(“I SPEND THIS ENTIRE MOVIE YELLING!”)
Terminator Salvation might be the coolest looking, most visually impressive, best choreographed movie I’ve seen all year, and it would be even better if they’d actually finished writing the script.
During the press tour, director McG had been saying all the right things – acknowledging that letting the Charlie’s Angels guy direct a Terminator movie sounds like a horrible idea, and that having a name like “McG” might make a person sound like kind of a douchebag. He went out of his way to show deference, which made his argument that he’d made a worthy sequel sound sincere. He even went so far as to say on a radio show that he was tempted to give out his phone number on the air “so that people who don’t like it can call me for a refund.” Hey, McG, does that offer still stand? I know a few people who owe you a call…
Terminator Salvation starts out on the right foot, immersing us in a fully-realized vision of the post-judgment day future. The cinematography is gritty and gorgeous, and the fight scenes, which begin early and continue often, are full of ball-rattling bass groans and whizzing tracer bullets. So far so good. But it isn’t long before you realize there isn’t much happening here beyond people running from explosions. The dialog is the bare minimum necessary for exposition and the plot holes start out niggling but forgivable, and eventually descend into utter ridiculousness. We’ll get to that later.
Okay, examples: early in the movie Christian Bale-as-John Connor is flying away from the scene of a battle, of which he was the only survivor. They’re flying over the ocean in a rainstorm and Connor’s talking to the resistance’s central command, which is headquartered in a submarine. Connor doesn’t like what centcom has to say (because Connor is a brash lieutenant who plays by his own rules, you see) so he does what anyone would do: he demands that his pilot open the rear plane hatch so he can jump out of it into raging 30-foot swells. We see Connor jump. Direct cut to Connor soaking wet inside the submarine, getting chewed out by the general for “do you know how much this little stunt of yours is going to cost us??! You’re a loose cannon, Connor!” – a vignette straight out of every 80s action movie ever. Now: even ignoring the fact that jumping out of a plane into the ocean would cause at the very least severe injury, how the f*ck are we to conclude Connor got from the surface of the waves to the inside of a submarine? I assume the answer is something along the lines of “Uh… Shut up, dude, details are for pussies.”
The whole film exhibits a similar dump on the chest of basic logic. For instance: why are the terminators that aren’t designed to fit in as humans still humanoid? There’s no logical reason for the machines to build weapons that have eyes and heads and legs and arms – or maybe there is, but the screenwriters never let us in on it. In another scene, Connor broadcasts his message to the rest of the resistance, who we see listening to him in L.A., New York, the South American jungle, etc. Here’s fun experiment – try to pick up an L.A. radio station on a transistor in New York. Maybe people pick up satellite radio on transistors in the dystopian future? Or perhaps Judgment Day mysteriously flattened the Earth? In another scene, John Connor tosses Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) a walkie-talkie. “Contact me on this,” he says. At which point Wright bids him adieu and… dives into a river. So… water-proof radios, I’m assuming? An even bigger problem: if the machines are building terminators whose sole purpose is to eradicate humans, wouldn’t the terminators have better ways of killing them than throwing them against walls? A choke, a stab, a neck snap – all of these would be efficient and effective. But at the time of Terminator Salvation, apparently all the machines have figured out is how to pick people up and throw them against things, which is lucky for John Connor, who can just yelp in pain and then run off to hide over and over and over again. I could go on.
They may seem like small details, and they are, at first, but they’re symptomatic of a film that just never took the time to fill in the holes. It plays more like a script outline than a finished script. And worse than that, they took the genuinely interesting idea of a human reanimated with robot parts who still thinks he’s human (Marcus Wright), and turned it into an allegory about how “everyone deserves a second chance.” This is me wanking. And that all-important question of what makes humans humans and machines machines, even when the machines can do everything a human can? That has an easy answer too! Humans are human because they have a heart! In fact, imagine the most retardedly literal version of that conclusion and you have the last act of Terminator Salvation, the most laughably terrible final 15 minutes since Indy and the Crystal Skull or Independence Day. Oh and hey, remember how Edward Norton kills his alter ego in Fight Club by shooting himself in the mouth? Yeah, there’s a dash of that thrown in too.
For their part, the actors don’t seem to know what the hell to do either. Christian Bale spends the movie half in Batman-growl and half going from zero to aneurysm tantrum faster than Nic Cage in Wicker Man. You spend a lot of time wondering why he’s yelling. Sam Worthington fares a little better, even though his Australian accent comes and goes (we never find out where he’s from) and we never get a good explanation of how he went from a murderer on death row who donates his body to Cyberdyne to the savior of humankind.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. The big terminator machines are pretty cool, and impressively rendered from look to movement to sound. Most of the action sequences are really well done – even the superior-in-every-other-way Star Trek suffered from quick-cut/shaky-cam disease, which Terminator manages to avoid. Even Marcus Wright’s reanimated superman act is fun to watch at first, at least before it turns into a dick-fisted homage to Terminator 2, with the good guy cyborg protecting John Connor from the bad guy cyborg. John Connor’s final fight with the machines (against digitized Arnold), is a lot like Linda Hamilton vs. Robert Patrick in that movie, complete with a pump shotgun, a smelting machine and liquid nitrogen. Only this time, Connor just kind of shoots a wall and lava pours out. Then he shoots the ceiling and liquid nitrogen falls down. Hasta la vista, coherence. Come on, McG, even a one-named douchebag can do better than that.