Terminator Salvation

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.)
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, June 12, 2009
1:45 a.m.
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Published in: on June 12, 2009 at 1:45 am  Comments (2)  

Look Who’s Talking Too

It’s terribly unfunny.  The leads have no chemistry whatsoever.  The story is painfully thin.  And there’s really no one to care about.
 
Look Who’s Talking Too wasn’t nearly this bad the first time I screened it at a local multiplex in December 1990.  What a difference 19 years makes.
 
In the original Look Who’s Talking, Kirstie Alley plays a second generation accountant with an extremely messy personal life.  We learn early on that she’s in a dead-end relationship with her married boss (George Segal).  That’s not all.  She’s carrying his unborn baby.  He’s not terribly pleased.  Long story short, she ends up in a cab driven by John Travolta who hauls ass to get his very pregnant passenger to the hospital on time so the doctor can safely bring her son into the world.  The smitten cabbie grows fond of both the baby and the mama and starts hanging around them more and more as the film progresses.  Despite not always getting along, not to mention the lingering presence of Segal, the couple find their way by the third act.  (Too bad the movie wasn’t all that funny.)
 
We learn in the second film that Alley and Travolta have married.  Mikey, Alley’s son, is now a toddler and for some strange reason, he still hears the voice of Bruce Willis in his head whenever he has a thought, a gimmick needlessly and unpersuasively carried over from the first film.  Recycling the sexual biology sequence from Look Who’s Talking’s opening credits at the start, the movie immediately transitions into the newlyweds making out.  After a brief interruption (Mikey becomes terrified of a couple of his seemingly life-like toys), and a little persuading (not to mention a creepy comment on their sex life), they pick up where they left off.  Despite being reassured that his wife is wearing her diaphragm, one of Travolta’s talking sperm (must everything have a point of view in this movie?) manages to find a small opening behind the poorly applied birth control.  Soon after, Mikey is joined by an unwelcoming Julie, his new baby stepsister whose inner most thoughts are voiced by a sadly misused Roseanne Barr.  (She’s given exactly one funny line to say.)  Before her birth, he welcomes the idea of being her protector.  Afterwards, they rarely get along.
 
This is supposed to be a family-friendly, romantic comedy but Travolta and Alley spend far more time arguing and fighting than expressing affection towards one another.  In one scene, Mikey and his stepdad are watching a weird cartoon on TV involving imprisoned ghosts on the verge of execution while Cab Calloway’s Minnie The Moocher plays in the background.  Alley wants her son to go to bed.  Travolta wants him to see the cartoon first.  They exit the apartment and intensify their dispute to the point where a neighbour in their building tells them to pipe down not once, but twice.  Travolta feels that when Alley overrules him in front of Mikey he feels emasculated.  (What a wuss.)  Alley simply wants him well rested for his trip to a Baby Gym the next day.  (Would you believe Gilbert Gottfried runs it?)  After her son handed her a used crack pipe when they went to the park in an earlier scene, she felt a change of scenery was necessary.
 
After we learn that Travolta only earns less than $10,000 a year as a cabbie (which he’s proud of, believe it or not), his mother-in-law Olympia Dukakis (who does nothing but shit on him the entire picture), through her connections in the accounting world, gets him an interview for a private airline (Travolta would rather fly than put up with grumbling backseat drivers like Paul Shaffer every day; the new job turns out to be just as bad).  Somehow, this causes another fight between Mikey and Julie’s parents.  Just as they’re about to make up in bed, Alley’s paranoid brother (Robert DeNiro doppelganger Elias Koteas) shows up unannounced and uninvited and proceeds to add to the tension already simmering between the troubled young couple.  When Travolta repeatedly fails to convince his wife to throw out her brother (who just won’t leave) and when she refuses to choose between these two men, he bolts.  Did I mention this was a comedy?
 
In the meantime, the tiresome gimmick of hearing what Mikey and Julie, among other little ones in the picture, are thinking is rarely funny here.  Part of the problem is that we see their lips moving while Willis, Moore and Damon Wayans (who voices Mikey’s best friend, Eddie) supply their dialogue.  That greatly confuses the effect and is extremely distracting.  Why are their lips moving when they’re just thinking?  This leads to other pertinent questions:  how is it that the kids can hear other kids’ thoughts, but not the adults?   Why do we hear adult voices and not kid voices when they think?  How come they can have all these articulate thoughts internally yet they can’t put a sentence together out loud?  It’s enough to make you go nuts. 
 
When I saw this film in the theatre almost 20 years ago, I thought it was so-so.  There were a number of laughs but the film just wasn’t funny enough or terribly surprising to recommend to anybody.  Today, the film is much worse.  I laughed far less than I did in 1990.  Gilbert Gottfried’s spaz dancing is probably the funniest moment in the movie even though it’s a throwaway gag, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.  Travolta makes an inside joke about Koteas being like Travis Bickle which made me snort but most of the material is either too creepy, gross, lame or just plain juvenile to be humourous.
 
Even more embarrassing than the flat humour is the overuse of music to cover up the fact that the screenwriters ran out of material.  In the second half, Alley’s attempt to glam herself up for a reconciliation with her husband (far easier than changing one’s dumb, inconsistent personality, of course) is set to I Enjoy Being A Girl (from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song).  During their split, Are You Lonesome Tonight is heard while a weeping Alley watches old, black & white, romantic movies.  The last Baby Gym sequence features a gyrating Travolta (does he have to dance in every movie?) leading Gottfried’s young customers around the room while All Shook Up plays on the soundtrack.  Mikey’s memories of regret over how he treated Julie is accompanied by John Lennon’s Jealous Guy.  The opening love scene is set to Phil Phillips’ Sea Of Love.  In one instance, a song is heard for no legitimate reason.  Living Colour’s Glamour Boys pops up briefly during the park scene.  Why, exactly?
 
You feel for the actors here.  When you have to do take after take of wearing a child’s toilet seat on your head and sing songs that substitute the lyric "party" with "potty", when you have to hit yourself in the head with a toy and pretend it’s a "flying turd", and when you have to dance around a Baby Gym like it’s a scene from Grease, it’s hard to maintain your dignity.  It also doesn’t help that the characters aren’t worth caring about in the first place.  How can they be when they’re so meanspirited and joyless. 
 
Before rescreening this movie, I tried to remember certain scenes.  I could only think of one.  Travolta takes the kids to the movies but for some unknown reason he scams his way in without paying for tickets.  In 1990, I thought it was rather clever how he was able to get away with that.  Today, I’m puzzled as to why he felt the need to do it at all.  The guy isn’t unemployed and ticket prices were rather reasonable back then.  Quite frankly, he looks like a douchebag doing that with his kids present.
 
Even more irresponsible is how Alley decides to leave her young ones in the care of Koteas late in the picture.  His complete lack of judgment leads to a chase sequence and an unnecessary fire.  There was probably no serious danger posed during the filming of that sequence but why put little child actors through something so inappropriate for a comedy?
 
Look Who’s Talking Too has aged so poorly it’s hard to believe I only disliked it in 1990.  Its only redeeming factor?  Look Who’s Talking Now is even worse.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
9:59 p.m.
Published in: on June 3, 2009 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment