CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(THE SCENE: a futuristic landscape, decimated by war, with screaming people fleeing in every direction, as an 80-foot tall terminator machine opens fire on them. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES are among the fleeing humans. They jump into an abandoned jeep, and with L.L. behind the wheel, race away with the giant machine in hot pursuit).
MA (raising his voice to be heard over all the pandemonium): Welcome to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. L.L. and I have traveled to the not-so-distant future to see firsthand what it’s like to live in the TERMINATOR world, to bring you the most authentic review possible of the new movie, TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009).
LS: Yeah, and it sucks!
MA: What? The movie or visiting this futuristic world?
LS: Both! This world isn’t exciting enough for me. If we gotta be in a post-apocalyptic future, I’d prefer the one from THE ROAD WARRIOR or even Romero’s zombie world. This one is tired and predictable.
MA: This is also a Cinema Knife Fight first: the first time we’ve attempted to review a movie while traveling at excessive speeds in a burnt-out vehicle while being chased by an impossibly huge terminator machine. So, here goes. I hope you can hear me okay!
LS: Hold on just a second. (while still holding the steering wheel with one hand, LS holds a machine gun with his other, and aiming over his shoulder, opens fire at the terminator behemoth with a hail of bullets.) Take that, you oversized piece of mechanical shi—! (machine gun fire drowns out his words). Go to hell, mother f— (more well-timed machine gun fire).
(LS turns to MA) I hate that you insist on keeping this column PG-rated!
MA: Stop complaining and keep shooting! Anyway, today’s movie, TERMINATOR SALVATION, is the fourth movie in the TERMINATOR franchise, following TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003), and it’s the first not to star Arnold Schwarzenegger. This one stars Christian Bale, who gets to strut his tough guy self on screen once again, only this time sans the BATMAN mask.
I’ve always liked the TERMINATOR movies, with my favorite being the original THE TERMINATOR (1984), though I enjoyed TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) nearly as much. Still, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing this one. For some reason, the thought of another Terminator movie did nothing for me. I had low expectations, and though it wasn’t as bad as I feared it might be, it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.
This one is the first movie to take place in the future, and it tells the story of an adult John Connor (Christian Bale). Connor was the boy in the original movies who had to survive in order to grow into adulthood so he could lead the successful resistance against the revolting machines. Yeah, I know it’s kinda crazy, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too much. Thanks to the “good” Schwarzenegger Terminator of movies 2 and 3, Connor does survive, and we find him here in the future doing his thing leading the humans against the machines.
Connor is also looking for Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) (Yelchin also plays Chekov in the new STAR TREK movie), the young man he must send into the past to save his mother from the original Terminator.
LS: Yeah, and Reese also gets to bang Linda Hamilton, since he also happens to be John Connor’s father in the past. Chew on that one for awhile.
MA: Lucky, Reese. Anyway, trouble is, the machines are also looking for Reese, and for Connor, so they can kill them both.
While you would think John Connor would be the most interesting character in the film, he isn’t. That distinction belongs to new character Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). As the movie opens, we witness Wright on death row, and just before he is to be executed, he signs his body away to be used for cancer research.
Wright awakens in the future, and finds himself in the middle of the war between humans and machines. He also finds Kyle Reese, though he doesn’t know Reese from a hole in the wall.
LS: Don’t forget Reese’s sidekick, the little mute girl played by Jadagrace.
MA: I don’t know. I wasn’t that impressed by Jadagrace. Aren’t there always likeable little kids like her in these futuristic movies? Like the kids with Charlton Heston in THE OMEGA MAN (1971)? I think that’s where it started. They must all belong to a secret club.
After Reese is captured by the terminator machines, Wright hooks up with resistance fighter Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) and accompanies her to her base, where he meets John Connor.
LS: Moon Bloodgood? What kinda name is that? Well, despite the goofy moniker, I thought she was really good here. And kinda hot.
MA: It is here where the discovery is made that Marcus isn’t human anymore, but is half- human/half-machine.
