Friday, April 30, 2010

Film Friday: Terminator Salvation (2009)

Terminator Salvation (“TS”), apparently, was written by machines, because there's little in it to interest humans. Like so much of what comes out of Hollywood’s sequel generating computers these days, TS is a soulless, halfhearted film that squanders a tremendous amount of potential. It goes wrong at the outset, in its basic story, and keeps going wrong(er) with poor story telling, indifferent characters, and wasted talent.

** spoiler alert **

As I’ve mentioned before, science fiction is one of the most interesting forms of story telling because it can touch upon any topic and it can delve into the kinds of questions that fascinate us. Terminator introduced the very cool premise of what happens if a bad guy from the future goes back in time to kill the parents of the good guy before he was born. Can you save the future? Terminator 2 expanded on this premise by asking whether you could change the future for the better now that you know what will happen. Terminator 3? Well, T3 did a “by changing the past, you cause the future” thing, but mainly they just wanted to see Arnold fight a chick in tight leather pants.

TS follows these films with the promise of moving the franchise into the future, after the machines have struck. So far so good. It follows John Connor (Christian Bale), who leads the Southern California branch of the human resistance against the machines. At this point, the Arnold terminators have not yet been created. Still good.

But then the problem starts. The machines have created a terminator, Marcus (Sam Worthington), whose job is to lure Connor to Skynet headquarters so he can finally be killed, because all their prior efforts failed. Yet, at this point, the machines wouldn’t know who Connor is. Indeed, the writers just assume the machines know exactly what happened in T1, T2 and T3, even though, from the machines’ perspective, none of that has happened yet and won’t until after they build the Arnold terminators, until after Connor become the leader of the resistance, and until after Kyle Reese grows up. For all the machines know at this point, Michael Ironside (who plays himself) is the leader of the resistance. So why are the machines fixated on Connor and why do they know how T1, T2 and T3 turned out?

This is a plot hole. But it’s more as well, it’s squandered potential. By skipping the time travel questions and assuming that everyone knows everything, the writers made the story much easier to write, but they also sucked out the very thing that made the first three movies so interesting -- the paradoxes. Moreover, in so doing, they sacrificed the chance to use the audience’s knowledge of Connor's importance, and the machines’ lack of knowledge, to add tension to the scenes. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the machines somehow made a decision that let Connor survive because they didn’t know his value? They also toss aside the chance to use Connor’s knowledge to tell us something interesting about his character, like how he might struggle with issues like fatalism or cockiness since he knows the future. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to see how Connor handles having knowledge of the future? No, not to these writers. . . they just wanted simple plot points that moved the story from fight scene to fight scene.

And what about Marcus? Marcus is a prototype infiltrator terminator, who doesn’t know he’s a machine. This is classic science fiction story telling, because it lets the writer explore what it means to be human. But once again, these writers aren't interested. They just have Marcus move from scene to scene engaging in fights until he finally faces the difficult decision of “do I side with the machines or the humans” -- an "agonizing" decision that takes him 1/10th of a second to make and which he makes without ever sharing his thoughts with the audience. I guess the writers figured the audience wouldn’t care?

This lack of interest in the story is compounded with very poor storytelling. One of the axioms of storytelling is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, this movie has it backwards. Connor is the “prophesized leader of the resistance.” How do we know? Is it anything he does that makes him stand out? No. They tell us. That's it. Connor is married to Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard). How do we know? They tell us. Is there a single scene that makes their marriage real? Nope. Connor is a great threat to the machines? Yep. Does he do something special? Nope. How do we know? We’re told. And they don't even bother telling us that much. Where did this resistance come from? Where do they get their weapons? Why isn’t Connor the leader? Don’t know, they don’t tell us.

Imagine how much better this movie would have been if they’d fleshed out the characters by trying to show us who they are and what they believe? What if they dealt with the time travel question rather than skipping it? What if they let Marcus explore his inner conflict? Naw. . . look shiny!

That’s why this movie stinks. It’s not Bale’s one-note acting (his best work from this film came here (NSFW)). It’s not the effects, which were quite good -- though they heavily ripped off War of the Worlds with their visual and sound effects. It’s not the good actors who were wasted in this film -- I am a fan of Bale, Howard (The Village) and Common (Smoking Aces), but they did nothing. It’s the total indifference to story telling. In fact, TS was so bland I thought long and hard about ditching this article and instead writing about Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video instead, which I found more interesting. Sad.

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Unknown said...

Andrew: That pretty much sums up how I felt about the movie. I also think that Christian Bale is one of the two or three best actors in movies today, and he was totally wasted in this mess. Although, I must say Reign of Fire made Terminator: Salvation look like pure genius. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah, Reign of Fire stunk. I agree about Bale. I first saw him in Equilibrium, which was a great movie and he's rarely disappointed. But this mess was a total waste of his talents.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I enjoyed the third Terminator film. It falls into that nebulous "Much better than it deserved to be" category along with the fourth Die Hard.

I saw this film during the NASA study and this is what I had to say at the time:

12/3/2009 9:42 PM
I just finished watching Terminator Salvation… [...] the film was okay, though they could’ve had anyone play John Connor and the result would’ve been the same… the craftsmanship was excellent (courtesy of ILM and the late Stan Winston) but it almost felt like a sequel to a completely different film… Bryce Dallas Howard and the great Michael Ironside weren’t given much to do… Christian Bale takes things way too seriously… Anton Yelchin and Sam Worthington were both very good but I don’t think the filmmakers really capitalized on Worthington’s character’s dilemma: a man who finds out he’s a machine but is able to overcome his programming and recognize his basic humanity… good stuff there but it’s glossed over… other than that, no memorable dialogue (except for callbacks to the previous films), great action sequences but, really, what do you expect?...

The ending just falls apart and I suspect it was the victim of the usual test-screening/re-shoot/"We weren't sure how to end the film" dilemna.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Sounds like you had a similar response to the movie as I did. There was no there there. It was generic, simplistic, and pointless. The actors were an after thought. And if you stop to think about anything in the film, you suddenly find yourself surrounded by plot holes and nonsense.

They basically took a science fiction film with a really cool premise and turned it into a mindless action flick.

The effects were fine, though I do think they were absolutely stolen. The 7/11 scene is right out of War of the Worlds and the Skynet HQ was right out of BSG.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. I kept thinking this isn't really a movie, it's more like one long fight with quick pauses to give you plot that doesn't make any sense. It could have been so much better if they did what you talk about.

- Rick

AndrewPrice said...

Rick, I'm glad you agree. I thought the movie was pretty boring, but it had a lot of potential. It's too bad they didn't achieve that potential by thinking more about the story and the characters. Oh well.

MegaTroll said...

The first two were the best. The third was dull and unoriginal. This one was a waste. I think you make a great point about what they could have done to make the story more interesting. It would have helped a lot.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega, that's the point to writing about these films. They're not really reivews so much as meant as discussions about the films. I don't see much point in saying "I didn't like this" or "I did like this." I'd much rather talk about what they did wrong/right, what was clever, what was a missed opportunity, what tricks they pulled, and how it could have been improved.

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