“Terminator: Salvation” is a slippery little movie for me as a reviewer. It’s not badly made. It’s not badly acted. It’s not without some rewards for a viewer.
But it’s also not something I’m comfortable recommending to fans of the first two “Terminator” films as a worthwhile addition to the mythology.
So does that make it a failure? Or is it just a movie that takes a series in a new direction, a direction I’m not interested in but that other viewers might be? I suspect that for some audiences, they will get what they need from the film. John Connor (Christian Bale) spends a good 90% of his onscreen time BEING REALLY ANGRY AT THE GODDAMN ROBOTS, which is, I assume, what they hired him to do. It’s just that there’s really nothing else going on here. There’s a lot of imagery of new robots that are part of this future war, a few big action sequences (although a lot fewer than one might expect), and a whole lot of talk about humanity and robots and destiny and… yeah. Okay.
You know what it reminds me of more than anything? Not the previous films in the “Terminator” series. No, this feels more like one of the “Matrix” sequels. This could easily be a real-world “Matrix” movie, where we just don’t see anyone jack into the Matrix, and it would pretty much be the exact same film. It’s got a similar studio-Apocalypse vibe going on with its United States of Benneton cast and its fashionably grimy aesthetic. And, I think, it’ll probably have just about the same amount of impact with film fans as the “Matrix” sequels did. I think it’ll open huge this weekend because of the name and the potential, and I think a sort of confused disappointment will set in for a lot of viewers as they go to talk to other people about it. Word of mouth is not going to drive a lot of second weekend business, and by the end of the summer, I think many people will have moved on completely. If this does turn out to be a new trilogy, I will frankly be shocked. I just can’t imagine the support being there for it.
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But ultimately, everyone else in the world could tell me that this film cured blindness and made the dead walk, and I’d still have my problems with it. If you read my birthday card to Jar-Jar Binks this moring, then you know I’m not a huge fan of the whole decision to dip back into a narrative that has already been told, so you might assume I just wrote this off from day one. Not true. I didn’t see much point in making the film, but I always hope to be convinced, to have that experience that proves to me that I’m wrong. I love being blindsided by a movie, and I was certainly open to the experience of “Terminator: Salvation,” so much so that I watched it twice before writing this review so I could fully digest my own reaction.
Let’s pretend there is no larger “Terminator” franchise. If this was the beginning, would anyone walk away from this film thinking they’d seen a complete story, something that satisfied them as a film experience? My guess is… no. For one thing, the film’s not quite sure who the lead character is. Obviously, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) was written as the lead, but when you cast someone like Christian Bale as John Connor, you don’t relegate them to the background, so the film becomes unbalanced by trying to pay service to both storylines equally. That’s because there’s not much of a storyline for Connor. He starts as an angry guy who believes he is the destined leader of a rebellion against the robots, and he ends as an angry guy who believes he is the destined leader of a rebellion against the robots. He doesn’t do anything here that makes him any more or less qualified to lead the human resistance, and there’s no one defining action in the film that suddenly makes him into that leader in the eyes of everyone else. If this is meant to be the movie where he embraces his potential, it doesn’t happen. If this is meant to be the movie where everyone else realizes he’s right, we don’t see it. Instead, he’s sort of a flatline dramatically, which pushes all of the narrative tension onto Marcus instead. And to be fair, Marcus does have more going on conceptually, but some exceptionally linear and nonsensical plotting means that the good ideas that are at work in the Marcus storyline are expressed in a way that robs them of any real tension or drama. When the storyline culminates in a long boring monologue delivered not by a person but by an image on a computer screen that’s yakking away during a military strike on Skynet, you know things are off the rails.
Anton Yelchin, oddly, is the guy who walks away looking the best here. His Kyle Reese is not a guy consumed by thoughts of destiny, but rather just by a basic drive to survive, and there are enough moments where you can see the seeds of the Kyle Reese we met in the first “Terminator” that I do think Yelchin deserves to be singled out. Between this and his work in “Star Trek,” he’s having a great summer. And Sam Worthington is saddled with a next-to-impossible-role to make exciting, but he has an interesting onscreen charisma that works to his advantage even when the script doesn’t. Much of the supporting cast stands around barking bits and pieces of exposition, so it’s hard to judge whether or not they’re doing much of anything. I would point out that the role of Star, played by young Jadagrace, is absolutely useless, and the mere inclusion of a cute kid in the middle of all the action is a perfect example of the sort of useless decision making that hobbles the film overall. Danny Elfman’s score barely references the iconic Brad Fiedel theme, and most of his work here is just lame sonic wallpaper. I can’t remember the last time Elfman’s work felt genuinely inspired or engaged, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
Technically, there are some lovely effects and the film has a great bleached-out look that works. But I’m shocked at how little action there really is, and how unmotivated the sequences are. The reason the first two “Terminator” films are classics is because they managed to blend strong character writing, even when dealing in archetype, with a propulsive action plot that always kept the action moving forward with clear purpose. Every scene was built for a reason, and within those scenes, there were these great chains of gags that just kept paying off and paying off. And above all, the Terminators always felt like the unstoppable menace they are supposed to be. Here, there are so many robots, and they all seem so easily dispatched, that there’s no real sense of urgency to things, and very few of the action scenes have clear goals laid out to keep the viewer invested.
Like I said… I’m sure some people will find it passably entertaining. I think it’s too dour to be called “fun,” but I don’t think it’s a terrible movie. I just think that its greatest sin is that it wants to expand the mythology of this world, but has no real purpose in doing so, and so the entire endeavor feels like sound and fury that ultimately says nothing, and without some compelling element, some reason for me to recommend this one, it feels like a swing and a miss by some talented folks, ultimately about as meaningful as an afternoon spent playing with “Terminator” action figures. It all looks right, but it’s just empty energy, all idea and very little execution.
“Terminator: Salvation” opens nationwide at midnight.
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