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After viewing 10 minutes of footage from Terminator Salvation at the New York Comic Con last February, I would definitely describe my reaction as unimpressed.  The clip was noisy, CGI-laden chaos with no discernable plot, and jarring, rather than eye-popping action.  It didnít put me at all at ease that going back to the Terminator well for a fourth swig was a good idea.

Now, having seen all those disjointed pieces strung together has shown me the error of some of my prejudice.  I was absolutely right about it being noisy and the action is often overwhelming rather than breathtaking, but overall, director McGís look at the early days of John Connorís resistance is an entertaining, unapologetic attempt at summer blockbuster that does its painstaking best to pay homage to James Cameronís original 1984 sci-fi masterpiece.

Visually, itís a neat representation of the Apocalypse: McG uses bleached-out, overexposed palettes to colour his world of nothingness.  Thriving cities have become barren deserts.  Humankind is an endangered species, hunted by machines that have deemed their creators a threat and design more efficient ways to destroy.  Decimated skyscrapers provide shelter for young children who scavenge for food and protection.  Itís in the middle of the madness of the war of man against machine that Marcus Wright wakes up nude and howling.  Discovered by a pair of kids who single-handedly defend their tiny fortress from cyborg killers, Marcus learns a lot has changed fifteen years since he was executed as a death-row prisoner in 2003.  Marcus decides to find out the answers to why he is and rather unwisely heads to straight to the bad guysí base, despite the pleas of reason from one of the two urchins; a pragmatic young man named Kyle Reese.  Unbeknownst to our trio, the cyborgsí HQ, Skynet, has marked the teenager for termination as he will grow up to become the father of John Connor, the prophesied head of the human resistance.  Marcus will also end up running afoul of Connorís scrappy militia, who donít trust him once they find out why heís got such a magnetic personality.  Itís his connection to Kyle and the teenís abduction by Skynet that bonds Marcus and Connor in an uneasy alliance.

There are so many nods to the previous Terminator films I was sure McG mustíve had rug burn on his knees.  Thereís ďCome with me if you want to live,Ē and ďIíll be back.Ē The Guns Ní Roses song from T3 plays while John hijacks a motorcycle cyborg (-Batpod, T-pod, itís all good to Christian Bale).  We discover the advent of Johnís scar.  Terminator Salvation actually lifts a classic sequence nearly note for note, during the climatic battle inside Skynet: The entire climax of Terminator 1, where the cyborg exoskeleton stalks Kyle and Sarah Connor in an industrial building, is transposed with their issue, John, in their place.  Just to be sure he hasnít left anything out of the Cameron kitchen sink, McG does a similar trick using Aliensí elevator scene.  We hear John listening to his motherís tapes (- strangely rerecorded and conveniently retconned by an older, harsher sounding Linda Hamilton) for guidance.  In what is probably the most amazing visual effect of the entire film, McGís SFX wizards bring a certain politician back to his mid-80ís best, in a cameo/ultimate benediction for the film.  Speaking of blessings, I think Iíll be joining the Anton Yelchin fanclub after his twin successes as Chekov in Star Trek and now in Terminator Salvation.  Yelchin is once again spot-on playing a character viewers know inside and out, perfectly mimicking Michael Biehnís breathless delivery and woebegone facial expressions as teenaged Kyle Reese.

Odd thing about Terminator Salvation is, for all the hype about casting Christian Bale as John Connor (Ė much of it purveyed by McG himself at Comic Con), he really doesnít have a lot to do.  This is Sam Worthingtonís show.  The Australian actor, relatively unknown on these shores, picks up and walks off with the movie as most of the focus falls on Marcusí struggle to find out if heís anything more than the literal Terminator with a heart.  The other odd thing is for however great Worthingtonís performance is, I found I didnít care about him or anybody else in the movie all that much, and that is the failure of any Terminator sequel.  In 1984, James Cameron created one of the greatest cinematic romances and craftily disguised it as a science fiction movie so guys wouldnít notice.  It was the story of Sarah Connor, an ordinary young girl who became something much more than she ever dreamed and her indelible chemistry with Kyle Reese, the shaggy soldier sent back from a time heíd never see again, to protect her from enemies from a future she couldnít believe.  Cameronís brilliant narrative showed us Sarahís enforced evolution as bullets and corpses land all around her, from sweet, fluffy college girl to iron-spined warrior, and Kyleís impossible love for the woman he idolised before they ever met.  The audience rooted for these two and you cared what would become of that girl; which led us all into the cinemas for T2, which, while a masterpiece of visual effects, stepped away a bit from giving us characters we cared about to its diminution (- Man, I prayed for the T-1000 to shoot that squalling kid in the knees, Chosen One or not).  McG gives us really good stuff in the action department; there are great hyperkinetic chase sequences (- With cyborgs that seem way too advanced for the timeframe of the T-800 series.) and the final battle inside Skynet is a lot of fun, regardless of the affectionate scene cloning, but he doesnít gives us much by way of character development.  John Connor is strong and snarling (- Bale still in growling Batman mode), but we donít learn anything more about what makes him tick than we knew from previous chapters.  We donít know a thing about Marcus or why he would fight against his wiring to help the resistance, instead of siding with the machines that kept him alive.  Neither is the idea of going after Kyle Reese particularly novel, first Skynet tried to kill Johnís mother, then they tried to kill prepubescent John, then they tried to kill him again pre-Judgment Day.  I guess it was just a matter of time before they got around to Sarahís babydaddy. 

Some of the wild, mixed-bag special effects in the movie deserve mention, ranging from the thoroughly impressive to making the audience wonder what third grader was in charge of that scene.  There is no excuse for the careless mess glued to the side of Marcusí head when finally, after miles of explosions, car crashes, shootouts, flights off bridges, etc., his skin starts tearing to show the metal beneath.  Fine, except this metal looked like melted plastic that was applied to the actorís face lopsided.  The T-600 cyborgs that precede Arnoldís T-800 model look awful; I know theyíre supposed to have had rubber skin, but this was Troma-bad, with actors inside the messy suits.  These cats looked like refugees from Pirates of the Caribbean.  Also, the exoskeletons of the T-800ís lack the true scariness of the big guy from 1984; the original cyborg was a heavy thing, lumbering after Kyle and Sarah with a busted leg, innately terrifying though it was turtle-slow.  The grinning silver deathís head was like a zombie that couldnít be put down and even though he wasnít fast, he would find the pair and kill them.  You can tell these new guys are CGI, thereís no weight to their movements and they move too darn fast.  Sometimes state-of-the-art isnít the way to go and thereís just something tactile about the original T-800 model that isnít here.  Terminator Salvation is dedicated to the memory of the late, great special effects god, Stan Winston, who certainly couldíve been a help here.

For those whoíve never seen a Terminator film before, donít expect to follow the story too closely, but to his shame or credit, McG packs in so much high-powered eye-candy octane that non-fans will be entertained if find the film a bit hollow.  Fans of the Terminator series will also enjoy the action and the heaps of homages packed into the film, which is miles better than T3: Rise of the Machines, but wonít get anything in the continuance of John Connorís story.  At the New York Comic Con, McG implored the fans to stand behind his work for the Terminator love letter that it was and is, and by neither offending nor innovating, heís done what he set out to do and made a fun summer blockbuster, but not much more.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 19th 2009

 

 

 

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