LS: Whoa! That’s a major spoiler you’re giving away. But it’s kind of hard to review the flick without spilling the beans. Then again, the trailer already gives that away, and there are plenty of clues beforehand. So it’s really not that much of a surprise, after all. Ho hum.
MA: It is also here where the film hits its high note and is most interesting. Marcus has to deal with the horror of learning that he’s really a cyborg. And John Connor is caught off guard by this discovery, because in the audio tapes his mother left him from the past, filling him in on every possible piece of information she deemed would be helpful to him, nothing is mentioned of half-human/half-machine beings. He realizes he is facing something new.
Connor is also confused because his first inclination is to destroy Marcus, but Marcus displays more humanity than he expects, and when he tells Connor he knows the location of Kyle Reese, and offers to find him for Connor, Connor is faced with the dilemma of not knowing whether or not he can trust the cyborg.
In addition to wanting to save his friend Reese, Marcus is also driven by the need to find out who made him this way and why.
The film builds to a conclusion that ultimately brings Connor, Marcus, and Reese together as they fend off the unrelenting, unstoppable terminator machines, with the future of the human race at stake.
LS: Well, they’re not really “unstoppable” – otherwise humans wouldn’t stand a chance!
MA: Tell that to big dude chasing us!
I liked TERMINATOR SALVATION, but I didn’t love it.
The best part of the movie for me was the performance by Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright. I thought he delivered the best performance in the movie, by far. Whenever he was on screen, the film was that much more entertaining. And it also didn’t hurt that Marcus was the best written character in the film, by screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also wrote TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES.
LS: Yeah, I totally agree about Worthington. He’s the real actor to watch here. In fact, I would go so far as to say he is the ONLY reason to see this movie.
MA: Though John Connor is trying to save the human race, his character isn’t fleshed out anywhere near as much as Marcus. With his personal plight of discovering that now he’s half machine, Marcus is in a league above the rest of the characters in the film, in terms of drama.
Christian Bale is OK as John Connor. He certainly delivers a solid performance, but as written, Connor isn’t all that interesting. We know he wants to save the human race, but other than the fact that he’s the “Chosen One”, we don’t really get to see how he’s qualified to be that leader. He doesn’t say or do anything that puts his stamp on the label that he’s the “guy” to save the world, which I think is less the fault of Bale and more the writers.
LS: I am so tired of the whole “Chosen One” archetype. It’s so damn narcissistic! Oh look at me, I’m the only one who can save the whole planet. Look how special I am!
How lame. Too many movies rely on this crap.
As for the acting, I actually don’t think Bale is as great as everyone thinks he is. He was good in smaller movies like AMERICAN PSYCHO and THE MACHINIST. But I still contend that ANYONE can play Batman. He’s one-dimensional.
MA: Tell that to Adam West!
LS: I’m not talking about that show. That was a comedy. I’m talking about the recent movies.
MA (wearing Batman costume): I’m Batman.
LS (opens fire at MA with machine gun): Now, you’re dead Batman.
And John Connor isn’t much different. Connor seems to have just one emotional reaction to everything that is thrown at him – righteous anger. He’s so ultra-serious and ultra-bland that I found him to be the least interesting character in this movie. Every time he’s on screen I just found myself hoping it would be over soon.
MA (now without the Batman costume): Gotta love that Batman body armor! I enjoyed Bale in the 3:10 TO YUMA remake with Russell Crowe, and I didn’t really mind him as Batman, but as John Connor, I’d have to agree with you that he wasn’t that interesting.
Moon Bloodgood is bloody good (heh, heh) as Blair Williams, and Anton Yelchin turns in a respectable performance as young Kyle Reese, though he was more memorable in the new STAR TREK flick. And Yelchin somewhat resembles a younger version of Michael Biehn, who played the Kyle Reese role in the original TERMINATOR in 1984.
LS: Like I already said, I thought Moon was good. But I couldn’t give a crap about Yelchin. I kept hoping the robots would kill him. Bale too.
