Monday, May 25, 2009

Terminator Salvation / *** (PG-13)

John Connor: Christian Bale
Marcus Wright: Sam Worthington
Kyle Reese: Anton Yelchin
Kate Connor: Bryce Dallas Howard
Blair Williams: Moon Bloodgood
Star: Jadagrace
Barnes: Common
General Ashdown: Michael Ironside
Dr. Serena Kogan: Helena Bonham Carter

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by McG. Written by John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris. Based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language).

The “Terminator” series has become increasingly difficult to analyze in terms of stand-alone episodes throughout its various incarnations. For non-followers I imagine this series has become an incomprehensible maze. For the devoted, “Terminator Salvation” is so immersed in the mythology of the series that it holds some disclosures many will never realize. And, it’s also a nearly incomprehensible maze of that mythology.

Many will accuse “Terminator Salvation” of being nothing more than an effects laden summer actioner, and in essence, that’s what it is. But it’s a much better action flick than the previous “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”. It is more technically proficient and intense. Unlike the third film installment, it doesn’t try to replicate the success of its predecessors. “Terminator Salvation” has placed itself apart from the other films in the series by attacking its storyline on its own terms, rather than by referencing the situations and story structures that have come before.

That is not to say that this fourth adventure doesn’t make any reference to the other “Terminator” movies. Although it takes place in the future, we get to learn many of the origins of some of the series’ one liners, such as “Come with me, if you want to live,” “If you’re going to point a gun at someone, you better be willing to use it,” and “I’ll be back.”

Set in 2018, some years after the nuclear war begun by the machines of Skynet against the human race, the story centers around the fate of a young resistance fighter named Kyle Reese. Some people may recognize Reese as rising star Anton Yelchin, who was Chekov in the recent “Star Trek” reboot. In a double storyline, we follow two men whose fates are set on a collision course because of this boy. John Connor, to focal point of “T2” and T3”, has not yet become the leader of the resistance as prophesized by the previous films. Connor searches for Reese with the knowledge that one day he will send Reese back in time to protect his mother against a Skynet plot to send a terminator back in time to eliminate her so he will never exist. Connor is also aware that Reese will father him while protecting his mother. Without Reese, not only will Connor never lead the war against the machines, he won’t exist at all.

Marcus Wright is a mystery man, who appears at the beginning of the film on death row in 2003. He donates his body to a program run by the company Cyberdyne, and then appears unaged in 2018 from the wreckage of a Skynet base. It is Marcus who first discovers Reese’s whereabouts. Although Marcus appears to have no knowledge of what has happened to the world in his absence, he takes to protecting the boy.

Eventually Connor comes across Marcus in his search for Reese, but the terminators have already captured the boy. Although Marcus has earned the trust of one of Connor’s pilots by saving her life, Connor discovers something very disturbing about the mystery man that puts the two at odds. However, since the resistance high command is determined to annihilate the very Skynet facility that holds both Reese and the answers to Marcus’s secrets, the two must trust each other to reach their objectives.

Much has been made about Christian Bale’s involvement as John Connor. As with his role as Batman, he provides an intense performance as the pivotal character in the “Terminator” mythology. Aside from a couple of brief scenes with Bryce Dallas Howard (“Lady in the Water”) as his wife Kate, he isn’t really given a whole lot to do beyond looking mean with a gun. It’s Australian actor Sam Worthington (“Rouge”) as Marcus who has the meatier and more significant role of the two. While I will not reveal his secret here, anyone who has seen a preview of the movie already knows it. Worthington does an incredible job of balancing conflicting motivations of detachment and compassion to his role.

Director McG (“We Are Marshall”) is not much interested in bringing a sci-fi thriller based on ideas to the screen. His primary purpose is to combine the best special effects in the business with the most action sequences he can fit into his two-hour running time. In those goals he has succeeded with great proficiency.

What this “Terminator” lacks where the others succeeded rather well is a strong connection with the characters’ humanity. There was a great deal of humor in the previous films and very little in this one beyond its references to lines used in the other movies. The apocalyptic setting works against the goal of engaging an audience. The setting alienates the audience in the way the “Resident Evil” or “Road Warrior” franchises do to present their dystopian societies. Those films depicted the decay of humanity, while the “Terminator” series represents only a misstep by man that suddenly rips away our power over our environment. This should highlight our humanity against the cold, heartless machines.

There are no passages of introspection in this “Terminator” as there were in the previous three. And while the movie is thrilling, it seems empty of the science fiction themes that initially inspired James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd to create these characters. Some of those ideals are represented in the character of Marcus, but the spotlight here is clearly focused on the action-packed surface of the movie. As a fan of the series, I can’t say I am disappointed with “Terminator Salvation”, but I can’t imagine it will last long in the memories of the unconverted.

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