It’s 2003. A cancer-stricken scientist is trying to convince a death row inmate to sign away the rights to his vital organs on the day of his execution. On the surface, this bald visitor appears to be making a reasonable request. But in reality, she has a hidden agenda.
Helena Bonham Carter plays the scientist and the perpetually scowling Sam Worthington is the multiple murderer facing lethal injection in this opening scene from Terminator Salvation. He ultimately gives his blessing but not before kissing Carter and noting in the warmest of voices, "So that’s what death tastes like.". Little does Worthington know, however, that by signing that request form he’s unwittingly given himself a chance at redemption.
Fifteen years later, global survivors of a nuclear holocaust have formed a human resistance to a relentless onslaught of attack by a variety of technological killing machines better known as terminators. There are human-sized ones (minus the skin tissue), giant ones that look like they walked off the set of Transformers, flying tracking devices that identify targets and there are even some who ride motorcycles. In one scene, our heroes encounter yet another type, a water-based enemy. These ones look like stand-alone mechanical arms that swim like giant sperm and attack like pirhanas.
Why has the human race been greatly reduced? Blame The Skynet Corporation. Their scientists have unwittingly set in motion a chain of events that have lead to an unnecessary war of survival between man and machine, a war that shows no signs of ending any time soon (much like this worn out franchise).
However, there is still hope in the form of John Connor (Christian Bale), the unofficial leader of the resistence. When he’s not listening faithfully to his mother’s taped messages for inspiration and insight, he’s frequently rallying the troops spread out in pockets all over the world by delivering brief, unexciting radio speeches. Barack Obama, he isn’t.
Early on, he leads his unit to an underground Skynet facility where they find a group of imprisoned humans. A quick computer scan reveals why the machines have been busy rounding them up.
After a number of the troops get wacked, Sam Worthington resurfaces. He has no clue what’s happened to him but the audience knows. (When you have exactly one facial expression, it doesn’t take a genius.) During an encounter with an unfriendly terminator, he’s rescued by Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a teenager vitally important to John Connor who’s desperate to locate him and protect him. (As you may recall from The Terminator, an adult Reese is sent back in time to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor who he ultimately impregnates.) Reese has a cute companion, Star (Jadagrace), a little, mute black girl with funky hair whose history remains a permanent mystery.
Meanwhile, Connor is given an important assignment by his superior (Michael Ironside) which may end the war sooner than expected. Later on, they butt heads over the issue of saving civilians. Connor wants to rescue the captured before blowing up another Skynet facility. Ironside believes they are expendable which doesn’t make a lot of sense. (Dude, don’t you care about preserving humanity? What other reason do you have to fight murderous machines day in and day out?)
In fact, the most puzzling aspect of Terminator Salvation is its own utter disinterest in the characters, particularly their histories. Consider the Sam Worthington character. When he tells Helena Bonham Carter who he killed, he offers no motive for his actions nor how he committed the murders. In fact, at no point does the movie pause long enough for him to detail what actually happened. Also, we have no idea why Star, the mute kid, doesn’t talk or how she first encountered Reese.
Also baffling is how Connor, busy lad that he is, managed to get his beautiful girlfriend (the sadly wasted Bryce Dallas Howard) pregnant. When you’re constantly being bombarded by all those terminators, where do you find the time?
With the exception of the first two Mad Max films, I’ve not been a big fan of post-apocalyptic thrillers. Like any genre, without strong characters to care about and truly thrilling scenes to showcase them in, it’s difficult to enjoy them. The bad ones tend to be indistinguishable from one another, thanks to their formulaic nature. Terminator Salvation cares not a lick for its heroes, its villains, not even its story, a dragged out affair that didn’t really need to be made in the first place (neither did Terminator 3, for that matter). It is far more interested in bombarding the viewer with relentless action and intense noise.
It’s too bad because the film looks great, as long as the camera doesn’t overly shake (a technique that’s too dizzying for the big screen). Watching Sam Worthington walking through sand from a distance is a spectacular image, albeit a brief one. A number of exterior sequences are well photographed, as well. Ditto the interior Skynet scenes. All the terminator effects are well done, too, especially the one that had me absolutely convinced I was watching the Governor of California kicking some serious ass. Some of the other action sequences have their moments, as well. But with inconsequential performances and a lacklustre storyline, it’s all for naught.
Like the Alien franchise, the Terminator series stopped being entertaining after the first sequel. When James Cameron declined to make Rise Of The Machines, his absence was clearly felt in the finished film, most especially in that horribly pessimistic ending. Cameron cared deeply about his characters, infusing them with hope, determination and wit. His idea that global calamities were not inevitable and, in fact, preventable was most welcome, particularly in the astonishing T2. Terminator Salvation, like its predecessor, makes a mockery of Cameron’s contributions. It has no heart, no wit and no artistic ambitions beyond its expensive look and sound.
The film’s most irritating quality, however, is its ending. There is no resolution, no finality to this series. Just a promise of more mindless violence and empty storytelling to come.
Count me out.
(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, June 12, 2009