Sunday, June 7, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Funny as it may seem, technology has rendered the Terminator franchise irrelevant. Even as we increasingly automate our industries, the sheer existence of the Internet throws a monkey wrench into the bedrock of the story: if Skynet is now a virus instead of some bank of supercomputers, then its power is limited only to the number of computers it can corrupt. But as we saw in the abysmal Terminator 3, Skynet still stooped to nuclear war, which is ridiculous for two very important reasons: 1) nuclear annihilation isn't big on the fear list in a post-Cold War world and 2) Skynet is only hurting itself. In the original films, it had a reason to nuke mankind: as a centralized computer, it had a solid position to defend. But a software program spread via the Internet is only hurting itself with nuclear bombs, as they destroy computers not only with the blast itself but the electromagnetic pulse that emits with a detonation.

This has been irking me since the last installment of the franchise, but I must admit: watching Terminator Salvation, it was the last thing on my mind. What did occupy space in my cranium were thoughts like "Did they really just say that?" "Has this guy ever even worked with a home video camera?" "Christian Bale, who is selective when it comes to scripts, picked this?" I had some other thoughts as well, but none I would share in civilized company.

Terminator Salvation doesn't ask much of the audience, at least not when it comes to the plot: in 2003, a death-row inmate dies. Cut to the present-future, and he's alive again. Despite not knowing where or when he is and what all the robots running around killing people are, he fights. No one questions this. Swap out some names, rinse, later and repeat, and you've got the movie.

But McG is asking a lot of us when he subjects us to the most blatantly obvious commercial for action figures since Transformers, which doesn't even count since that's based on toys to begin with. He has a high standard to live up to in the shadow of James Cameron, but whatever pressure he might have felt, that doesn't excuse his choices.

Salvation seeks to explore the war we caught glimpses of in the other films, but fails to establish a mood. I was surprised to discover that the film did indeed have a cinematographer, as the film at no point has a clear sense of placement, lighting or shadow. Characters appear in dead-center as opposed to obeying the rule of thirds, which might seem rebellious if it didn't look so clueless.

The inmate in question is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who emerges from a slumber or a coma or -- oh, who am I kidding? They tell us he's a Terminator in the trailer. Well, at least he doesn't realize he's a Terminator, and he stumbles across the wasteland of old Los Angeles until he stumbles across -- whaddya know -- young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). Marcus, of course, doesn't know what a Terminator is, but he can fix a broken radio almost instantly and rewire a car that hasn't run in years. Reese is happy just to be leaving the death trap, and he tags along without a moment's pause.

Meanwhile, John Connor is a high-level officer in the Resistance -- not, as the first three films would have us believe, the leader. He's played by Christian Bale, who growls the growl of the growly growler, a growler who's stared death in the face. And growled. When things get really tense, he yells. Late in the film, he gives a speech about the need to retain humanity in the war, lest they become like the machines, in his growly anti-human voice.

McG contrasts the stories of Connor and the father he's yet to meet, bridging them via Marcus. Marcus ends up with Connor after some giant gatherers take Kyle prisoner. The machine in question is a marvel of idiocy: it's over 60 feet tall, Lord knows how many tons, but it manages to sneak up on Kyle, Marcus and a group of survivors in a broken down building. I'll repeat that: a 60-ft tall robot that moves on land snuck up on someone. Also, despite its size, it can only pick up two people at a time. After collecting a number of prisoners, it dumps them in a facility that apparently produces sparks. These are only the tip of the iceberg of the many absurdities Skynet perpetuates: if they hate humans so much, why are all of their ground units anthropomorphic? And when Skynet unveils its new T-800 line at the end, its face looks suspiciously like Arnold's. Now, this is not a new flaw, but why does Skynet use one human model to create units to infiltrate human cells?

The human side doesn't make much more sense. The first two installments of the franchise depicted a future in which mankind is on the brink of annihilation and they're lucky if they can cobble together a gun to shoot. Population is down here as well, but somehow the Resistance have an air force. Where the hell do they get the fuel for the planes? Did Skynet seriously not torch the oil fields in between the nuclear strikes? Have they become the Rain Man of dystopic, rebellious robots?

Maybe I wouldn't ask so many questions if the action scenes were any good, but McG's haphazard direction ruins that. He's got some halfway decent visuals, but he just throws things on-screen that he thinks are cool with no regard to impact. And it doesn't help that the sound drops with nearly every explosion and every gunshot. Seriously, I rarely take the time to note this, but I stayed through the credits to spot the name of Nigel Albermaniche, the sound editor. I'm always willing to give filmmakers endless chances to prove themselves -- I keep seeing Michael Bay films, don't I? -- but it is my sincere hope that this man never works in entertainment again. I have never heard such terrible sound mixing, and I've seen The Room. I almost feel sorry for the guy, as earlier in the day I saw Drag Me to Hell, which boasts the best sound I've heard in years. I've never been great at discerning good mixing, but that film was stellar. It only makes this half-assed fizzle all the more pathetic.

However, I would have forgiven Albermaniche had he done us all the favor of dropping the sound when the characters spoke. I knew I was in for a long ride in the opening prison scene, where a scientist stricken with terminal cancer (Helena Bonham Carter, delivering just enough lines to collect a nice paycheck) convinces Marcus to sign over his body: he agrees provided he can kiss her. When he pulls back, he whispers "So that's what death tastes like." Oh God. Later, the writers display a total lack of regard for continuity: someone says that Connor is "the prophesized leader of the Resistance." First of all, John Connor is not the 'prophesized' leader of anything, because that isn't a word. Second, how can he be the prophesied leader? No one other than John knew this was coming. And he's been a part of the Resistance from the start, so he didn't just come out of nowhere. It's like they simply thought that the not-word 'prophesized' added gravitas. And they're delivered by actors who clearly don't care: Bale is so one note that he nearly undoes a career of unpredictability. Common, the worst of them all, is almost certainly reading his lines from a cue behind the camera.

In retrospect, I should have seen this coming: a celebrated franchise from one of the all-time great science fiction writer-directors in the hands of an established hack who insists on calling himself "McG." But in a time when America can elect a black president, I allowed myself to hope. Now my heart is cold again. I'm giving this half a star, and that's entirely for Anton Yelchin. He's the only one who delivers his lines convincingly, and he actually seems like a kid who grew up in a post-apocalyptic world. The rest is a wash. What is the point of this film? It ends in the same place it started: with John Connor fighting robots. It won't revive interest in the franchise, because people still love the old films. At best, it makes Terminator 3 look like a passable film, which it isn't. That's how bad this is. If this is where humans are taking art with the advent of new technology, then no wonder the machines want to rise up and kill us.

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