Summer Movie A-Go-Go: “Terminator Salvation”

Posted: June 9, 2009 in Threat Quality

terminatorPity the summer action blockbuster, for it does not get the appreciation it sometimes deserves. I blame a lot of that on Michael Bay, who has almost single-handedly destroyed any respectability by making damn sure his big, explosion-heavy actioners feel as technically expensive and yet emotionally cheap as possible. Any product placement, he will accept. Any tone-deaf, poorly-placed attempt at humor, he will shoehorn in. Any loud noise, he will amplify. When one says “summer blockbuster,” they think of Michael Bay, and that’s why people tend to dump on action movies.

But there’s always potential for something better – particularly when you take Terminator Salvation (not a typo – the opening credits blast the name across the screen twice, and neither time is there a much-needed colon between the two words) into account.

TS (heh) tries its damnedest to be an action movie worthy of its lineage – movies that were about building characters and consequences – and, thanks to that foundation, largely succeeds.

The focus on character makes TS an unusual beast of an action film, in that it is an ensemble picture. This might seem counterintuitive, since the franchise’s previous terminator - wright-connorinstallments would lead you to assume John Connor is the obvious main character. But in its attempt to be an epic, TS branches out to follow not just Connor’s story, but those of young Kyle Reese and Judgment-Day survivor Marcus Wright, along with pretty vital supporting roles for Connor’s wife and a resistance-fighter pilot.

All these characters are necessary to the plot’s advancement. But more impressive is that because time is taken to develop them, they are all intrinsic to the audience’s investment in the bigger story – leaving out any one of them would lessen the movie’s effect on the viewer.

Time-travel isn’t crucial to the plot this time around, but it does hinge on Connor’s knowledge of Things To Come, particularly when he hears the name “Kyle Reese” (adorable Anton Yelchin, with a steely gaze that actually does recall Michael Biehn). And clearly, attention was paid to the franchise’s twisty predetermination themes, since Connor’s slightly-selfish attempts to save this seeming nobody – to ensure his own existence – actually becomes a major building block of the future savior’s reputation as a leader of men.

Like Wolverine, TS is a franchise sequel/prequel/reboot monster, and so is obliged to throw in certain easter eggs. But unlike Wolverine, TS actually pulls it off, threading in explanatory winks – where Kyle picked up that trick about stringing his shotgun to his arm, or where Connor got that eye-scar he’s wearing during the previous movies’ future-scenes – without shouting, “See? SEE? Remember from the old movies? We’re telling you how it happened now!” In fact, they all aid in the physical or skills development of characters we’re going to continue to watch grow and change, furthering our investment in them.

Another useful addition to the mythology addresses something that’s always needled at me: how exactly did John Connor build such a fan-base, when in a post-apocalyptic world, getting the word out about anyone’s actions must’ve been Terminator 6really damn hard? Here they show how John’s use of radio broadcasting made him, pretty literally, the voice of the resistance, and a compassionate one at that.

And to the movie’s credit, it lets the audience make those vital connections on their own. Seriously, that’s a rare trait in an action movie.

None of these bits feel like story-patches (in-plot explanations that address external audience questions), or distract from the plot itself; they all play like the seeds of story elements that will gain greater prominence in upcoming sequels.

I should also mention that the action in this film is capably directed. Nothing overly flashy, no choppy cuts, just solid physical storytelling (in the Cameron tradition, I’d even say). This is actually bold praise for a movie directed by a guy who made the Charlie’s Angels movies and insists on calling himself “McG.” So I hope that makes it clear that I was very impressed by this movie, and would recommend it as a theater-worthy summer release. After a marathon viewing of the previous films (and the TV show, which is really good, actually).

Other notes:
– Motherfucking KIDS! Attention, all of you who are/think you may one day want to be parents: DO NOT SEND PACKS OF FUCKING 10-YEAR-OLDS to a movie without supervision! The shitty little bastards will talk through the entire movie, even if they are interested in it! And an entire room full of people you’ve never met will quietly curse your shitty parenting. Some of them – and I’m not naming names, but, uhm, me – may have also blurted something about them all being fetal alcohol cases as they left the theater.

– Yes, it is sort of hard not to wonder which scene, exactly, was the one where Christian Bale went apeshit on that crew member. In fact, it’s sort of hard to watch this movie and not want to shout angrily-sarcastic things like, “You’re so fuckin’ NIIIICE, aren’tcha!” and “Oh, gooood for YOU!” in a hoarse Bale-voice afterwards.

– (And given that Bale has had to deliver all his lines in a throaty shout over the last couple of years, it’s not entirely shocking that he’d be a little tense after a while, y’know?)

  1. Erin says:

    Loved the robots; hated the dialogue. Overall, I’d say you were more impressed than I was, but I must admit I had a good enough time.

  2. V.I.P. Referee says:

    At first, I’d thought you typed “…FERAL alcohol cases…” in which case, it would seem they behaved rather well…for drunken packs of children who were raised by woodland creatures. That might’ve actually been the case, afterall. You shouldn’t cast judgement.

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Also, will you be devising a TQP movie ranking system? I know you guys tossed around the “apples vs. oranges” topic the other day, so I’m not suggesting you compare something like “Blow-Up” to “The Little Mermaid II”—although, that sort of review would make for good reading. Maybe an action film hierarchy, I don’t know…

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    I shall ponder the rating system. I have a feeling I can get pretty weird with that one.

    The dialogue…it didn’t offend me in any way, though I wouldn’t recommend the movie based on anything anyone actually SAID. Though I will admit I’m a sucker for call-back lines like “What day is this? What year?” and what-have-you.

    It’s less annoying than when the call-backs popping up in six Star Wars movies, two cartoon series, countless comics, etc. But if people are still repeating themselves in Terminator 5, I reserve the right to take that back.

  5. Erin says:

    I didn’t care about the call backs, just the bad dialogue in general. I found the action scenes far better written and directed than the rest of the film. In particular, I found the last five or ten minutes painful.

  6. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “Feral Alcohol”…oh yeah—commas and their significance, that’s right…

  7. […] and non-fiction–articles, for example, dealing the philosophical underpinnings of Superman, reviews of movies or books or comic books that are pretty cool (or hilariously bad), and humorous essays on a variety […]

  8. […] like the big, goofy, enthusiastic spectacle – often at the detriment of story logic or coherent editing, […]

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