A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 481 – Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation – June 24th, 2011

There is something to be said for going into movies with low expectations. I mean, I didn’t really think this movie would be worth my time. When we put it in we found that it had something hideous: Unskippable previews. But then it turned out the previews were for awesome things, like Sherlock Holmes and the videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum. And I mentioned to some friends that it was as if the DVD was trying to tell us to go do something better with our time than watch the movie on it. Put in a different movie or play a game. Anything but this. Turns out? I was wrong.

I’d heard bad things about this movie. The only thing I was looking forward to was seeing Christian Bale be a badass. But I was also curious about the cast, because there were names I recognized and liked, so that seemed a tiny bit promising. And this was going to be the first Terminator movie that didn’t involve someone or something coming back from the future to the “present day” of the time the movie was released. But since the last movie ended with the war, well, that wasn’t going to happen. The timeline of the movie has passed us by. So, set entirely in the future, without the time travel gimmick that made the franchise. And no Arnold (though his digital likeness does make an appearance), so this is definitely a departure. I was led to believe this would be a failed departure, but I was wrong.

Now, I won’t say that I think anyone who disliked this movie was wrong. I’m sure people have their reasons and said reasons are good ones. But for me personally, it holds up. Better than it has any right to, given the number of people involved in writing the damn thing. This is a movie not written by committee, but apparently passed around like a basketball. There is simply no way it should be as coherent and cohesive as it is, and yet. The story splits between two groups, then comes together and that can be a risky thing. I’ve criticized it in other movies before because when it fails it fails spectacularly and makes a movie painful to watch. But for one, this movie actually links the two leads from the outset and for two, it keeps them in contact for a good chunk of time.

It’s half past the future and John Connor is an adult. He’s one of the Human Resistance’s military commanders, leading a group of men and women in strikes against Skynet’s forces. But he’s not up in the top ranks. The actual Command staff are all professional military, or seem that way, and send their orders remotely. When a strike on an underground facility leaves Connor’s team dead he demands to know what’s so important and it turns out to be this magic radio signal that can disrupt the machines and whatever, that’s not the important bit. The important bit is that down in that facility there was a cybernetic organism and John knows it but can’t go find it. And that organism is actually a man named Marcus, sentenced to death before the war and then resurrected by Cyberdyne’s genetics lab after donating his body to science. He has no idea what’s going on or when or where he is. Or what he is, which it turns out is half machine.

So now we’ve got two people to follow: John and Marcus. John is waging a battle with Command after finding out that Skynet has human prisoners – lots of them – in the facility they’re aiming to attack. He’s also sending out periodic broadcasts to the pockets of militia-level resistance fighters and they hang on his every word. The movie makes a good case for him being a great potential leader who hasn’t come fully into his own yet and still has a lot to learn. Which I like a hell of a lot better than last night’s whiny twerp. On the other hand we’ve got Marcus, who I hadn’t expected to care much about but who actually carries a lot of the movie. What he knows of himself isn’t great. He was a murderer and he’s very aware of his crimes. He wasn’t looking for redemption when Cyberdyne asked for his body. So waking up in a post-apocalyptic world was a little startling to him, to say the least. And his path through the movie is to find out not just what he is but why he is. And along the way he meets a young Kyle Reece, hiding out in what’s left of Los Angeles and taking down T-600s with traps.

It’s a nice little bit of storytelling there. Because Marcus isn’t a character we know and he’s not a Terminator as we recognize them. He’s not all machine. He’s not a shape-shifter. He’s not an unstoppable villain. He’s an enigma, and having the father of the hero of this world’s story under the protection of an enigma is very interesting indeed. So once Kyle is in peril – of course – and Marcus and Connor come together there’s going to be conflict. Connor doesn’t trust machines and he has good reason not to. I was nervous about the whole prophet angle going on with John Connor, but it wasn’t nearly as heavy-handed as I’d feared. Instead it’s not universal. People aren’t sure what to believe from him. And I like that. I like that he’s still dealing with the effects of his whole life being determined by time travel. I like that whenever he faces off with Skynet tech he knows that they’re developing the T-800 and the T-1000 and the T-X. Every model he fights is already obsolete in his experience. And I think this movie works that in, which is very cool.

Truth be told, I expected to watch this movie for Christian Bale and I ended up watching it more for everyone else. Oh, he’s fine in his role and there were certainly some moments when he was kicking ass and being every bit the paranoid leader I expected him to be. But Sam Worthington as Marcus, Anton Yelchin as Kyle and oh my fucking god, Moon Bloodgood as the kickass pilot, Blair? They were all fantastic. I would have liked more Blair, but hey, every second she got was fantastic, so I’ll take it. I liked that they all got moments. Kyle gets to both learn new tricks we’ve seen his adult self use in the first movie and know enough old tricks to have kept himself and another survivor alive for a while now on their own. Blair is certainly the most kickass female character the franchise has had since Sarah Connor herself. And Marcus has a character arc I hadn’t expected but ended up fully believing. Which, along with the fact that the split plots come together over and over, makes the movie.

