Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2009

Terminated: No intelligence allowed

The war with the Machines continues, this time accompanied by the Benny Hill soundtrack

Terminator Salvation
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: McG
Screenplay: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood, Common, Michael Ironside and Helena Bonham Carter
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 10 minutes
Opened May 21, 2009
(out of four)

It's taken four movies, but we've finally come to the bottom of the Machines' failures in the Terminator franchise - as it turns out, they're interminably stupid.

This is the second review this month in which I've used the word "stupid." I feel like I'm being reductive. But it's not my fault; if either movie had any brains, I wouldn't have had to stoop so low. In this case, the word will be the prevailing legacy of McG's hopefully brief tenure at the helm of this franchise.

I'll choose my words carefully to avoid spoiling anything. The Machines in Terminator Salvation have a plan - and not just any plan, but a plan that should be an endgame moment. The plan - which they will dramatically unveil with about 40 minutes left in the film - involves three principal characters: John Connor, of course, as well as (careful . . . careful) . . . OK, we'll leave the other two names out.

This diabolical, game-changing scheme has been in the works for a very long time. The pieces have been put in place. The Machines have carefully maneuvered all the characters into position. Checkmate, right?

Uh . . . well, they certainly seem to think so. They're proud of their little plan. Pity, then, that it's the most sensationally idiotic plan I've ever heard. And we haven't even gotten to the shoddy execution yet. The plan is so needlessly complicated, you'd think the Machines were created with faulty wiring. (What, are they programmed by Microsoft? Are these cyborgs, in fact, the next generation of Windows? Windows: Skynet Edition! Now that's scary.) Otherwise, these hyper-intelligent, calculating, technologically advanced, self-aware beings would realize that one of these characters - the most important one, in the film's mind - is almost entirely superfluous; his "important" role could easily have been manufactured in a simpler way.

And if we somehow can get past the inexplicability of the set-up, what are we to make of its execution? The plan begins to fall apart immediately after it is laid out for us, and as we see the rest of it play out, it becomes clear that it was doomed to fail anyway. When one character walks into a trap, destined to die - and, thus, drastically affect the war in the Machines' favor - why is there only one Terminator there to kill him? One? Really, Machines? Really?

With an endlessly renewable set of resources, they couldn't spare a few extra cyborgs for this crucial moment in history?

And for that matter, knowing what we know about the Machines and their Terminators, why do they insist on throwing their enemies up against walls, or shoving them, or punching them, when they could quite easily, you know, terminate them, and just be done with it. And considering their entire objective in this movie is to kill specific characters, that they so inexplicably fail to do is farcical, to put it mildly.

Why am I so consumed by the logic of the film's final acts? Because the film itself is consumed by it - the entire thing has been building up to this. It takes up the last 40 minutes of the run time. It's important, not just dramatically, but to the film's entire perspective. As it turns out, both the present and future of the Terminator universe rest on the shoulders of this demonstrably absurd strategy.

James Cameron's original two masterworks provided insight into the survival mechanisms of both the humans and the Machines. His stories relied on intelligence, mystery, paradox, fate - not game-changing twists that made no sense.

All this falls on McG. While he was a dubious choice to take over the director's chair in the first place, his work here doesn't suggest incompetence (as did Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle), but something just as bad - a flat-out inability to comprehend the most crucial ideas and implications of his own story.

Terminator Salvation even tries to broach some new philosophical territory, particularly with the introduction of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a half-man, half-cyborg who believes he's human, feeling and behaving accordingly. But his ultimate fate is ridiculous in ways I can't expand on, and the film loses sight of the most interesting aspects of the character in favor of more action - a hit-or-miss element this time around, as so many of McG's sequences are rife with close-up compositions that strip us of any sense of space. (What's the point of doing complex action scenes with long takes if we're going to spend seconds at a time focused on, for instance, a close-up of the back of a motorcycle?)

The film has some nicely staged interactions, a look that distinguishes itself from the first three entries (particularly in some of the production design early on) and special effects that look great. But while these Terminators may look fantastic, their actions are anything but.

And that's not all the film wastes. Helena Bonham Carter has exactly two scenes - and only one in the flesh. Bryce Dallas Howard (taking over Claire Danes' role from Terminator 3) is a virtually useless character, while her husband, the prophesied savior John Connor (Christian Bale), has been left out to dry - either by his script, his director, or both. Or the cinematographer that keeps walking through the shot when he's trying to do a scene.

But most of all, McG's Terminator Salvation has stripped the Machines of all the intelligence that made them so formidable in the first place. Ultimately, the legacy he leaves on this franchise is reducing the Terminators to a laughable villain.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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