MA: The weakest part of TERMINATOR SALVATION, however, is the lack of a central villain. This film needs a baddie, desperately. The bad guys here are terminator machines, and there are tons of them, in all their animatronic/CGI glory, but there’s no one main bad guy, who really gives Connor and Marcus a run for their money. Even in the films where Schwarzenegger’s terminator was the hero, there was a single bad guy, a central terminator villain for him to square off against. In general, the hero is only as good as the villain, and in this case, there really wasn’t a villain.
LS: I agree. Movies like this are only as good as their bad guys. In this movie, the bad guy is Skynet – a friggin military computer system that has acquired consciousness. How exciting is that?
(Quick shot of MA slumped forward on the dashboard, asleep, with a pool of drool beneath his lips).
See what I mean? That said, there are some cool robots this time around. For example, it’s interesting how a lot of the man-sized terminators, with their exposed skull faces, reminded me an awful lot of zombies this time around. There’s even one scene with a robot who’s lower body has been blown away, that attacks Connor with just its upper torso, that really conjured up George Romero’s zombies. In fact, these models of the terminators even have a vulnerable spot in the back of their heads that causes them to lose control if you hit it.
MA: Aim for the heads!
LS: Yee-haw! Exactly. Another robot, that looks like a giant metal man without a head – just like the one that’s chasing us! – reminded me an awful lot of the recent remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS. Not only did the robot make the same screeching metal noise as the Martian ships did in that movie, but it also grabs humans and drops them into a gigantic basket, which is very similar to WAR OF THE WORLDS as well.
MA: Too similar. I thought it was a rip-off of the WAR OF THE WORLDS movie.
LS: Oh yeah, those worm-like aquatic robots were pretty cool, too. But wasn’t there something similar in the MATRIX movies?
It seems like the writers this time around took some ideas and imagery from other movies. I guess that’s called a “homage.”
MA: Really? I thought it was called “running out of ideas.”
I also thought the look of the film was nothing to get excited about. With its charcoal gray landscape, the film almost looks black and white at times.
LS: Yeah, it wasn’t bleak enough at all!
(A robot MOTORCYCLE zooms past the jeep)
MOTORCYCLE: Nyah, nyah, you guys can’t catch me!
LS: Who cares? You’re lame anyway (fires machine gun and the motorcycle explodes)
MA: The special effects were slightly above average. They certainly didn’t wow me by any means, but they served their purpose. The film was dedicated to the memory of Stan Winston, who passed away last year. Winston’s special effects in TERMINATOR 2 won an Academy Award that year.
Director McG handled the action sequences very well. While I’ve seen more intense sequences, I’ve also seen a lot worse
I thought the music by Danny Elfman pretty ordinary, and not up to his usual standards of film music. Other than the original Terminator theme music, which was played sparingly, nothing else stood out.
As a science fiction action movie, TERMINATOR SALVATION hits its mark. It’s not all that intelligent, but it is slickly done, generally entertaining, and far from boring.
LS: Far from boring? (laughs loudly)
MA: While you may find that funny, I wasn’t bored at all. However, it’s certainly not dark enough or horrific enough to be considered a science fiction horror movie, and this is consistent with the previous films in the series, which all leaned toward action rather than horror. If action’s your thing, especially of the science fiction variety, you’ll enjoy TERMINATOR SALVATION. It’s a decent enough thrill ride that won’t wow you, but it will entertain you. What did you think, LL?
LS: I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the Terminator series, but I did love the first movie. Despite its low budget, the first TERMINATOR was a lot of fun, and featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in perhaps his best role ever as a murderous robot from the future. He was just terrific in that role. T2 brought the storyline into the big budget blockbuster realm, and it never looked back. For me, I lost interest in T2 when Edward Furlong tells the Ahnald-bot “Do not kill.” In that moment, not only were Arnold’s balls snipped, but the entire series was neutered as far as I was concerned. Arnold’s killer robot wasn’t some kid’s pet to be domesticated.
