Terminator Salvation (review)

Not So Heavy Metal

It’s a bleak future for humanity, a postnuclear world in which homo sapiens have been driven to near extinction by their own creations, the sentient machines. The skies are leaden with fallout, the survivors grim-faced and hard, the eyes of the pitiable children deadened to anything but scrounging like rats underground, the only marginally safe place left to hide from the genocidal metal.

Or, you know, not.
The year is 2018, the planet was nuked to cinders no more than 15 years earlier — which we know because a pre-Judgment Day sequence set in 2003 opens Terminator Salvation — but things ain’t so bad at all. Really, the nuclear holocaust doesn’t look to have been that terrible. Everyone has nice white teeth and shiny hair and the skies are blue and antibiotics may be hard to come by but immunosuppressive drugs for organ transplantation appear to be in ready supply. Sure, the Hollywood sign that looks down over Los Angeles is ruined, but that’s merely kinda ironic, doncha think? Oh, and the war against the machines looks like it’s going okay, what with the human resistance able to maintain the kind of radio network that can broadcast from Southern California to as far away as at least New York — with the suggestion that the broadcast may well be going out live globally. (Some machines are still our friends!) But heck, that’s nothing next to the resistance’s ability to manage and protect large airfields complete with wide runways jammed with fully fueled-up fighter jets. Oh, and the helicopters! You can almost hear “Ride of the Vietnam-kyries” in the score as they bring fiery death to the bad robots. It’s awesome!

Or, you know, not.

I know it’s pointless to complain about things like actors who look more like models than they do like people who’ve grown up in a radiation-ravaged world scavenging for food while trying not to get pulverized by killer computers. (I have no doubt that Moon Bloodgood [Pathfinder, Eight Below], who plays one of Connor’s fighter pilots here, may well deserve People Magazine’s designation as one of the 100 Most Beautiful People of 2009… but no one should look that good in this 2018.) But I damn well will complain that it appears that director McG — past perpetrator of such awfulnesses as We Are Marshall and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle — has less than a passing familiarity with the well-established universe he decided to play with. Has he seen another Terminator movie? Even just in snippets on an airplane or something? His screenwriters should have known better: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris both wrote Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines… though they also are responsible for the litter-box leavings of Catwoman, too.

Relativity-ly speaking, it’s only sort of a major-ish problem that this feels like a generic action flick unwilling to take any of the narrative risks previous films and the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series did. Every time we’ve met John Connor, the past has been getting altered and the future has been getting changed and the universe has been branching off into new timelines. Which was maddening, in a way, but also exhilarating, too — it kept what could have been a predictable story fresh in clever ways. But that’s too scary for Salvation, which contents itself with merely filling in a few holes that, frankly, didn’t need filling.

But the hugest of the movie’s many problems: Terminator Salvation is sentimental. It’s emotionally mushy. It presents us with a new model of Terminator in the Robocop-ized Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington: The Great Raid, Hart’s War), who donated his body from death row to mad-science in 2003, so that Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), as the Borg Queen, could make him a secret Cylon who doesn’t even know he’s a machine. So that when he wakes up in 2018 he can make John Connor fall in love with him. No, really. Can you imagine a proper John Connor hesitating for a single moment to blow the fuck away the metal standing in front of him, even if the metal does think it’s human? It’s damn near close to character rape, what McG, Brancato, and Ferris force Christian Bale’s (The Dark Knight, I’m Not There) Connor to do here, and to not do. It’s damn near close to sticking some C4 right into the bitter heart of the Terminator universe and blowing it up, the way they have their characters — not only Connor — behave. Are these soft people who have spent their lives in leisure? Or are they tough, cynical warriors who’ve been battling for their very existence against relentless machines that they know will stop at nothing to exterminate them?

Then again, maybe McG intended to destroy this franchise, cuz the boy sure do love him some explosions. Salvation doesn’t so much say, “Hey, world, here’s my new Terminator movie!” as it says, “Hey, Michael Bay, I. Am. Coming. For. You.” If McG hoped that his veritable orgy of techno toys — oo, look, a Terminator that’s like a motorcycle! oo, look, a gigantic Transforminator! — and stuff blowing up would be, you know, orgiastically thrilling, well, it isn’t. It’s boring. So boring that next to McG, Michael Bay is an auteur of cinematic destruction.

Perhaps Salvation’s only redeeming quality is that it is frequently hilarious, practically begging for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. Its deployment of clichés is admirable: If, for one, Skynet has put Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin: Star Trek, Charlie Bartlett) at the top of its most-wanted list, being clearly aware of Reese’s once-and-future importance to humanity, why doesn’t it kill him instantly the moment it captures him and thereby eliminate John Connor forever? Its stupidity is profound: If machine hunter-killers roam the night seeking out humans via infrared, why would anyone ever build a fire out in the open? Its borrowing of visual tropes from such sources as Ridley Scott’s 1984 Apple ad to James Cameron’s Aliens makes it ideal for hooting along to with your geek pals.

When you’re not crying your broken geek heart out, that is, to see John Connor defeated in such an ignominious way. Skynet didn’t need to send Terminators back in time to kill John Connor. It just needed to wait for McG to come along and do the job for it.

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