Sunday, May 24, 2009

Killing Time with Terminator - Salvation

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as "2-day-old coyote")

Terminator - Salvation wasted no time in blowing me away with its special effects at today's matinee, but I found myself waiting through the whole thing for a little of the thoughtfulness the franchise demonstrated it was capable of in the original The Terminator, and more recently in the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

While there's no time travel in this installment, there is a time jump: Salvation begins in 2003 with prison inmate Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington), on death row for some unspecified crime that resulted in the deaths of his brother and two cops, signing over the rights to his mortal remains to Cyberdine Systems for scientific research once he's been executed. Cue the lethal injection and fade to black. Now we're in 2018 - after Judgement Day, in the early days of the war before time travel has been invented and both sides are using bullets instead of plasma rifles. Skynet's in charge. Christian Bale's John Connor (already seen as something of a prophet and a rising star in the Resistance - though not leading it yet) is with a team on an assault against a Skynet research facility. While his team is killed and the facility is destroyed, Connor manages to escape... later, so does newly rebuilt Marcus. Marcus makes his way to what's left of LA, falls-in with a teeanged Kyle Reese and his little friend "Star", and adventures ensue. The kids get captured, Marcus finds the Resistance but runs into trouble when it's discovered (much to his surprise) that he's a cyborg. He forms an alliance with Connor and then the race is on to save Kyle from execution.

Purely as a summer popcorn action flick, Salvation works. Lots of gunfights, scary robots, and big explosions. Oh yeah, they blow things up real good!

The Terminators and Hunter-Killers (HK's) were especially cool - they looked menacing and used (not all shiny unless they were still on the factory floor) and (for the most part) sounded solid and were fairly frightening when they had to be. I also enjoyed the decision to portray the HK's as modular: if aerial HK's need to collect human captives or root-out Resistance fighters, they just open a hatch and drop a 20-foot-tall cannon and claw equipped ground HK out to get the job done. Got some good guys escaping down the highway in a badass pickup truck? No problem! Detach a couple of biker bots from the ground HK's legs to go after them. The best of the robot scenes though was the end fight sequence where the brand new T-800 is revealed, and it's not just any old face on that pumped-up model - it's Arnie. I read an article not too long ago where it was mentioned that the filmmakers used an Austrian bodybuilder and CG'd Schwarzenegger's face (and it looks like a younger Arnie face pulled or copied from some of his movies in the early 80's) over top. Good job of it too - it looked, like a T-800 should, quite natural. Also on the mechanoid front, I liked the idea of Skynet having to experiment with flesh and metal hybrids through the Marcus project before developing the full-blown 800. Marcus is the missing link between the fully human and the masquerading machine.

Other entertaining stuff included the nice visual allusions to other films: Marcus' escape from the Resistance compound has a motorbike jump over barbed wire that would have made Steve McQueen proud on the set of The Great Escape; the scene with the hydrobots closing in on Connor in the river was more than a little reminiscent of the shrieking eels in The Princess Bride, the night-time shots of Skynet's fortress in San Francisco looked very much like the opening LA skyline in Blade Runner, and the molten metal/cold water combo that Connor tries on the pursuing 800 at the end is mostly right out of Alien 3. Mostly.

Salvation does a good job of honouring the rest of the movies in the franchise as well (although not the extremely well-done TV series, unfortunately). Connor uses a Guns'n'Roses song blaring on a boom box to lure in a biker bot - the same song that was screeching away in T2 when the young John and the other little punk from Diff'rent Strokes went off on a bike to blow some stolen money at the mall. There was Connor's pregnant doctor wife - a nod to the lame-duck T3 where he ends up riding out the nuclear attack with a veterinarian who will later be his wife. And the icing on the cake was Connor, not a Terminator, whipping out the old chestnut: "I'll be back."

