*/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B
starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Bryce Dallas Howard, Helena Bonham Carter
screenplay by John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris
directed by McG
by Walter Chaw The movie pretends that it's about discovering that which separates humans from machines--an idea of "functional equivalence," if you will, that Duncan Jones does a much better job with in his zero-budget Moon than McG does with in his small-country-GDP-budget Terminator Salvation. But what it's really about is blowing shit up real good for two hours. A tanker blows, a gas station blows, a field of satellite towers blows, a hole blows, and, accordingly, the movie blows. The real secret for success that the human freedom fighters of 2018, led by saviour guy John Connor (Christian Bale), should search for is the one that allows the evil Skynet robots to distinguish manmade fires in the desert that it should examine from those it should leave alone. What they discover instead is a "kill code" they can play on their futuristic boom boxes that "turns off" the machines hunting the people remaining after a nuclear holocaust has left the planet completely habitable for the hundreds of huddled masses tuning their transistor radios to fireside chats with Connor. (But not the types of fires the robots are interested in--see, the robots are only drawn to fires that humans set as ambush traps (and Guns N' Roses (you wouldn't understand)).)
While those familiar with series lore will wonder about a lot of things that don't jibe with their understanding of the mythology, for the uninitiated there are a few scenes of a pensive Connor listening to cassettes that his mother, Sarah, recorded before her death somewhere between the events of the second and third films. It's the third-worst kind of expository device and Terminator Salvation uses the first two as well (the opening informational text and voiceover), because Terminator Salvation doesn't know what it's doing, predictably makes no sense doing it, and ends with one of the most idiotic declarations in the history of such things as Connor gruffs that what separates us from machines is...wait for it..."the human heart!" The whole enterprise reeks of a certain desperation to explain its own inconsistencies after the fact.
What might be the problem is that this sad, wasted thing not only wants to kick ass, but also wants to be an anti-death penalty picture, sort of, about redemption, I guess (look at the title!), with executed killer from 2003 Marcus (Sam Worthington) finding out he's a Voltron version of himself in 2018 and deciding to be a good guy by saving John and his daddy Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). First, though, he makes a dumb girl (Moon Bloodgood, sort of the female Keanu Reeves) fall in love with him and forces her to say things like, "You're a good guy, you just don't know it yet!" and, "I look at him and I see a human!" It has B-movie legend and professional saddlebag Michael Ironside growling like a ripcord in a couple of non-sequitur sequences in a submarine, and it has Mrs. Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard, who's no Claire Danes) be both a doctor and visibly pregnant, thereby fulfilling her unspoken macho-movie mandate to be life-giver in its multifoliate incarnations. Should've had her in pearls with a watering can and serving meatloaf, too.
The problem is that there's not a lot of stickiness to the question of whether or not something is human or machine, not because they're equally capable of emotion but because they're equally capable of not emoting. There's nothing at stake in this picture, because when Connor howls that killing Reese as collateral in a raid on the Skynet facility will rob them of their HUMANITY, you can't figure out if he means that it will wipe out saviour Connor in some weird time-loop thing or that it's amoral to cause collateral damage in war. It's either deeply selfish or deeply naïve and neither is worth getting excited about. Terminator Salvation essentially wants to be an anti-war film--and pro-life, and anti-medical research, meaning that the assclowns writers of this thing (their previous credits include Catwoman and The Net) are children who don't know their asshole from their elbow; to bail them out, McG segues into a giant mecha wandering around the California desert, picking up people just stumbling around, or else he breaks out those cool motorcycle GoBots from the superior-in-every-way trailer. You'd think that in a future controlled by machines and computers that mankind would--like Al-Qaeda, for instance--go off the grid. You'd also think that machines capable of locating a campfire or a radio playing bad '80s metal in a haystack would also be able to locate a ginormous firefight in a minefield surrounding the human's top-secret stronghold.
