DVD release. So the jury’s still out on whether Salvation is just a moderately good Terminator movie, or a great Terminator movie.

Yes, it is good, despite the mid-30’s rating that it’s currently getting over on Rotten Tomatoes. It should please the hard-core Terminator fans that haven’t been scared away by the PG-13 rating or McG with several references to the older films. My favorites were the fuel cells from T3 and a fun placement of Guns N Roses’ “You Will Be Mine” late in the film.

It’s also important to keep in mind that Salvation is supposed to be the first film in a new trilogy. Because of that, the film should have felt more epic, as it set up the characters and situations to come over the next 2 films. Perhaps the extended version of the film on DVD will do that.

But it all depends on how Salvation will perform at the box office. It’s unlikely that the film will make back its whopping $200 Million budget in the theater alone, meaning that success on DVD is crucial. And if there is in deed an extra 30-40 minutes to be put back into the film, I think Salvation will do just fine on DVD.

I liken Terminator Salvation to Superman Returns. It’s a worthy addition to the franchise, but has its flaws. And because of these flaws, the future of Salvation is up in the air at this point. Bale has said he won’t make another Terminator film, meaning that the role will have to be recast yet again. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

I personally hope there are 2 more movies. I hope that we get to see the future war evolve into the war we saw in Cameron’s films (laser guns and lots of human skulls!) and we see the series come full circle, with Kyle Reese sent back in time to protect Connor’s mother. And most importantly, I’d like to finally see the human resistance defeat SkyNet.

Only then will I feel like the Terminator series is finished. So until then I’ll keeping hoping that these movies “will be back”.

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