I also thought it was a smart move for the film to portray Connor not as the leader of the Resistance, but as an up-and-comer who the generals were trying to keep on a leash. It was enough that he was doing periodic inspirational Radio Free Humanity broadcasts and through his smart thinking winning the respect of his fellow soldiers. If Connor would have started the movie as the head honcho, he would have been too alien and with his personality, it would have been too easy for an audience to see him as a megalomaniac and a prick. This way, his rise to bigbossdom feels natural and he seems like an okay guy.

But, much like Skynet's many plans to wipe-out the Connor clan, Salvation had its flaws.

Right from the start, we see the frightening, bulky metal skeletons of the old Terminator 600's lumbering around mowing down everything they can with their bigass gatling guns. Yes they're scary and cool. But I want to know why Skynet would bother with an inefficient humanoid body design for one of its robots? There are probably many ways to design an effective mid-sized, heavily armed killing machine that could flush-out humans from semi-collapsed buildings, etc. The skull face is scary, but the machines are more concerned with killing or capturing people at this point than giving them the willies. Now, you might point out that in the first movie, Reese notes that early Terminator models had rubber skin to infiltrate human settlements, and so you might argue these bad boys are those particular models, just out on the town without carrying their rubber. And you might point out that oddly, throughout Salvation, the 600's have a tendency to wear rags here and there. But let's not forget Skynet's speech to Marcus at the end, where it tells him that he's the prototype for infiltration. The 600's existed for quite some time before Marcus' activation, and thus clearly weren't meant to infiltrate, and so would not have been equipped with any skin, rubber or otherwise. The 800's appear to be the first skinned infiltrators (although Salvation makes no reference to rubber skin and the Arnie that comes marching after Connor looks to have real flesh over its metal bones). So that brings me back to the original question: what's with the scary skeleton design for the 600's, aside from coolness and the appearance of basic model design continuity? And why do they wear rags? Is that some kind of trophy-taking? Are these primitive androids capable of developing enough in the way of personalities to want to collect souvenirs from their victims? (Skynet does use the term "we" when speaking with Marcus, so maybe some of its servants do develope enough autonomy for Skynet to accord them some respect as individuals)

It also seemed a little dumb that every machine from the T-600's to the ground-based HK's makes a hell of a lot of noise thumping and grinding along when they move in a chase or attack, but somehow they have the strange ability to sneak up on individuals or groups without making a sound. There's maybe 2 seconds warning in the gas station where the little girl looks uneasy before a big claw smashes through the roof and starts pulling people out like so many carrots - no forewarning at all. You don't hear anyone say "Gee, Ted, do you hear a grinding sound comin' from the south?" "Well now that you mention it, Phil, as a matter of fact I do. For my part, I was just thinking about how the ground has been shaking more and more over the past 10 minutes or so." Nope. It's relative quiet until an HK starts grabbing or shooting or a previously-downed 600 grabs someone's boot.

And while we're on the subject of the HK's, did anyone else think it was particularly stupid for Connor and his chum to go our hunting one of the flying bots to test the control frequency at night - not too long after a scene where they'd been talking about how everyone knows you don't go out at night because the HK's use infrared and can find you easily? Would Connor really go hunting those things when the robots have the tactical advantage - at least in terms of sneaking up, which (as mentioned in the previous paragraph) they seem to have the uncanny ability to do without being detected? But somehow that rule goes out the window for this particular scene, and Connor & co return to base with a seeming success to report.

And speaking of robots, why does a dip in a pool of molten metal destroy Arnie's 800 at the end of T2, while this time around the dunking merely pisses the 800 off? And wouldn't the subseqant dousing with water damage the metal with the rapid heat change? (or is that just a problem in the Alien franchise?)

Let's talk about the Resistance base a little - specifically about how the HK's, who have infrared and seem to appear out of nowhere (again, undetected) any time someone so much as farts, missed the explosions, gunfire, roaring engines, shouting voices, and huge firestorm that resulted from the Resistance fighters trying to capture/destroy Marcus when he escaped from the base. How does that go unnoticed? Skynet doesn't have satellite surveillance? Skynet's aerial patrols (both the flying HK's and the little flying spybots) don't go out very often (unlike the Resistance warthogs, which do an awful lot of cruising around for valuable assets that can't be replaced)?

