Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Directed by McG
Written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, and Anton Yelchin

In Terminator Salvation there are a lot of interesting things to look at but at the end of the day it is flat and boring.

Director McG demonstrates that he understands the technical side of filmmaking but he doesn't appear to know much else. His CGI scenes are good and the look of the film is unique, but that's pretty much it. This is his fourth feature film and is only his second without the words "Charlie's" or "Angels" in the title. It might appear unfair to bring up up his past films but they give an insight  into his work as a director. Those films were empty popcorn fluff with pretty girls and interesting visuals. His third film was We Are Marshall (2006), an emotional story about a Texas college rebuilding their lives and football team after a tragedy and told completely without emotion. 

So when it comes to Terminator Salvation, McG is able to take great iconic pop culture figures and make them completely uninteresting. This is actually a bit of an accomplishment given the opening of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) which was directed by Terminator creator James Cameron. This was the first glance of the future war between man and machine. In a brief opening scene we see humans struggling to fend off an attack from the machines. Toward the end of the scene we follow a character shrouded in shadows and watch as everyone else stares at him with awe. We see the character survey the battlefield and then we realize this is John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance. 

This iconic scene lasted only a few minutes but made a lasting impact in the minds of Terminator and movie fans for nearly twenty years. Despite that fact McG can't even come close to doing the same thing with a 120 minute feature film, even with the great Christian Bale playing John Connor.

So what went wrong?

Honestly, the blame all comes down on the shoulders of McG. He knows what looks good on screen but he doesn't know when it's appropriate to use it. For instance, he knows that rain is very effective in a dramatic scene so he uses it often. The first time he uses it we quickly go from a dry desert heat to a heavy rainfall complete with thunder and and lighting just as a main character is introduced. The man doesn't have the word "cliche" in his dictionary.

Also, McG understands that his audience is going to primarily be composed of males. Because he understands his audience he wants his female actors to look good.  Of course they all have great hair and perfect skin. The only problem is his story takes place in a bleak future where man is struggling to survive. Also, all his male actors have dirt, sweat, and stubble on their faces so it's a little confusing. In McG's future if humanity is to survive maybe the woman shouldn't worry about hair and make up so much.

The film follows two main character one being John Connor and the other being Marcus Wright. As mentioned before John Connor is the leader of the human resistance. At this stage in the story he is at the cusp of embracing that destiny. He never really goes through any sort of hero transformation though people just start following him. I couldn't figure out why he wasn't the leader yet accept they want to milk more sequels out of this franchise.

The other main character, Marcus Wright is a former death row inmate who at the last minute before execution volunteers to be a part of a science experiment that will give him a second chance at life. He is executed but science gives him another shot at life. He wakes up fifteen years later and soon discovers that he is now both a man and a machine. He is a prototype for the new model of Terminators. 

 Since the narrative couldn't settle on which character to follow it was difficult to become attached to any of the supporting characters. The whole group isn't united until half way through the film so they sort of pop up from time to time. John has a wife named Kate played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Kate is a doctor and is also pregnant. I would have loved to see more of this relationship but we just didn't have time. For whatever reason Marcus needed a romance as well and other relationships suffered as a result. This too can be contributed to director McG. He has some pretty strong actors in his cast but the characters are not interesting. 

One of the interesting aspects of the story is that despite facing annihilation at the hands of machine humans still fight with one another. This is actually a pretty fascinating idea in this film and because the script went through no less than seven rewrites by seven different writers I'm not sure who to credit this too, but good job. It's touched on in a couple scenes but we never see fleshed out or even resolved. An interesting test for John Connor would have been to have him unite humanity in their fight for survival. Maybe in the next film.

Terminator fans will probably enjoy the homages to the earlier films in the series. The final confrontation takes place in a factory just like in the first two films. Some of the classic lines such as "Come with me if you want to live" and "I'll be back" are said. Even the Governor of California allowed a pretty impressive CGI likeness to be used in this film.

All that being said it doesn't hold a candle to the first two films that were written and directed by James Cameron. This film along with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), which was directed by Jonathon Mostow make a pretty strong case for letting the original creator of a series have the last say about when it  should end. 

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