Monday, June 15, 2009

479 - Terminator Salvation review

“Terminator Salvation” tells the story of an earth ravaged by humanity’s war with computer-generated Macguffins. The robots act menacing and slow, unless their target is fleeing in a car or helicopter, in which case they act menacing and fast. Despite an array of hi-tech weaponry, the humans and robots prefer to fistfight one another, for reasons left unexplained because a valid one couldn’t possibly exist.

My pal the critic Christian Toto suggested that the harder a filmmaker hawks their movie, the worse it is likely to be. If McG’s countless trips to nerd conventions are any indication, then Christian’s theory is dead on. McG’s interactions with the fans, silly affairs where the woeful auteur would combatively assure them that his swing at the “Terminator” series was going to be the greatest thing since ripped Arnold, were an early indication that something was rotten in the state of Skynet. Comparing his work on “Charlie’s Angels” to James Cameron’s work on “Piranha 2,” he engaged in bald-faced lies as he claimed not to know whether or not his film would be PG-13 (it is, and a soft one at that) and outright foolishness as he exasperatedly explained away his moronic moniker (it was his childhood nickname, as if real adults are supposed to stop finding it stupid).

If it sounds like I’m carrying an vitriol for this guy, that’s because I find it beyond maddening that a talentless nitwit can somehow acquire hundreds of millions of dollars to mangle a beloved film franchise by shooting a script only marginally coherent and doing so with the artistry of a high school media student so bereft of cinematic aptitude that even the kindly teacher can’t issue more than a C. Top to bottom, the film is a catastrophe, with the exception of the special effects, which were worked on by f/x wizard Stan Winston before his death.

As convincing as the effects are, there’s shallowness to the design, the robots looking largely like giant children’s toys run amok; even the memorable humanoid robots from the first films are drained of their danger by McG, who treats them like barroom bouncers instead of efficient metal assassins. When a sixty foot tall automaton sneaks up on the heroes (yes, sneaks), we witness the complete bastardization of the bleak future hinted at by Cameron’s classic originals, the tantalizing possibilities for hard-edge cinema replaced by the efforts of writers who thoughtlessly only seek to make something cumbersome and loud. The film’s 2018 setting sees a Los Angeles ravaged by nuclear war, but as the film runs on and we get a closer look, we recognize the staginess of the scenery, which looks neglected and rundown as opposed to shattered and desolate.

When we meet a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, the sole actor who manages not to humiliate his or herself) caring for a Black Mute Orphan Child, he looks like a contemporary kid who simply hasn’t had a shower in a couple of weeks.

Christian Bale plays John Connor, the prophesied leader of humanity against the machine uprising. I say “prophesied” with a grain of salt, because the ridiculous script seems unsure as to whether or not Connor is supposed to be living in a sci-fi universe that supports prophecies. Bale approaches the role as if he had never seen Edward Furlong or Nick Stahl’s humorous and three-dimensional performances, instead making Connor a scowling, pouty thug, a sullen man who watched “The Dark Knight” several dozen times and decided to imitate Batman’s voice every moment of the day. If Bale is embarrassed by his leaked tempter tantrum, then the knowledge that millions of people will see this performance might inspire him to commit hara-kiri (I hope not, because he’s still one of the best actors working today).

McG and the various screenwriter’s collective ineptitudes are consistently and mercilessly made evident throughout: the human resistance initially appears to gigantic, then appears to consist of a dozen people, then appears tiny again. It’s a bad sign when the filmmakers clearly know no more about the setting than does their audience. At the film’s climax, Connor casually strolls into the heart of the machine base, at which point the robots announce that they’ve set a trap and plan to kill him: guess whether or not they do. OK, I’ll spoil it for you: they don’t. I’m hard-pressed to think of a worse script to receive so much money and promotion.

At least there’s action, some say. Screen violence and destruction can be the bees knees (see “Hard Boiled”), but only if it has impact, which McG saps out of every frame. Thousands of rounds fill the air, explosions shred robots and buildings, and resistance fighters bare-knuckle box with indestructible terminators (this is just as if not more inexplicably stupid than it sounds), but absent is a sense of peril, the illusion that a named character that we’re intended to sympathize with might suffer the slightest of injuries. To regard this as fine action cinema is to lower one’s expectations so low that a movie simply needs to bleed cash onscreen to satisfy them. By the time the dreadful story has lumbered to a close, nothing of meaning has happened, and we’ve been issued a pathetic twist ending which was hastily filmed to replace a deeper one that some geeks protested.

Soaking up a good half of the screen time is Sam Worthington who plays a death row inmate reawakened as a machine in 2018. The film opens in his jail cell, a scene so ineptly executed (pun not intended) that if there’s a worse opening scene for the remainder of the year, I’ll follow Werner Herzog’s example and eat my fucking shoe. “He’s a find,” says one critic of Worthington, which convinces me that not all critics actually bother to watch the films they’re being paid to review. His American accent is wobbly, his emotional range as narrow as Bale’s, his character utterly uninteresting. Perhaps it’s is good fortune that he’s also the star of James Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar,” because even if the legendary blockbuster maker can’t direct him to a good performance, then at least the movie surrounding it might be interesting.