Saturday, May 23, 2009

Terminator Stagnation

The thing that struck me most about Terminator Salvation is that Bryce Dallas Howard has alarmingly beautiful eyes. Now, I’m not saying her eyes are dazzling. I’m saying they’re beautiful but there’s something alarmingly weird about them, almost like she’s wearing slightly frosted contact lenses. But her alarmingly beautiful eyes are perfect for my favorite moment in the film when she is tending to the wounded Marcus Wright and she looks down in very wide-eyed shock to see that there’s something not right about him – he’s a cyborg! It also struck me that Howard is a developing actress who needs better editing (from Conrad Buff IV – who edited Titanic) or better direction (from McG – who should work on editing his film instead of his name). I noticed quite a few moments when her character is left hanging like a deer in the headlights. There are awkward intervals of silence that need to be filled with another line of dialogue or just need to be cut; you can almost notice Howard coming out of character. (Well, yeah, Bryce Dallas should stay in character, but a good editor knows how to edit.) Anyway, it seemed kind of sloppy for a film that is so swiftly edited in the action scenes that the viewer is left dizzy.

Another thing that struck me about Terminator Salvation is that it is more of a compendium of elements from and tributes to the three previous Terminator films than it is a fresh vision of a whole new world: the post-apocalyptic world of the War with the Machines. In fact, the flashforwards to that human vs. cyborg civil war rendered by means of models and sound stage sets in Terminator and T2: Judgment Day are more gripping and otherworldly than the depiction of the John Connor-led human resistance movement in this latest installment. Here the CGI falls short of accomplishing what this viewer expected – a fully evoked depiction of that world and conflict suggested by those inviting flashforwards. There are no set-piece total-war battles between humans and machines. There is nothing as touchingly grim as the image in T2: Judgment Day of children in a resistance shelter watching television, their faces reflecting the glow of what turns out to be a campfire inside the TV set. We get limply delivered quotations from the other films but nothing that really sucks you into a new little world.

A third thing that struck me is that I grinned delightedly when Skynet’s new flesh-covered cyborg makes its nude debut looking like a cross between the Hulk and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Apropos of Arnold’s heritage, there is a German phrase I use, and often utter beneath my breath in the theater, to designate the point in a slowly evolving film when things really get going: Jetzt gehts los – which roughly means “Now it’s going.” But this is rather late in the film for things to geht los.

Thus, I knew what this film is missing. It’s missing the drama and suspense of what is the backbone of the other three films: the persistent pursuit of an inexorable killing machine, (the Terminator, T-1000, or T-X), hunting vulnerable humans (Sarah, little John, Kate), protected by an equally formidable guardian (Kyle Reese or buffed-up Sarah Connor or Arnold’s Terminator). Add to that a smattering of wooden but well-timed one-liners: “I’ll drive.” That’s my favorite.

Christian Bale always has presence, but I fear his voice is forever locked in Batman mode, and there isn’t enough for him to do in this film. Sam Worthington as the cyborg Marcus Wright has the more compelling character with his human or machine inner conflict, and here he’s the one who really saves the day.

Devoid of Arnold and panoramic battle scenes, I needed culmination. But there is no culmination here. The helicopters flying off into the sunrise promise endless sequels. Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) needs to grow up before he can go back in time to protect and impregnate Sarah Connor. Also, did you notice that Kate Connor of the alarmingly beautiful eyes is pregnant? Ah, I predict that it’s not John Connor but John Connor, Jr. who is the key to salvation. But Terminator Salvation doesn’t leave me hankering to see how it all works out.


The Film Doctor said...

It appears that I liked the film a little more than you did, but I agree that Salvation lacks the dramatic focus of one terminator consistently trying to kill a human. This film tends to chop up that winning formula into a bunch of mini-terminator attack scenes, and I scarcely noticed Howard's mini-moments of acting. This film reminded me a little of the original Star Wars in the way a small band of resistance fighters try to take down the evil mega-machine. As Kyle and Star get herded in a cattle car into Skynet headquarters (a big oil plant?), I kept thinking of Nazis herding people in freight train cars to the camps. Is there any particular reason for Skynet to imprison them? Why not kill them outright?

Still, I liked the action scenes. McG tends to lean towards campy excess, and why not?

Richard Bellamy said...

I liked many of the elements that you enjoyed. I liked the resistance movement and I enjoyed most of the action, but I guess I was looking for a persistently engrossing film that grabs you and doesn't let go until the end. That's what the first two films did. That's what Cloverfield did for me last year and The Descent in 2006 - but that persistently engrossing element seems to be lacking from many action films these days. Some filmmakers seem to think that noise and explosions constitute that gripping nature. But if a film can generate that engrossing nature for me, I forgive it many things. For example, War of the Worlds grabbed me and never let go - so I can totally forgive it any of Spielberg's lapses in logic or the much-criticized grandma and grandpa ending.

As for Skynet imprisoning the humans - I think they need to study their physiology or even use human parts to develop their T-850s.

Yes, there are elements of Star Wars here with the beleaguered rebels and the inexorable evil empire. Another element: the development of the T-850 is like the development of the clone warriors or the Death Star. And there's all this question of who's going to be the saviour. "No, there is another." And mark my words, Kate's pregnant for a reason in this movie.

Thanks always for your comments - and I really enjoy your blog.

Daniel said...

Yes, I think the pregnancy is a foreboding sign for the continuation of this franchise under McG. It's not that I think he should have left well enough alone, I just think he added basically nothing new to this story.

And as far as effects/explosions being gripping/engrossing enough to allow you to overlook other flaws, well it just didn't get to that here. The closest was probably the gas station scene, but that ended up feeling too Transformers and even War of the Worldsish.

Definitely one of the most disappointing movies of the year for me so far.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, it was disappointing. For further commentary on this movie and thoughts about the type of movie it was trying to be, go to my post on Night at the Museum above that wanders into a discussion of action-sci-fi blockbusters.

Thanks for your comment. Glad you agree here, but I remember having a lot of fun disagreeing about Knowing a while back. I definitely enjoyed that film more than Terminator.