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Thursday, 21 January 2016

No Salvation


I’ve just rewatched Terminator Salvation for the first time since 2009. ‘Exceptionally dull’ was my evaluation back then. But how does it hold up after 6 years with my expectations suitably lowered? My word, it’s still awful. It lacks, well, everything.

Sometime before the rise of the machines Sam Worthington’s character, Marcus, commits some unspecified sin in the early ‘00s leading to the deaths of his brother and two police officers. On death row he signs his body over to cancer-survivor/shady tech person Helena Bonham-Carter for some non-specific post-mortal experimentation. Marcus is lethally injected. Judgement Day happens. He then wakes up in 2018, like, totes confused, looking identical but naked, covered in mud and screaming in a storm. He meanders round post-apocalyptic LA meeting the principal cast until he and everyone else discovers he’s actually a robot. But with a Heart. And a Brain. And Courage. He decides to help the Resistance fight the evil Skynet. The 'monster' returns to destroy its creator. That’s what they were going for. Powerful stuff.

First up, let’s start with a dialogue sample:
Blair                      You don’t meet many good guys these days.
Marcus                 I’m not a good guy.
Blair                      Yes, you are – you just don’t know it yet.

Oscar! Unfortunately this is just one example of the screenplay playing 'Guess The Next Hackneyed Line' with the audience. There's nothing wrong with a little meat-and-potatoes but this script sounds like it was made by a Hollywood dialogue generator; generic and dull. And it only gets worse from there. Now, I am a huge Terminator fan - I know the lore and the characters – but here the audience is expected to get goosebumps with every mention of a character’s name. The words ‘John Connor’ and ‘Kyle Reese’ are repeated literally DOZENS of times. It’s worthy of a drinking game.  Series-stalwarts get bored and first-timers are bewildered by the meaninglessness. They already got the JC/prophet analogy signposted in the opening text but when it’s not just being derivative and dry as all hell, this script DEPENDS on characters repeating each other’s names to drive the narrative. Half of poor Anton Yelchin’s lines are introductions, and Bale does little but announce who he is over the bloody radio (apparently Skynet doesn’t monitor the wireless).

"You tried to kill my mother, Sarah Connor. You killed my father, Kyle Reese.
You will not kill me.” (That's John Connor.)
Connor HAS TO mention Reese so Marcus can recognise the name and push the plot forward appropriately. You can hear the gears clunking and grinding and it highlights further faults. While reverential to Cameron’s films when it suits, it discounts them when they become inconvenient. Connor doesn’t reveal his father’s identity to anyone in the originals. Not even to Reese HIMSELF. Here he’s forced to because otherwise the story flatlines. In The Terminator Michael Biehn explicitly states of the future war that it’s dangerous to go out during the day but at night you can move around (though the machines use infra-red so don’t go mad). This is ignored in Salvation. There are ways to get around this if you want some daylight in your film. It only takes one clever line.

Plotholes abound and without any fun or excitement to distract, you end up picking at threads until the movie falls apart. It’s a mess but that in isolation isn’t the problem. Plenty of films make no sense but if they’re entertaining, you go with them. Salvation is po-faced, self-righteous and excruciatingly dull. Worthington does what he can with practically nothing. Who is this random? Why should we care? His confusion is the only thing the audience can empathise with. His character’s past guilt is a MacGuffin but without any details it’s impossible to appreciate his redemption. Petty thief? Haunted veteran? Too many parking tickets? We're left in the dark. ANYONE, however, with a passing interest in the series will realise he’s a Terminator. If they missed the reveal in the trailer, McG’s angles should clue them in. The director replicates some choice shots from Cameron (the camera fixes on Marcus as he takes a hit to the side of the face and slowly rotates his scowl back towards the assailant; the frame follows his legs as he approaches a downed goon, knife-in-hand). McG fills the movie with the iconography of the series. He manages to contrive Griffith Park Observatory, Guns ‘n’ Roses and a CG Arnie into it. And sure, he’s got this Wizard of Oz/Frankenstein motif pasted in, and HB-C’s got cancer because…er, well...death lingers on her..., or something deep, and Christian Bale has the Earnest-o-meter dialled up to eleventy-stupid. No question the director’s assembled a stellar cast. Why doesn’t it work?

It fails because everything is superficial and unearned. Marcus has a heart but machines don’t have hearts. Of course, brains and hearts are what make us humans different and special, and Marcus did something bad in the past but he gives his heart to save John Connor and is redeemed and will go on to be the ‘heart’ of the Resistance (*emoji heart*). It’s his ‘second chance’ and people deserve second chances because that nice woman told us so in the second act, and we’ve resolved that circle by saying so again at the end. That’s writing. And then the former-veterinarian performs a heart transplant. Obvs.

"The name's Bond. James...shit, that's not right..."
Absolutely nothing registers as genuine on screen thanks to transparent characters and mistaking the repetition of individuals’ names in hallowed tones for plot development. McG completely fails to recognise and replicate the ‘heart’ of the first two films, despite liberally pilfering the iconography. I’ve written previously about the family dynamic but Salvation is also missing entirely the relentless threat of the unknown from Cameron’s films. More than simply the technological menace, 1 and 2 are driven by the chase; the danger of the pursuing Terminator always stalking, like the truck in Speilberg’s Duel. Cameron created two of cinema’s greatest villains and the franchise has struggled to offer a worthy nemesis ever since (the Swiss-Army-Terminator from T3, much like Genisys’ T-3000, is a visual mess on screen). That pursuit was the frame on which Cameron hung his commentary on humanity, family and the ambiguity of technology.

McG has absolutely nothing to say but he treats trite sentiment as profound. Rise of the Machines, derivative as it may be, had some simple ideas executed competently. Skynet selected Arnie’s likeness due to Connor’s boyhood attachment to his model number, thus helping him terminate future JC. That makes sense. Skynet was software that grew on the internet with no central core. That too makes sense. T3 dared to end with Judgment (sic) Day. The writers realised that this story couldn’t continue without change and actually ending the world rather than delaying the inevitable was bleak and bold - it challenges the ‘no fate’ adage. McG was tasked with taking the story into the future war that we’d only glimpsed before. You can see how elements thought to be important to a Terminator movie were written in (the moto-terminators are a misguided attempt to bring motorbikes back because, hey, Terminator films have motorcycles, right?!) but the DREAD - the constant fear of the predator - is utterly absent, as are any reasons to care about anyone on screen. That’s what should drive the story forward, not repeating ‘Kyle Reese’ forty fucking times. The obligatory zingers are crow-barred in but are unearned and they jar with the rest of the stodgy, sullen dialogue. It’s like McG doused the entire cast in liquid anti-charisma.


It is possible to take that dread and make it the focus of a story set post-Judgement Day. The paranoia of a Terminator infiltrating a base would be interesting – it would be a different film, but it could retain that element of fear. I found Genisys to be a fun mash-up of the first two movies that necessarily distanced itself from Salvation by rebooting the timeline. It’s a shame that it may not be getting a direct sequel. It had little original to say (and Jai Courtney's beefy Reese was a far cry from Biehn's wirey, vulnerable fighter) but it was entertaining fluff. Salvation is not. Michael Ironside is McG’s lone shard of light, providing barking ‘80s kudos. But even he can’t offer this film any salvatio...

That's writing, folks!

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