I’m laughing at myself while writing this review. Here I am praising this movie and giving it the most loving of tongue baths. And it’s been panned by more than a few. But I’m honestly just so shocked that I enjoyed it as much as I did. It doesn’t spend too much time talking at us. It’s got strong lead characters and a good sense of its own history and mythology. It’s got a good cast who give good performances. And I felt like the action scenes were well done and purposeful instead of just in there for visual kicks. It’s got an aim – to bring Kyle Reece to John Connor, get Connor into a high level of the Resistance leadership and deal with a new threat from Skynet. It’s not the same sort of chase movie the first one was, and it doesn’t have the amazing Sarah Connor to drive it like the second one. But it’s definitely not the aimless mess that the third one was. It manages to both introduce a new threat that’s believable and different, and explain why it wasn’t a threat in the earlier movies. For that alone I’d applaud it. But it’s also fun. I can’t believe I’m saying this after last night – when I thought the franchise was dead – but now I’m looking forward to seeing what the next movie has in store.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terminator Salvation

June 24, 2011

Terminator Salvation

Well this is an appropriately titled movie. After yesterday’s disappointing mess I was ready to give up on Terminator movies for good. The second movie was fun but didn’t hold to the spirit of the first as much as I would have liked. The third was a re-hash that desperately wanted to revive the franchise but instead completely destroyed it in my mind. This movie is the salvation of the series, no doubt about that.

This is one of those movies, from a pre-production and writing standpoint, that should not have worked. Anything with this many people brought in to polish and adapt the script before it starts filming is almost guaranteed to be awful. Neither was I much excited by the “from the director of Charlie’s Angels” pedigree. Add to that the negative press from Christian Bale’s infamous on-set tirade and you have all the ingredients of a film that is doomed before it’s even in the can. So how on Earth does it work so well?

I think this movie succeeds on two essential and contradictory levels. It manages to take the series in a new direction while still paying homage to its roots. The new direction is into the post apocalyptic future. This movie follows the adventures of John Connor after the bombs have already fallen. Judgement Day is now the past and the war between the machines and man is well under way. This movie takes place ten years before the first time travel that sends a terminator and a human back in time to attempt to kill John’s mother before he is conceived. Connor is not leader of the resistance, he’s just a lieutenant, but he is a strong voice and respected throughout the organization. During a raid on a Skynet facility the resistance comes across a potential tool that may help them gain an edge on the machines – they have discovered what they believe is a signal that can disrupt Skynet’s controlling signals so effectively that they may be able to actually remotely shut down the H.K.s and other threats that endanger human kind. Naturally John wants to be a part of testing this new weapon.

At the same time John is concerned because he has not yet met the young man who he knows he will one day send back in time to defend his mother. Kyle Reese – when he grows up – will be John Connor’s father in the past. Somehow Skynet knows this (the movie never makes it clear how) and the machines are bent upon finding both John and Kyle because they fear that if they don’t stop John soon he will turn the tide in the war. The machines know that if they can find and kill Kyle while he is young and inexperienced and before he goes back in time that will eliminate John Connor as well – thus altering the course of the entire war. It’s a twisted kind of logic but I suppose it works.

Then there’s the third player in this film. There’s a convicted criminal who was put to death by lethal injection back before the war. A murderer named Marcus Wright who had donated his body for medical research to Cyberdyne. At the start of this movie he inexplicably wakes up in the wasteland. Clearly he is a terminator, but he’s a strange new kind. One with human organs who actually believes that he’s not a machine. The mystery, and what really sets this movie apart from its predecessors, is just what purpose he serves. Why did Skynet build a terminator that thinks it is a man?

I enjoy all the little nods to the earlier films. Even the third movie, awful pile of stupidity that it was, becomes more bearable in hindsight when Connor’s wife Kate appears, linking this movie to that one. The movie manages to acknowledge the earlier films with little in-jokes like the repeated lines “I’ll be back” and “come with me if you want to live” without descending to the level of camp that Rise of the Machines sank to. It even has a young Schwarzenegger doppelganger for Connor to do battle with – which is pretty awesome.

What a great cast too. I’m still not convinced that Christian Bale was the perfect casting for John Connor as he rises to meet his destiny, but he surely is fun to watch in the part. He’s able to wonderfully portray the angst and uneasiness that comes of knowing his entire life that he will somehow lead humankind to victory in this war but not knowing how. At the same time he’s a capable action star, taking the fight to the machines and proving that his lifetime of training was effective. Sam Worthington is the actual heart of the film as Marcus Wright, the tortured man who discovers that he is a machine. In supporting roles there’s Anton Yelchin as young Kyle, Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate and the awesomely named Moon Bloodgood as Blaire Williams, a resistance fighter who befriends Marcus. I even got Tim Burton flashbacks with Helena Bonham Carter’s cameo role and Danny Elfman’s score.

This movie works surprisingly well on so many levels. It’s got some fairly heavy-handed stuff about what makes us human (which feels layered on a little thick but works with the tone of the movie.) It’s got plenty of action and car chases and shoot-outs and explosions. It actually shows a part of the story of John Connor’s life that hasn’t been done to death completely already. I’d say that in just about every respect it is my favorite terminator movie since the first one, and now I’m actually looking forwarded with guarded optimism to the next movie in 2014.

McG – I apologize most of all to you for underestimating your action film-making talent.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment