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The devil’s hands have been busy. What is it?

Movie

Terminator Salvation
(2009)

 

(Director’s Cut) I wasn’t one of those (most people, it seems) who threw their hands up in horror at Terminator SalvationRise of the Machines had left me decidedly unimpressed, so perhaps I was just grateful for small mercies and in a forgiving mood the first time I the fourth in the franchise. I’d never been as down on McG as everyone else (sure, he falls victim to attention-deficit direction and maybe lacks the gravitas for serious sci-fi, but at least he can assemble a movie with reasonable aptitude), and the picture impressed for the effort that had gone into creating a tangible future world. On that limited basis, Salvation still impresses. I’d take it over Rise of the Machines, but only incrementally. However, revisiting this one also lays bares its pervasive deficiencies in wholly unforgiving fashion.

So I’ll get out of the way what I like about the picture first. The production design is pretty good. The T-600 has a fascinatingly primitive quality, and in some ways is actually more brutally impressive than the T-800 (there’s a definite zombie vibe to McG’s treatment of the terminators). I rather like the variety of terminating machines, from the moto-terminator cycles, to the Matrix-y water tentacles, to the towering transforminator. The doubt over John Connor (is he the key to mankind’s salvation, or a false prophet)? is also the kind of touch suggesting John D Brancato and Michael Ferris (returning from Rise of the Machines) have bothered to thrash out some motivated “what ifs” with regard to the various constraining and tentacular timelines.

The sound design is also fantastic. McG appears to have paid attention to old school Lucas-era sound effects. So the robots, vehicles and weapons are all distinctive and arresting.

And Christian Bale looks like the kind of guy you’d expect John Connor to look like (more than Moses, at any rate). That’s not saying he was right for the part (he is in perma-hoarse, Batman mode, and his onset rant is his most impressive performance relating to the picture), but he’s more believable than Nick Stahl (whose performance in T3 is probably better, but who just isn’t Connor). Anton Yelchin, who reincarnated two SF characters in the same year (Chekov being the other) is physically unimposing but does a grand job getting the general demeanour of Michael Biehn correct. And better Kyle Reese is physically unimposing than built like a brick shithouse (I’m looking at you, Jai Courtney).

Also, I appreciate the desire to at least attempt to grapple with the changing histories of the movies. T2’s biggest problem is it wusses out and opts for just another chase movie (one that both underlines the causal loop of the first movie while attempting to disavow it). The problem is, Salvation doomed to failure. By this point, such an unholy mess has been created, with little clear and agreed set of time travel rules to guide the makers, that confusion reigns.

Yes, as an idea it makes sense for Skynet to kill Kyle Reese for the same reason it makes sense to kill Sarah Connor. But if Skynet knows this information, surely it is also aware of the predestination paradox whereby it comes into being (presumably the inevitability of Rise of the Machines means that whatever Cyberdyne came up with for T2 did get channelled somehow, even if it was delayed; whether or not they’d have come up with the goods in a similar timeframe if there had been no future tech is unclear)? And how exactly do they get this information? From blabbing prisoners (everyone seems aware of JC as saviour, so maybe Kyle Reese is known about too)? From police records? Probably the latter makes most sense.

The problem is, the more this kind of time travel plot is probed, the more unmentionables and problems arise with its very fabric. Wouldn’t it behove Skynet to establish multiple contingencies? Such as sending multiple Terminators with time-travel technology (and other technology) back to 2003 when Skynet is first starting out, giving them incrementally improved tech so John doesn’t stand a chance long before it comes around to 2029? What we appear to have in Salvation is the T-800 produced and raring to go (the CGI Arnie seemed a lot better six years ago) nearly a decade before its time, suggesting Skynet’s tech has accelerated through whatever means; it’s only JC blowing the place up that sets it back again (presumably).

Which leads to Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright. Worthington failed as the next Aussie big thing more spectacularly than Kevin Bana, as he hasn’t really convinced anyone he’s got much in the way of chops. He was fine in Cameron’s Avatar, but woefully miscast as an icon of Greek mythology (in a manner Bana contrastingly was not). As the anti-hero/picture’s “Terminator” there’s an attempt to give Marcus a bit of an edge (on death row, callous lines like “Now I know what death tastes like”, displaying a bit of Mad Max self-first bravado). This soon disperses when he gets sight of a cute moppet he can act as surrogate dad to (she even holds his metal hand right at the end!) Worthington, like Bale, appears unable to find a nuanced line for the character, possibly because they’re so thin on paper there’s nothing to inflate life into.

The problem is as much that the character of Marcus makes very little sense conceptually.  Somehow this advanced cyborg has been fashioned well in advance of all comparable termi-tech. Somehow, he has incredible healing abilities (the scenes of Marcus strung up with a hollowed-out chest are frankly ludicrous; even Arnie in T2 notes that Terminator’s register what we’d call pain; Marcus doesn’t even flinch) and Skynet can touch him up in minutes. I suppose Skynet might have kept Marcus on ice for a decade before infusing him with metal, but that’s not the way it looks (the Wiki pages suggest enhancements were added when Skynet discovered him, but one would think his main design was in place).

