Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Terminator Salvation (*1/2)

Directed by McG
Cast: Sam Worthington, Christian Bale, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Jadagrace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Helena Bonham Carter, Common, Ivan G'Vera, Michael Ironside, Jane Alexander, Terry Crews, Chris Browning
Voice Cast: Linda Hamilton
2009--130 minutes
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence, language)

"Terminator Salvation" is a terrible film. That takes a moderate amount of meditation. Doesn't it belong to the famed series birthed by the visionary director James Cameron, he of "Aliens" and "Titanic?" Yes, the series began in 1984 with the wildly fun "The Terminator," which acted as both a massively entertaining sci-fi film and a terrifying vision of a post-apocalyptic battle between humans and robots. 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" was even better and is considered by many to be a fulcrum achievement in summer entertainments; I don't disagree, as it is one of my personal favorite science fiction films. 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" was considerably less liked and has its share of detractors; I am not in this group, as I thought that the film was that year's best summer blockbuster, a virtually breathless cavalcade of high-stakes action and more than a bit of the intrigue the previous films held.

In comparison, "Terminator Salvation" feels like nothing more than a copy of a copy of the previous films, plagued with an almost kid-friendly PG-13 rating that stunningly compromises what James Cameron and Jonathan Mostow (director of the third film) had set as the standard for what makes a film in this series work. Not only does director McG's dully realized vision not work as a "Terminator" film; it doesn't even satisfy as a meaty sci-fi extravaganza. The earlier films were both taut and fittingly epic, encompassing their stories gracefully and rarely, if ever, missing a beat. The highly anticipated fourth film, however, provides a convoluted story that attempts to equal the astonishing first three films in scope. It comes up drastically short.

The year is 2018. The war prophesied to have ravaged the Earth is currently taking place and a resistance against the machines has been formed by John Connor. As this war goes on, Connor continues to look for his father, Kyle Reese, in order to save him from a terrible death at the hands of the machines; if they kill him, there would be no future anymore. Meanwhile a former prisoner named Marcus Wright has donated himself to science upon his lethal injection years earlier and in return gotten a makeover in the form of a half-robotic/half-human body. Before long, Connor and Wright will team up to save Reese from the robots and, hopefully, make the future a better place for all.

From frame one, "Terminator Salvation" screams of mediocrity. From the plotting, which is much more confused than I just made it sound, to the action sequences, which bore and numb the viewer in the way that Michael Bay's films have been wrongfully accused of doing, the film just doesn't work. The cinematography by Michael Fitzgerald and Shane Hurlbut is among the worst of the year, shrouding everything in a dank sort of darkness that works against the themes presented. This is a film that could have looked incredible under the hand of someone like the great Emmanuel Lubezki, who memorably shot the similarly apocalyptic "Children of Men" a few years ago, but instead this is a film during which I felt like closing my eyes. The screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris purports to be about something deeper than it ends up being, but doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the admittedly intriguing themes present.

Visual effects work is impressive across the board, especially in the otherwise unremarkable action sequences, and never look less than impressive. These effects are in the service, however, of a vanity project that never takes off as well as planned--never. Not one time did I believe in anything that was happening on screen due to the aforementioned screenplay. Still, aesthetically, the effects work. As far as acting goes, the only standout is Sam Worthington, who envelops the character of Marcus Wright with a humanity that wouldn't otherwise make sense with the character at hand; indeed, Marcus is the only character in the film with either a discernible quality or even three dimensions.

In contrast to Worthington, who is the saving grace among the performers, Christian Bale has never been worse, dismayingly playing John Connor as a humorless bore with no humanity whatsoever. Gone is the sarcasm of Edward Furlong's committed performance in the 1991 film, as well as Nick Stahl's three-dimensional vulnerability in the 2003 installment. Bale also looks bored and disinterested. Apparent complications on set and his quarrels with Shane Hurlbut evidently afffected his mood, and it shows. Other performances, such Moon Bloodgood's as the only person to give Marcus considerable affection or Bryce Dallas Howard in the stock Worried Wifey role, are so inconsequential as to not be there. Even worse offenders are rapper-turned-actor Common, former Starship Trooper Michael Ironside, Anton Yelchin in the crucial role of Kyle Reese and a nearly nonexistent Helena Bonham Carter, all turning up for maybe five minutes between them and never leaving a good impression.

Films like "Terminator Salvation" are disappointing for many, many reasons, and it's a shame that an entry into one of the most beloved series of films out there is the worst movie this year's had to offer thus far (even beating out something like "Hannah Montana: The Movie," which at least wasn't completely boring). It's bereft of a brain and a soul, and even when the last action sequence in the movie works, it's only out of a sick pleasure of seeing something that liberally steals the occurrences of the innovative and genuinely exciting finale of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Even Arnold himself shows up in a shameless ploy to cash in on those previous films (and his appearance is horridly incorporated, to boot). What a mess "Terminator Salvation" was, and how tragic.

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