The Popcorn Reel

MOVIE REVIEW
Terminator Salvation
What The Hell Is Going On Here?

Bryce Dallas Howard (background) as Kate Connor and Christian Bale as John Connor during a quixotic moment in McG's "Terminator Salvation",
which opened in theaters in the U.S. and Canada yesterday.  (Photo: Warner Brothers)

By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com   SHARE
Friday, May 22, 2009

"Terminator Salvation" tries and tries.  It works hard for the money -- too hard -- to make its audience believe, enjoy and engage.  McG ("Charlie's Angels", "We Are Marshall") builds an atmosphere of tension in the opening credits yet that atmosphere feels unconvincing and forced to the point of overkill.  We get a look at the British actress Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Serena Kogan early on in a scene involving Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a dead man walking as execution awaits him in the year 2003.  The good doctor apparently has a terminal illness, and Marcus kisses her.  "Now I know what death tastes like," he utters immediately after.  It's a strange line, one that is as disposable as the story and much of the film, which opened across the U.S. and Canada yesterday.

It's 2018 and from the molten, muddied earth Marcus arises in an era where the vast evil computer network Skynet fires off another salvo in the ongoing war of its machines against the Resistance of human warriors fighting to preserve the remains of humanity following Judgment Day.  John Connor (Christian Bale) is the full-fledged leader of the 21st century Resistance.  Mr. Bale's trademark intensity and power match the urgency of his character's mandate and he and Common, who plays Barnes, a fellow renegade fighter, seem to be the only actors 100 percent invested in the action, which is loud, vigorous and bruising -- not for the purposes of the perilous fight against the Terminator T-800 machines which look like Decepticons from "Transformers" stripped of their armor -- but for the goal of making us feel like there's really a battle royale going on here.  "What the hell is going on here?", you might ask yourself while watching McG's latest.  Inevitably, as movie characters end up doing, Marcus and John's paths will cross, and though their initial meetings have potential for interest, the screenplay by "Terminator 3" writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris lets us down with its need to overdramatize some of the subsequent interactions between the two central figures.

Some of the film's sequences are downright laughable (including one specific computer-generated character) but would be far less so had the film intended to be a comedy, which sadly it doesn't.  McG throws past "Terminator" references in to his film to build a bridge (that no doubt skips over the forgettable "Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines") to the two James Cameron films which have enough gaps between them and their 2003 and 2009 cinematic incarnations to have sufficiently quieted the fever many filmgoers once had for this formerly riveting franchise.  This latest metallic sci-fi adventure contains clichés and references to films including "Jacob's Ladder" -- clichés that are gimmicky and pretentious -- although "Terminator Salvation" throws us into the heart of war, almost non-stop.  The new film's redeeming qualities however are in its cinematography by Shane Hurlbut (photography reminiscent of Janusz Kaminski's lens work in "Saving Private Ryan") and production design by Martin Laing.  "Terminator Salvation" is dedicated to Stan Winston, among others.  Mr. Winston, the special effects guru for many Hollywood action films, passed away last year and had devised the effects on the prior "Terminator" films.

Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek", "Charlie Bartlett", "Alpha Dog") plays Kyle Reese, a late-teenage Kyle, whose strong resemblance to Michael Biehn's older Kyle of past films is striking and of course, deliberate.  For those unfamiliar with Mr. Cameron's "Terminator" forerunners (those born after 1990), it may be difficult to appreciate in this new film that Kyle is actually John's father -- that John is from the future looking to fix the film's present future of 2018 so that the future following that year can be safe from Skynet and its machines.  Get it?  After watching "Terminator Salvation" you will likely forget what you saw or understood, but what's more: you won't really care. 

For all its bombast "Terminator Salvation" doesn't get us excited or keep us on the edge of our seats.  The more vertiginous and dynamic the film becomes, the less realistic and more frozen it feels.  One comes away from "Terminator Salvation" the way many came away from the 2003 film "Matrix Revolutions" -- exasperated -- wondering, "what the hell was that about?"

With: Moon Bloodgood, Jadagrace Berry, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jane Alexander, Michael Ironside, Terry Crews and Ivan Gvera.

"Terminator Salvation" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language.  The film's running time is two hours and eight minutes though it feels shorter.

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