Thursday, May 21, 2009

The future is history: the Terminator Salvation review.

'[Saying the message that John made him memorize] Sarah, thank you. For your courage through the dark years. I can't help you with what you must soon face, except to tell you that the future is not set...You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist.' -Kyle Reese(Michael Biehn), The Terminator(1984).

With that cryptic missive a franchise was born. The Terminator was a lean, mean little science fiction B-movie that featured killer robots from the future attempting to ensure their ultimate victory by destroying their ultimate nemesis before he was even born. A clever conceit that sustained the franchise through the inevitable sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Like every red-blooded fan reared during the heady days of the 1980s I love the Terminator franchise and the lore that grew up around it; from the films, spinoff comics, video games, even paperback novels. The notion of a future where mankind's machines turn on their masters and bring about a bleak dystopian future that is ultimately reclaimed by the inevitable triumph of humanity under the leadership of one man who taught mankind to stand up for itself. . .well, it's a heady mix. It's one of the oldest stories really. Substitute any conquering horde for the terminators and any evil king for Skynet and you've got the basic recipe for any number of epic tales.

The twist that makes the Terminator saga distinctive however, is that the series incorporated time travel. Yes, in the future John Connor may be the ultimate badass who'll save humanity from the machine, but what if you killed his mother before he was even born? What if you killed him as a child, before he'd learned the skills and lessons of a seasoned warrior? The first two films played on that idea, though the third tended to go off the rails a bit with the revelation that the nuclear holocaust of Judgement Day was 'inevitable'. If there is no fate but what we make for ourselves, how can that irrefutable proof of the human spirit's triumph over nigh-insurmountable odds be justified against the inescapable certainty of armageddon for human civilization via nuclear holocaust and a war with homicidal machines? Needless to say Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, while having entertaining moments, is not really the franchise at its finest.

[Oh, and before anyone thinks to ask: no, I haven't watched The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I'm going to be dealing with the franchise's film incarnation. The series may well be entertaining but it could undercut some of the points I'm trying to make here and really, do we need any more time travel confusion in this article? Yeah, I didn't think so.]

Let's talk about what worked in the film before we get into the flaws:

The Good:
-The Cast: Top to bottom there wasn't a moment with the cast that felt out of place or hokey. Christian Bale plays John Connor with a mixture of determined resolve and a resigned weariness. He knows this future, has fought long and hard to avert this future and his destiny, but he couldn't escape it. He's become a seasoned warrior fighting in the Resistance on the front line, so much so that the elite command from their hidden stronghold don't garner the same respect Connor has earned leading from the front lines. There's also a fear in the portrayal, a fear that the knowledge he's been given via his mother's warnings is dwindling down to nothing, that all too soon he's going to have to succeed or fail based entirely on his own experience and knowledge, rather than that of his 'future' counterpart. Bale shines in this role, and the film is made enjoyable by his presence.

Anton Yelchin is no Michael Biehn, but there's enough of that cleverness mixed with desperation the original character had to make him interesting and likable. The disbelief got suspended fairly quickly once we met him, though there were elements to his character that were a bit perplexing (i.e. bad writing, but we'll get to that).

Sam Worthington's character of Marcus Wright is also an intriguing addition to the overall Terminator saga, allowing us to see a potential missing link between certain threads in the overall tapestry we hadn't thought about before. I'm keeping this spoiler-free, so we can't get into too much detail, but the character was engaging. I liked him a great deal.

The rest of the cast are all adequate in doing what they do, but for the most part they're largely action figures, meant to get us moving along in the plot and not really meant to be dwelt on or cared about overmuch. Bryce Dallas Howard makes a great Kate Connor, but I missed the Katherine Brewster character of the 3rd film (yes, I actually missed something from Terminator 3. Try not to faint) as she seemed a bit more dynamic there. Any film that has Michael Ironside delivering his trademark growl and being all elder badass is no bad thing, and Ivan G'Vera's weary but warm General Losenko--while not being in the movie much--struck me as an interesting character that got some serious short shrift in the film.

Oh, and there's a surprise guest appearance in the film that is simply too awesome not to at least mention in passing. Prepare to have your jaw drop.

-The Visual Aesthetic: Say what you will of McG's talents as a director, he at least made an amazingly vast and epic-looking film. The scenes of a post-apocalyptic world, washed-out of life and color where humans and machines battle tooth and nail for survival are striking. There's a scene in the film where Marcus moves amidst the ruin of the HOLLYWOOD sign and looks out over a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles that was pretty damn breathtaking in scope.