Whatever. The action isn't very exciting because you don't care about any of the characters and because you don't understand any of the stakes. John Connor has to save his future-dad Reese in order to send Reese back in time to father him so that he can...what? Contrary to how much he's been deified (three films plus a TV series have campaigned the legend of John Connor), Connor doesn't seem all that special, nor do the machines seem all that menacing. And if the movie has anything to say about anything, it appears to be that we should give toasters rights because even though they'll wipe out most of humanity, it's only through them that we have any chance of survival. It's a fascinating devil's bargain if handled with pathos and irony, as it was in the first two films. Because Marcus in his "past" life was a cop-killer, it's possible to view Terminator Salvation as one of those throwbacks to Fifties centrist films where cops are bad and experts are good, but then what to make of all the grunt-love in the rest of it? The only conclusion to draw is that there are no conclusions to draw: despite the apocalyptic doom and intelligence that worked so well for its predecessors--even the much-reviled Terminator 3--the picture is apparently content to pretty much be about running/driving around, shooting guns at things that aren't harmed by guns, suffering unimaginable losses that are imaginable and not tragic, and passing time until the perfunctory final battle in a foundry, following which there will be cheap philosophizing and the promise of another sequel. Did I mention the mute little black girl who isn't one of Will Smith's kids but may as well be? Originally published: May 29, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers There is on this disc a so-called Maximum Movie Mode modelled on Watchmen's In Movie Experience in which Terminator Salvation director McG gives a guided tour of the production using multifarious visual aids. As I can't yet partake in these BonusView features, I missed out on 114 minutes of unfiltered McG; based on his comments in the considerably shorter but McG-centric "Reforging the Future" (19 mins.), praise be to Allah. Therein, in an apparent effort to dethrone Brett Ratner for the gasbag crown, McG says of his take on the post-apocalypse, "I came up with the idea of the grittiness and the darkness so it was different" (yes, finally an antidote to James Cameron's Rainbow Brite vision of the future), calls the fucking early-'80s the golden age of sci-fi, and, for the hat-trick, invokes David Lean. Ironically, Lean probably wouldn't have shot this movie for widescreen exhibition, as McG did--he felt 'scope was obsolete in a world where TV had won the Mexican stand-off against the cinema, and I can't imagine what he would make of people soothing themselves to sleep with Dr. Zhivago on their iPod nanos. Ultimately, you can skip this piece if you've already watched the "Focus Points" (more on them in a moment)--you can also skip it if you haven't, of course, I'm just saying that it's basically a consolidation of those featurettes. The other doc external to the "Focus Points" is "Moto-minator" (9 mins.), wherein McG tells us he and Bale like motorcycles, especially Ducatis, and so Ducatis were the obvious choice to serve as the basis for the self-driving bikes seen in the film. Ducati: Good to the last drop. The choice of a new generation. Just Do It. Where's the beef? Bo knows.
The aforementioned "Focus Points"--"Digital Destruction" (2 mins.), "Enlisting the Air Force" (3 mins.), "Molten Metal and the Science of Simulation" (2 mins.), "Building the Gas Station" (3 mins.), "Creating the VLA Attack" (3 mins.), "Exploding Serena's Lab in Miniature" (3 mins.), "Hydrobots" (2 mins.), "An Icon Returns" (3 mins.), "Terminator Factory" (2 mins.), "Stan Winston Shop" (3 mins.), and "Napalm Blast" (3 mins.)--are, much like the picture they document, TNT porn. I'm no tree hugger, but I found the admission that the production burned up 30,000 gallons of fuel in a single take a little distasteful. (That's roughly what a cruise ship uses over a three-day period.) It's worth noting that the explosives expert, Michael Meinardus, is on crutches--personally, that would not put me at ease. The rest is the standard CGI fetishism; I will say that I enjoyed the segment about fabricating a digital Arnie, an astonishing if alarming effects achievement in that it seems to have sidestepped the Uncanny Valley entirely. Soon there will be no such thing as dead movie stars. Oddly, the Maximum Movie Mode graces the theatrical cut of Terminator Salvation and not the R-rated Director's Cut, which is included on a second Blu-ray Disc inside the swingtray keepcase. For what it's worth, I only noticed one difference between the two versions: you guessed it, it's the moment where Moon Bloodgood plays Kelly McGillis to Sam Worthington's Harrison Ford. Call it Witless. Although this scene initially jeopardized their precious PG-13, it's worth noting that even at Blu-ray resolution the nudity here is comically inexplicit.
Both incarnations look identical and identically fantastic in 2.40:1, 1080p widescreen, albeit a hair below reference thanks to a semi-occasional dearth of shadow detail. I could complain about the random-feeling spikes in grain, but a) the picture was shot in Super35 and appears to have embraced the familiar processing peccadilloes of the format as part and parcel of its ersatz grit, and b) it feels more like an affectation than like a telecine oversight. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD audio is phenomenal and worth a rental, at least, for the action sequences. I don't understand all of sound designer Nigel Albermaniche's choices--some of the bigger explosions are curiously subdued--but his mix is never a mere racket, and when the Terminators have any personality it's largely because of the noises they produce, like the awful groan of the Harvester that tests stomachs and subwoofers in equal measure. Blu-ray propaganda cues up on startup of the first disc, while a DVD containing a Digital Copy of the theatrical cut rounds out the package. Originally published: November 29, 2009.