Friday, May 22, 2009

Terminating Expectations: A Spoilerish Review of "Terminator: Salvation"

Spoiler alert! Read this review at your own risk!

In my opinion, good science fiction establishes alternative takes on reality through dynamic storytelling and compelling character development. Great science fiction uses this alternative reality to make a socially relevant point about this reality. In both cases, the fantastic elements that make the story truly "science fiction" are merely a backseat driver, so quickly and well established that we the audience are drawn into these worlds through the eyes of its heroes (or villains) without the need for elaborate explanation. By this standard, Terminator: Salvation has condemned itself . . . and has no where to go if it wants to live.

To offer some context, consider my favorite film of last summer's blockbuster cavalcade, Iron Man. In the Marvel universe, a little nuclear reactor can substitute a pacemaker, and heroes and villains alike can seemingly effortlessly build cybernetic interactive suits of armor. Yet, these details take a backseat to Tony Stark's convictions about his industry, and his development from callous billionaire inventor to bleeding heart international hero. The blend of action, special effects, romance, and humor made the flick a great summer event; the social relevance of the story and its character growth made it a great story. This year, Star Trek accomplished the same thing -- which is what creator Gene Roddenberry intended with his proverbial "wagon train to the stars" anyway. Captain Kirk is a fantastical cosmic hero, but this year's reboot reminds us that he's an Iowa farm boy first -- that even an extravagant, special effects-ridden star trek begins with the very grounded, human need to "do better."

So, you might understand my expectations of Terminator: Salvation. First of all, the title implies a spiritual journey, which makes sense considering the franchise's comprehensive themes of destiny and purpose. Indeed, in a world where humanity-hating robots travel back in time to destroy civilization, the potential for spiritual allegory is endless -- and while the whole world hangs in the balance against SkyNet's wrath, Terminator has always been about one kid, John Connor, and his singular ability to embrace his potential and save mankind. This is why I loved Fox's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and was particularly excited with its last season's finale, when John jumped into the future, skipping over the events of Judgment Day that make him a hero, and could no longer depend on his name to save the day. As the series had promised, we were going to see how John goes from long-haired, flannel-wearing punk-o'-the-'90s to militant, optimistic revolutionary. Then, the show was cancelled. Then, this film's title took on new life. Could it save the Terminator franchise?

Hasta la vista, baby. Terminator as you knew it is over. Remember the introduction to Terminator 2, when the cyborg crushes the human skull against the dark backdrop of a SkyNet-conquered future? So cool, right? In Salvation, the best action sequences take place in the light of day, sans any sign of polluted, machine-driven conquest. Sure, cities are decimated into ghost towns and deserts, but the future John's mother warned us about was one part this Mad Max illusion, one part The Matrix cybernetic sprawl. Of course, all of this sunlight exposes that the science fiction is meant to take center stage, and that the three characters' respective plights -- Connor, his young father Kyle Reese, and newcomer/Cyberdine prototype Marcus Wright -- are so distilled between them that none of them crystallizes to fulfill a true sense of "salvation" for anyone.

When I write reviews like this, I try to keep things conceptual and not stray into the Comic Book Guy tendency to expose plot holes, but Terminator: Salvation has a big one I can't overcome. When the Resistance discovers a frequency that halts machines in their tracks, Connor and Malcom infiltrate SkyNet to rescue its human guinea pigs (Kyle Reese included) and discover the frequency was a red herring planted by the machines to draw them out. Then, Connor finds the nuclear batteries that power the Terminator robots and realizes he could easily blow up the whole compound. Now, didn't John already know about these nuclear power sources? Why doesn't the Resistance simply bomb all of these factories assured that the nuclear power within will decimate everything? "Salvation" can be achieved within days! I don't get it.

Finally, I had a few expectations of the plot itself and was sorely disappointed when they didn't come to pass. I blame X-Men Origins: Wolverine for this optimism; when I saw a young Cyclops in the commercials for Wolverine, I hoped that the two heroes would work together without actually meeting (to maintain the continuity of the franchise), and that Scott would at least get pointed in Professor X's direction in the end. Charles' cameo was a fanboy delight -- so, in Terminator: Salvation, amidst rumors of an appearance by the Governator himself, I'd hoped to see Arnold's character sent back in time for the first film, or perhaps Kyle Reese sent back at John's behest, contributing to his own conception. This would've given Salvation a sense of purpose outside of itself, with a cyclical effect that could've ended the film series or prepared it for a new direction. Yet, while rescuing his father is initially self-serving on John's part, that Kyle's untimely death would change everything about Terminator as we know it was barely explored -- and time travel actually never happened in the film, at all. This is like Iron Man without repulsor rays, or Star Trek without beaming up. It's a critical part of this alternative world we've been forced to accept, and if the infrastructure of this reality is so in our face, why not exploit its every angle?

Interestingly, I think Terminator: Salvation did foretell a dark future, and I'm not looking forward to it. First of all, the Robert Downey, Jr.-fueled Sherlock Holmes trailer that preceded the film promised the demise of another favorite franchise, in this case before it even begins. Also, amidst rumors of more Ghostbusters and He-Man films, I'm afraid the action-first, story-later standard will become the norm for summer blockbusters. Indeed, despite appearing in two movies and two seasons' worth of television, for all of that potential training, John Connor's greatest weapon in this, his ultimate act, was his name. "I'm John Connor." He says it so many times, I wonder who he's trying to convince, and in the same way, upcoming movies like Holmes or He-Man may reflect their heroes by name only. The more these films terminate these contemporary myths into mere special effects resumes for production companies, the more I'll feel compelled to tell my local theater, "I won't be back."

1 comment:

Coffee Maker said...

i love how they got creative with some of the robots, no so sure about the human performances though