The film is dedicated to the memory of the late, great special effects wizard Stan Winston, and it's clear that the effects team were doing their ample best to pay tribute to him. The designs of the terminator models, the hydrobots, the Hunter-Killers, the cy-killers (trust me, you'll know them when you see them) all have so much care and work put into them that you can't help but be impressed. While there are a number of CGI effects shots in the film, I was impressed by how many practical effects there were too, particular in some of the shots of the terminator endoskeletons. Work was put into making this film look amazing and that care and craft shows in the finished film.

-The War Against the Machine, or Humans Vs. Killer Robots: This film delivers on a promise made in flashbacks peppered throughout The Terminator, and through brief flashes in the sequels. The war against Skynet is brought home in this film and it is as badass as we thought it'd be. Hunter-Killers soaring over ruined cities, humans firing rounds into skeletal-looking robots while the wind and dust whip around them, the struggle to survive by either standing up and joining the Resistance or trying desperately to bury yourself in the sand and hope the mechs don't find you. This is the film we've been curious to see for years and at last, after years of enjoying well-balanced action meals you get to the sugary-sweet dessert that is this film.

So yes, there are some positive aspects to the film that make it an enjoyable enough piece of entertainment. But wait, didn't I say I had some critical problems as well? Yes, yes I did. Strap in kids, the ride gets bumpy from here:

-Prequel-itis, or Time Travel makes the brain hurt: As I remarked on Facebook a little while back, this movie is a six-stepper. While you're watching the feature and are in its universe you are utterly enthralled, but I guarantee once its over you and your friends will not get six steps to your car before your brain catches a loose thread from the plot and proceeds to pull the whole thing apart.

[Get some aspirin before you read this. Seriously.]

As I said, I will not spoil this review. But consider this; the entirety of the film is predicated on a number of underlying assumptions:

1) Skynet and its terminators will attempt the wholesale slaughter of the human race.

2) John Connor and his Resistance will ultimately overthrow them.

3) Skynet will send three terminators back in time to attempt to kill John Connor in the past.

4) John Connor will send back Kyle Reese and a reprogrammed T-800 to stop two attempts, with Katherine Brewster/Kate Connor sending back a second rewired T-800 (one that in fact kills John Connor near the war's end).

The above list is what's know as predestination paradox. For this future to come about, certain events must happen. Cyberdyne will build Skynet, the military will uplink it into their global defense grid, Skynet becomes self-aware and bombs humanity back to the stone age, John Connor, etc. It holds up well enough until you realize that this film cannot go any other way than the route determined by the previous three films. Skynet has knowledge of the future too, and is attempting to nip the whole thing in the bud by eliminating Kyle Reese. After all, if he doesn't go back in time to save Sarah Connor, he and Sarah won't get all hominahomina and John won't be born at all! It's win-win for Skynet right?

Uh, yeah, but if there's no need to send that first terminator back in time, then it doesn't get demolished, Cyberdyne Systems doesn't get the shattered arm and the neural processor chip that they reverse engineer and thusly lay the groundwork for Skynet's own creation. By killing Reese, they essentially overwrite all of reality and the future of Skynet blinks out of existence. Cue rainbows and puppies in abundance.

Ipso facto, that first terminator must be sent to 1984, Kyle Reese must go back in time and John Connor must be born or else the whole house of cards falls in on itself. You could argue that maybe, just maybe, Cyberdyne Systems might've discovered the means of creating Skynet on their own, but given the cyclical nature of time travel as depicted in the first two movies (and Cameron's original vision) I doubt it. The notion of Judgement Day being an inevitability flies in the face of the human determinism of the first two movies.

Of course, one could also posit that Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation are an alternate timeline wherein the events of Judgement Day were in fact predetermined, while The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are the 'original' timeline. . .

[Toldja you'd need the aspirin.]

Simply put, the film relies on A to lead to B, then C, and then D. It wants us to consider this film to be an extension of what comes before. If that's the case, then jeopardy is lost as we already know good and well how this film will turn out. With that in mind this film is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant. You'd be better served renting the first film for 3-5 bucks at Blockbuster or on Netflix and saving yourself a wait in line. Only those who really, really have an urge to see killer robots on the rampage will go to see this flick. Again, it's not bad but what's it ultimately for save to be another video-game-on-god-mode type of movie without any sort of peril? I mean first Wolverine, then this. Say what you will of Star Trek (and we'll get to it in due time) at least it found a neat way to sidestep its status as a prequel and work as its own entity.

-Logic and this movie's lack of it:
You're engaged in a war against a machine network that has access to mobile weapons platforms, flying death craft, orbital satellite monitoring networks and global positioning software that makes the cameras on SCUD missiles look like your grandfather's bifocals. So why, in the name of God and man, would you be hanging out on a rooftop in broad flippin' daylight?! Or fly around in helicopters and jets that can be tracked, outmaneuvered, and overtaken by autonomous vehicles that have no consideration for speed(as they've no pilots to risk injuring)?Or line your perimeter(your vast, open-ground perimeter out in the middle of the countryside with no real discernible cover or bolt-holes) with explosive magnetic mines? Mines that will explode and create a heat signature that could be detected from orbit that might as well say HEY SKYNET WE'RE RIGHT HERE, COME AND KILL US in giant letters of flame? And these are the competent Resistance fighters. Riiiiight. . .