Even excusing the unlikeness, Skynet’s hatched plan for Marcus is baffling. Why even make him a decade ago if he isn’t going to be used (apart from setting up a mystery in the pre-credits sequence, obviously)? Assuming his subprogram as an infiltration prototype, what did they expect to happen? That Marcus would be revived and stumble into Kyle Reese immediately? Which is what he does. He “did what we failed to do for so many years – you killed John Connor”. If he hadn’t bumped into Moon Bloodgood hanging from a tree, Marcus would have followed Kyle to Skynet rather than going after John. The whole thing is ungainly at best and absurdly ineffective at worst. So Skynet is very lucky their shitty scheme comes up trumps as much as it does. It also seems pretty dumb to have someone who can be subconsciously manipulated to a tee but put no effort into placing a control override deep within his brain, one he can’t rip out when he feels like.

Skynet’s deception of the resistance is actually a decent-enough twist, though. We believe gruff militarist Michael Ironside could be sufficiently blinkered that he wouldn’t think things through. Less believable is JC’s slipshod approach to planning a covert attack; just announce the time and place on radio frequencies Skynet can readily pick up. Having the resistance command a sub at sea isn’t a bad concept either (John jumping into the sea to dock with it like an extreme sports enthusiast is pushing things, though).

Marcus’ presence as the real protagonist can’t be disguised by bulking up John’s role, and his demise is particularly egregious in this regard. It just doesn’t bear any interrogation that Marcus’ heart would be successfully transplanted into John’s body at an improvised field hospital (I hope they’ve got a whole lot of anti-rejection drugs about the place!) The scars of the original ending where John’s face is put on Marcus body are writ large here (Marcus then guns down Kyle, Kate, and presumably even the moppet), since what we get is just plain silly. I don’t think the bleak ending would have really impacted how the movie is perceived in a positive way, though; its flaws are in its DNA, not just how daft the denouement is.

Bale was all for that ending, and its notable that Connor’s role was beefed up when he came on board. It would have made more sense to keep John on the side-lines. He doesn’t endear as the leader (although he’s pretty much right in his dogmatic vilification of Marcus as it turns out), and he’s given little in terms of backbone other than pouring over his old Sarah tapes and photo. His actions seem frequently barmy (going mano-a-mano with a T-800) and Bale blunders through sporting his bat-growl to less than commanding effect.

Speaking of fights, as has been pointed out, the T-800 seems more concerned with throwing John about the place than actually killing him. Which has the inglorious precedent of “bad” Arnie at the end of T3, I guess, but it’s not one you want to recapture if you can help it.

This is one of just a number of head scratchers in the picture. Like how a dirty great transforminator creeps up behind a tiny building unseen to unleash havoc and mayhem on it. Or how you’ve got a post-nuclear wasteland, with bombs still being dropped by the looks of things, and Moon Bloodgood opts to stop off for a tits-errific shower under the radioactive rain. Erotically charged, that cancer and radiation sickness. I can only assume McG got so sweaty about this that he couldn’t be bothered to segue properly into the next scene (rather inappropriately, the attempted rape of Blair); Marcus has obligingly vanished so a gang of rapists can show up.

Bloodgood is fine, although she is used almost entirely to eye candy effect.  Bryce Dallace Howerd barely registers. Common, well, at least he doesn’t have a sizeable role. Helena Bonham Carter as Skynet was probably a bad idea. Personifying the machine, or giving it some kind of presence, was inevitable as there are otherwise too many unanswered questions about its motivations. Unfortunately, the explanations don’t help any (apparently at one point the idea was that Dr Kogan had survived to 2018). Disappointingly, a 75-year-old Dr Silverman is nowhere to be seen.

McG’s approach to direction works best in disposable fare where it doesn’t really matter that he has no insight into why he’s shooting the way he is for a particular scene. His bubble-gum pop sensibility is perfect for Charlie’s Angels, or the self-consciously daft actioneering of 3 Days to Kill. Here, while DP Shane Hurlburt lends the movie a rusting, grubby uniformity and editor Conrad Buff IV ensures the set pieces are never less than competent, what’s missing is a mind that encourages the story to lead with a director to support that rather than impose himself on i

McG’s the kind of guy to suddenly thrown in a chest cam of Christian Bale halfway through a shot because he thinks it’s cool rather than because it serves the scene. The one-shot sequence early on where John gets in a chopper that proceeds to crash was impressive when I first saw it on the big screen. Now, not so much. Maybe he isn’t wrong to make random choices, to an extent, since the script is so problematic, but while Salvation shows him as infinitely more earnest director than (say) Brett Ratner, it doesn’t actually leave him with any evidence of a deep and probing mind, one that can handle the demands of character and coherent storytelling.

So yeah. I was much too kind to Terminator Salvation first time out. The first half of the picture, up to around the point where Marcus and Connor first meet, is reasonably effective, and the milieu of the future is quite engrossing. It works in reverse to Rise of the Machines in that respect, where the best scene was the last. McG’s movie at least tries to go a different route, divesting itself of the time travel device. Unfortunately, it has very little with which to fill the void. The future drama isn’t compelling when it is focussed upon, any more than Battle of the Planet of the Apes made for an arresting conclusion to that saga. I have no idea what they’d have scraped together for a sequel had his been an enormous hit, but I can’t conceive that it would have been any good. Like Jurassic ParkTerminator is a repeatedly plundered franchise no one seems willing to admit is fundamentally resistant to compelling continuation.

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