But the Resistance seems to be able to pull off miracles - like a heart transplant in the middle of a dirty field with helicopters kicking up dust, and no prior screening for donor compatibility and no mention of the worry about the body's ability to resist a transplant. I mean, they can have the best transplant circumstances in the world, but unless there's something truly special about Marcus' heart (and whether it was the original or a manufactured replacement, the only thing that was mentioned was that it was very strong), the Resistance would need a hefty supply of anti-rejection drugs to make sure the transplant worked (and those drugs have the tendency to kick the shit out of other organs, like your kidneys). Good thing Connor's wife is the doctor.

And speaking of medical miracles in the post-apocalyptic war zone, why do all the human heroes have great teeth? Maybe it's the shiny glow of their pearly whites that's really responsible for attracting the HK's. The Resistance must have taken control of a toothpaste factory, or spend half it's time raiding old pharmacies instead of fighting, or subject its soldiers to frequent dental checkups (which would have the added value of inuring them to torture).

The biggest problem with the movie though was that in its drive to keep the pacing fast to get us from one SFX-based cliffhanger to the next, it didn't stop to explore any of the issues it raised, and thus missed some great opportunities for character building.

In the case of Marcus, we, the audience, know he's a cyborg, which kills any real chance of "who's the traitor in our midst?" suspense. The only question is whether he'll kill Connor or Reese or not, and based on his behaviour throughout the film, it's pretty obvious that he won't. In fact, we're given that right at the opening of the film when we meet him on death row - he shows clear remorse for his crime and his victims - the personality has been set up as one that doesn't want any more killing. That leaves his only real value to the audience (aside from being yet another action hero) as the stand-in for the viewer in being introduced as the stranger in the strang land, and, more importantly, as someone who can reflect on the philosophical issues the movie raises. But the problem with Marcus is that these issues are missed or brushed aside quickly to get to the next explosion. It takes him so long to realize he's a machine (even though he knew he was executed, he's aware he's in the future, and he's suddenly equipped with stunning fighting abilities - in fact he'd have to be a completely blind egomaniac to fight like he does in the first half of the flick and not figure that this was a little beyond what he was capable of historically) that there's really no chance for him to explore the question of what it means to be human. Skynet throws the issue in his face at the end, to which he quickly throws his computer chip back at Skynet. But the movie could have made time for him to come to this question on his own a lot earlier on. It could also have had Marcus take some time to try to figure out why things were so different from his last memory of the execution room. He never once stops to ask "Am I dreaming? Is this hell? Have I been brought back? Am I still me?" Now you may say that he doesn't do this because he's blocked by the computer chip in his head, but really, it's never explained what that chip does, and it certainly doesn't influence his thinking or functioning at the end when he removes it.

Connor suffers from a similar problem. At no point does he really sit back and weigh what it means to be mankind's hope. He just accepts it. You'd think he'd at least express a little worry about being the voice of the Resistance, the prophet and saviour, and at the end the leader of the Resistance and what that might mean for the safety of his wife and unborn child. But there's nothing.

Some might argue that in an action film like this, the last thing you want to do is bring it to a screeching halt by getting into philosophy, but let's not forget that the original Terminator was filled with relentless suspense and action, and yet still took the time to ask what it all meant. Salvation is so sure of itself, it doesn't care and doesn't have time for that sort of question.

For all that though, this film does the job it's programmed to do: entertain a summer audience with big effects and explosions. Terminator - Salvation is a worthy addition to the franchise, certainly better than T3, and in my opinion more entertaining than T2, but lacking the smarts of the original Terminator or the sadly marginalized Sarah Connor Chronicles.
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