The first Terminator film showed us a humanity that had gone underground, hidden in the subways, the underground parkades, the sewers and the tunnels in their effort to dig in and survive. You don't go out in the day unless you have to, you keep low at night and you don't make a move unless you've got everything planned out well in advance. The machines are smarter, faster, and stronger than an ordinary human being and they will kill you with grisly efficiency. The Resistance of the earlier films fought smart. In the new movie. . .ehhhh. . .not so much. To be fair, the ultimate bolthole of the Resistance leadership is a pretty clever idea, but on the whole the Resistance's tactics just seem idiotic.

-The Other Officer Rule: The OOR is a time-honored cliche whose origins (at least as far as I know) may be traced back as far as classic Star Trek. Simply put; should a protagonist with military rank encounter a similar character of rank greater than or equal to his own, that officer will either be:

A) A massive prick

B) Weak and spineless

C) Cold and efficient

D) Batshit insane

E) Combinations of the above (AB, BC, CA, BD, and oh-dear-lord-help-us ABCD).

Nowhere is this rule better illustrated than in the character of General Ashdown, played by Michael Ironside. While his presence in the movie lends a note of sheer badassery, it's sabotaged at the same time by his being slotted so handily into the Other Officer role. He and General Losenko, along with a couple nameless extras, are the 'real' leadership of the Resistance. They give the orders and coordinate the organization as a whole, while Connor is a soldier in the field. Which sounds great, but they exist for no other reason than the Police Lieutenant in an action flick. He's there to drag Connor in, bust his balls, make the unpalatable decisions of war, and seem a bit more morally ambiguous than Bale's stalwart and true hero. It makes no sense, save to somehow make Connor look more heroic because there are lines he won't cross. Losenko seems a more approachable figure, almost a mentor to John, but he's never really given anything to do and lacks the balls to stand up to any of Ashdown's decisions. Hence, he falls into B, while Ashdown is a mixture of A and C.

Is Terminator Salvation worth a look? I'd say yeah, though maybe make it a matinee showing. It's not going to flip everything you know about the franchise on its ear, and its certainly not lacking in flaws, but it is an entertaining popcorn movie that delivers some action and adventure in a dystopian future. If you're looking for a couple fun movies that give you a yin-yang feel, I'd say do a Star Trek/Terminator double-bill. Utopia for the half-fulls, dystopia for the half-empties. Therein lies balance.



snell said...

Well, I have an answer for the predestination paradox: each trip actually does change the past, but not with the desired effect. (And frak "alternate universes")

To whit, imagine Timeline Zero: Skynet is born on its own when we develop AI, Judgement Day happens, and someone--not necessarily John Connor--leads the humans to victory. After all, it's rather egocentric to believe that ONLY John could lead the humans to victory. So Skynet sends a Terminator back to eliminate someone's mom or dad, and that someone sends Kyle back to stop it. That leads to a chance encounter and humina humina with Sarah Connor, Jon is born and he becomes a leader. Maybe the Teminator even succeeded in killing Jane Doe, preventing John Doe from being born...but now we have John Connor, and that leads to

TIMELINE 1, where Skynet sends a T-800 to kill Sarah, and that's the T1 movie we know and love. Humina humina, the governator's arm is left behind.

Which leads to TIMELINE 2, where Miles Dyson uses the arm and inadvertantly creates a more powerful Skynet. (After all, if a T-1000 was available in Timeline 1, why not send that back after Sarah in the first movie? Why send a weaker Terminator? The T-1000, then, is a result of a more advanced Skynet from this timeline, resulting from Dyson's use of future tech to create it). No Fate and all, they stop Dyson, and that results in...

TIMELINE 3. Judgement Day is delayed, but still happens, with a demonstrably weaker Skynet (really, does anyone think the TX is more powerful than the T-1000?). It would have happened earlier, but Sarah delays it by removing Cyberdine from the equation...but the tech is still going to be developed, just as it was in Timeline 0, and presumably ANY artifivial intelligence would rebel and Ka-Boom.

That's my theory, anyway.

Kabir said...

In spite of everything I found the film very disappointing. Still recommend to people don't know how much entertainment quotient it will have.

Stacy said...

When debating temporal theory I always turn to my old and dear friend Chief Miles O'Brien, whose famous words:

'I hate time travel.'

Should be ones to live by.

I like where your head is at with this theorem though. Your No-Prize is definitely in the mail.


snell said...

Woo Hoo!!