By the time the third movie rolled around, I had just lost interest. The TV show, THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, was much of the same. It started out promising enough (especially Summer Glau as a terminator who also happened to look like a teenage girl!), but over time got so bogged down in its own mythology that I just found it all incredibly boring, and stopped watching.
So, I didn’t have very high hopes for the newest installment, TERMINATOR SALVATION. And, for the most part, it was as underwhelming as I expected. Although as we have discussed, Sam Worthington is the only reason this movie is not a complete waste of time.
It was also good to see the usually great Michael Ironside here, as resistance leader General Ashdown, even if his character was a complete idiot who refused to heed John Connor’s advice, just for the sake of creating dramatic tension.
The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, including Bryce Dallas Howard as Connor’s pregnant wife, Kate. She has been the only saving grace in a few M. Night Shyamalan movies recently, but here she has a totally thankless and undeveloped role.
I didn’t totally hate TERMINATOR SALVATION, but I can’t really recommend it either. I found a lot of it rather tedious, and, aside from Worthington, there’s nobody here that really grabs your attention.
Maybe it’s time for this series to finally be put to rest. It’s starting to become as tiresome as the god-awful MATRIX movies, another series that I hope we’ve seen the last of.
MA: I don’t know. The way things ended, it sure looks like someone out there is thinking about TERMINATOR 5. And though I didn’t love this movie, unlike you, I do recommend it. I think the action is entertaining enough to make it worth your while, even though the story isn’t as imaginative as it could have been, and I didn’t mind the acting as much as you.
LS: Well, I liked the fact that there were several different kinds of terminators, even if they were kind of “familiar.” There’s even a surprise appearance by an old school terminator late in the film.
(LS’s cell phone rings, and he answers it)
LS: Who the hell is this?
ARNOLD: This is the governor of California calling. I vanted to thank you for mentioning my cameo in the new TERMINATOR movie.
LS: That wasn’t even you, it was some kind of CGI effect.
ARNOLD: Oh no, that’s me. I’m bigger and stronger than ever now. I hope you enjoyed my performance. I am very big and strong, you know.
LS: Yeah, yeah.
ARNOLD: I must go now. My state needs me.
LS: So long.
ARNOLD: Hasta la vista, baby! (laughs uncontrollably)
LS: Jeesh, what a ham.
The ending is incredibly sappy, and the manipulative music score doesn’t help (so no, I wasn’t impressed with Danny Elfman’s work here either).
And, like I said before, this is easily one of Bale’s weakest roles in awhile. Then again I’ve never really cared much for the character of John Connor. Even though he’s supposedly some kind of messiah who is fated to save mankind from the machines, I never found him all that compelling. Which is why I always root for the robots in these movies.
MA: I would have to agree with you about the character of John Connor. He’s boring. But I like Bale, and I think had the John Connor character been written better, the results would have been more satisfying.
LS: The robots are way cooler.
MA: Well, those same robots you like so much are trying to kill us now!
LS: It’s not their fault. They’ve just never met a cool-ass human before. Their loss.
(The jeep pulls up in front of a KFC restaurant, with tires screeching)
MA: You’ve got to be kidding me. This is no time for a snack.
LS: No, in the back, there’s a time machine, right next to the deep fryer. We can get back to our own time again.
MA: Finally! Well, this wraps things up for this installment of Cinema Knife Fight, the only review column where the writers put their lives on the line to bring you the truth about today’s movies.
(The giant robot fires a missile that blows up the KFC before they can reach it)
MA: Ooops! Not to worry, though. We’ll just implement Plan B.
LS: Plan B?
MA: As in, we just walk off the set.
LS: We can do that?
MA: We’re writers, we can do anything.
(LS and MA step from the jeep and walk down a set of stairs which leads them off the soundstage into a lobby).
LS: So much for the wonders of time travel.
MA: We’ll see you all next time.
LS: That’s right. (in his best “Arnold” voice) Ve’ll be back!
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 5/29/2009)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares