Sad Dinosaurs: Calling Bullshit on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life movie poster

 

As a public service, The Dork Report will now summarize all 2 hours and 19 minutes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for you:

My mommy was pretty, my daddy was mean, sometimes kids die, I inhaled too much DDT, and it makes me so sad. Sad like the lonely birth of the lifeless universe. Sad like an anachronistic demonstration of animal altruism in the cruel dinosaur-eat-dinosaur prehistoric biosphere. Sad like the decay of all matter and energy as the universe inevitably collapses.

I call bullshit.

The degree of enjoyment I took from The Tree of Life was in inverse proportion to the sense of obligation I felt to see it, which is to say: very little vs. a whole lot. The very private auteur Malick had fallen silent for a number of years after he burst out of the gate in the 70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, but has been on something of an uncharacteristic tear lately, producing three films in 10 years, with more in the pipeline. Since he chooses to not participate in publicity for his films, we may have to wait years until we find out what motivated him to return from this mysterious interregnum.

The Tree of LifeNo one was there to watch as the planets form from stardust… except Terrence Malick’s computers

Anticipation high, The Tree of Life was hotly discussed as his most beautiful, philosophical, and autobiographical film yet (the last point being especially tantalizing to film buffs looking for entry points into analyzing the man and his ouvre from a distance). The hook was further baited by the all-star cast (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and it-girl-who’s-in-everything-these-days Jessica Chastain) and an awards campaign branding it as one of the key prestige pictures of 2011. The willingness of top-drawer talent to work with Malick, even if they may very well wind up on the cutting room floor (as happened to George Clooney in The Thin Red Line), suggests he is revered as a director of actors. The perennially prickly Sean Penn, however, had none of this. He publicly derided the completed film:

While [Penn] considered the script “the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,” he believes that “a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” Noting that Malick himself was little help when it came to explaining what he was going for, Penn adds, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.”
The A.V. Club

All of Malick’s films are inarguably staggeringly beautiful, but their flimsy substance would get laughed out of a high school creative writing class. The Thin Red Line provided a much-needed meditative counterpoint at the time to the comparatively sentimental Saving Private Ryan, but too much of the film was taken up with the private thoughts of inarticulate grunts struggling to understand why they were killing each other when they’d all be much happier as cinematographers filming wildlife and sunlight filtering prettily through treetops. The New World approached outright silliness in its portrayal of Pocahontas as a pimply teenager in leather lingerie, caught in a love triangle over two of her European oppressors, and became truly absurd as the film contorted itself to avoid speaking her name.

Jessica Chastain and an unnamed dinosaur extra in Terrance Malick's The Tree of LifeI want to equate these two shots to the famous jump cut from prehistoric man to a spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just don’t respect The Tree of Life enough.

There’s something to be said about Malick deconstructing two of the most overused subjects in Hollywood history (the World War II picture and the Pocahontas myth) for his own personal statements, but critics must really strain for these to hold up to discussion in serious philosophical terms. The Niles Files makes a valiant attempt to tackle The Tree of Life, looping in Blake, Proust, Joyce, and many other big guns to extract some meaning from Malick’s pretty pictures.

The Tree of Life was part of a miniature trendlet in movies this past year, in which the painfully intimate was equated with the distantly cosmic. Sadly, two better films with similar concerns were unjustly crowded out of the award season — curiously, both featuring young women. In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, a girl whose carelessness ruined several lives finds hope for redemption when an exact duplicate of the entire planet inexplicably appears in the sky. Like everyone that has ever lived, she wonders if maybe there’s a better world where things turned out differently. For Cahill, it would have superfluous to concoct a pseudoscientific explanation for the phenomena, but another filmmaker that same year turned to physicists to properly substantiate his cosmic visions. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is exactly that — a painful but stunningly beautiful examination of crippling depression. One young woman’s mental illness all but splinters her extended family, a destruction so cataclysmic it is reflected in the eradication of the world. Von Trier harnesses computer animation for images of profoundly moving beauty, rendering Malick’s mopey CGI dinos silly in comparison.


Official movie site: www.twowaysthroughlife.com

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Apart Hate: District 9

 

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is an old story told many times in fiction and history: an undesirable group intrudes upon the space and resources of privileged power possessors. This story never ends well. District 9’s highly allegorical culture clash corresponds to great many groups that have suffered in throughout history, many sadly ongoing: refugees, minorities, Roma, Jews, or immigrants. But hey, this time it’s aliens!

Peter Jackson produced writer/director Blomkamp’s feature length version of his short film “Alive in Joburg”. The concept is closely related to Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi cop buddy picture Alien Nation (developed by Kenneth Johnson for a TV series the following year), in which a fully-packed slave ship is suddenly abandoned on Earth. The slaves may have been freed, but stranded in a hostile, crowded alien world with no room for them, even if the natives didn’t find them distasteful. Alien Nation found its drama in the friction on both sides as the freed slaves are absorbed into human society in a variety of ways.

District 9“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

District 9 is far more vague about its aliens’ nature and more cynical about the possibility of their integration. The ship they arrived in may not even have belonged to them, otherwise they would presumably have been more inclined to attempt to repair it or at least live aboard. Were they an exploited labor force, or what we would call slaves? If so, what happened to their captors? The trailer includes at least one scene not included in the finished film, in which an alien interrogated by human police implies that they are preventing them from repairing their ship, when all they want to do is go home. This simple sentiment is never expressed by any alien character in the movie. In fact, more of them seem content to simply live in squalor. Why can’t or won’t they simply tell us who they are or what they want?

District 9 is comprised of an awkwardly stitched together melange of genres, less seamlessly than how Alien Nation merged the buddy cop drama with science fiction. For most of its running time, District 9 works as a fauxmentary made of ostensibly found footage. The fauxmentary has long been a format for farce (q.v. Zelig and This is Spinal Tap), but in later years The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), and Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) all found ways to effectively employ the style for horror, drama, and science fiction. The ongoing wave of reality television and the run-and-gun handheld style in vogue since Paul Greengrass’ kinetic The Bourne Supremacy are no doubt contributing to the trend of including the “camera” as, essentially, a character in the film.

The fauxmentary pretense is upheld for quite a while, until it suddenly shifts to a privileged point of view for a scene in which three alien characters speaking in confidence, without the virtual “camera” present. This shift is jarring, as we’ve previously witnessed everything from the point of view of the absent protagonist. It signals the beginning of a more traditional narrative, albeit one still visualized with the same aesthetic. It’s as if Blomkamp stuck to a first-person point of view until it became inconvenient, so simply shifted to third-person while preserving the same visual aesthetic.

If the audience didn’t already contract whiplash, District 9 then dips into the body horror genre as Wikus (Sharlto Copley) undergoes a metamorphosis a la David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even this doesn’t hold Blomkamp’s attention, and the film about-faces once again, this time into a standard-issue sci-fi action flick like Aliens (with a dash of Black Hawk Down). For its grand finale, it suddenly crashes back into fauxmentary.

District 9“District 9 – Paving the Way to Unity.”

The shifting genres and points of view mirror Wikus’ character arc. Initially a basically sympathetic company man, he turns villainous in our eyes when he displays vicious speciesism by destroying an alien hatchery with undisguised glee. His cosmic punishment is for his body to painfully mutate into that which he hates and fears the most (again, an archetypal Cronenebergian theme), after which he comes around to being sympathetic again. The ending is very effective in reminding us how far Wikus has transformed, body and mind, since we first met him.

District 9 is riddled with a number of irritatingly illogical elements, which are unclear if meant to be mysteries for the audience to ponder or if just outright plot holes or implausibilities. Most refugee situations in human history involve oppressed people with no political or military power. These aliens possess ferociously powerful weapons, but don’t use them to fight for better conditions or more food and resources. If they are so technologically advanced, why do they not also have some kind of functional societal order, as opposed to the self-defeating chaotic shanty town they’ve constructed for themselves? Perhaps the technology belonged to their mysterious and unseen captors, or maybe their ill-behavior is explained by the breakdown of order the occurs in any kind of refugee scenario. More questions: How can one little alien child, born on earth, have the know-how to reactivate the mothership? Why did it take 20 years for any of them to harvest the necessary materials from their own scrap? Surely more than two adult aliens could organize themselves to better harvest their own waste.

It would normally be reductive to search for a “moral of the story” from even the simplest film — the kind of assignment given to an elementary school reading comprehension essay. But since District 9 is clearly making an obvious point about racism and xenophobia, it has to be said that it shoots itself in the foot with its extremely problematic depiction of Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals. Granted, the Nigerian characters don’t come off that much better than the white South Africans we see conducting cruel genetic research on both humans and aliens.

Setting the film in South Africa was perhaps the least subtle way possible to present any kind of science fiction allegory for racism and xenophobia — at least since Star Trek: Enterprise dressed reptilian Xindi villains in Nazi uniforms in 2004 (just in case the slower members of the audience didn’t pick up on the unsubtle pun in the species’ name). It’s perhaps more comfortable to think that these types of situations have occurred in isolated places throughout history: in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Armenia. The alien refugee camps are of course most directly analogous to South Africa under Apartheid — the title itself alluding to the forcible eviction of District Six in Cape Town to Cape Flats in 1966. By contrast, Alien Nation made the more profound point that the same thing could happen anywhere.


Official movie sites: www.d-9.com, www.district9movie.com, and www.MNUSpreadsLies.com

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Untangling The Terminator Timeline

The Terminator franchise is cooked from a core recipe of cyborgs, time travel, bullets, and explosions, seasoned with themes of destiny, paranoia, and technophobia. Subtract or substitute too many of these ingredients and you wind up with something not-Terminator. Terminator Salvation is the first episode to dare to omit the foundational time travel element. Its “present” is the post-apocalyptic future we only glimpsed in the previous films, and the closest thing to time travel is the very conventional storytelling conceit of a flashback. It’s curious that in a media landscape where fractured, non-chronological narratives are the norm (particularly on television, most notably in Lost and Breaking Bad) that the Terminator series would retreat to a safer, more linear narrative structure.

While one might imagine that would result in a more straightforward continuation of the saga, I found it raised more questions than it answered. I’m either over- or underthinking things, or more likely expecting too much of a post-exhausted escapist action franchise, but the Terminator chronology seems more entangled with paradoxes than ever. Let’s start with a condensed overview of the four feature films to date, compiled from Wikipedia, Empire Online, io9, and the Terminator Wiki. For simplicity’s sake, I’m omitting The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series and any other spinoff comics, games, novels, or whatever other assorted ephemera that has since only muddled things further:

offscreen:

  • 1959 (T1, T2) or 1965 (T3): Sarah Connor born

The Terminator (1984)

  • The present: 1984 (Los Angeles)
  • Judgement Day: August 29, 1997 (specified in T2)
  • The future: 2029

offscreen:

  • 1985: John Connor born

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

  • The present: 1995 (John Connor is 10)
  • Judgement Day: August 29, 1997
  • The future: 2029 (same date given in T1, but SkyNet is markedly more advanced)

offscreen:

  • 1997: Sarah Connor dies of leukemia (T3)

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

  • The present: 2004
  • Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (delayed from 1997 by events of T2)
  • The future: 2032

Terminator Salvation (2009)

  • Prelude: 2003 (Texas death row, prior to the events of T3)
  • Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (not specified; I’m assuming it’s the same as predicted in T3)
  • The present: 2018 (the earliest vision of the future seen yet)

So across four films, our heroes succeed in delaying the dread Judgement Day only once, and never outright prevent it. Perhaps the supremacy of artificial intelligence is inevitable, like Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of the coming Technological Singularity.

Four TerminatorsFour movies, four Terminators: T-600 (Terminator Salvation), T-800 (The Terminator), T-1000 (Terminator 2), T-X (Terminator 3)

Perhaps easiest to straighten out is the evolution of the villainous SkyNet’s footsoldier: the titular Terminator. At the time of Terminator Salvation, SkyNet has only deployed the crude T-600, basically a tank on legs that could be mistaken for a human only at a great distance. Terminator Salvation also shows an intermediate stage in SkyNet’s plan to create “infiltration units”, cyborgs that can ingratiate themselves into human enclaves. The prototype turns out to be not very reliable — far more human than machine — so SkyNet’s skunkworks are already mass-producing all-machine successor, the T-800. Sarah and Reese successfully destroyed one of these in The Terminator, but fragments survived destruction and were (paradoxically) used to create SkyNet. So, not only is Judgement Day not averted, SkyNet is even more advanced in the version of 2029 seen in Terminator 2 than the 2029 we see glimpses of in The Terminator. Sarah and Reese arguably made things worse, for SkyNet developed the more high-tech liquid metal Terminator model T-1000. The events of T2 delay Judgement Day until July 24, 2004. Around 2032, SkyNet developed the even more advanced T-X (a hybridized model utilizing both an endoskeleton and a liquid metal skin) seen in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. SkyNet also evidences an enhanced sense of aesthetics, as the T-X is markedly more sexy.

The adult John Connor we see in Terminator 4 has not yet become the leader of the resistance that nearly defeats SkyNet in the future of The Terminator. So, in Terminator Salvation, what does he think when he’s presented with a plan to permanently defeat SkyNet? Does he know the plan is doomed to fail because he knows his future self will still be fighting SkyNet in the future? In which case, why bother to help? It might be in his best interests to actively thwart the plan.

Also, how does SkyNet know in 2018 that John Connor and Kyle Reese must be assassinated? Neither has yet become a leader. Neither has time travel been invented (yet), so SkyNet can’t know (once again, yet) what these two humans will become, or that SkyNet in the future will try at least three times to kill John before Judgement Day.

The easy way out of these questions already exists in the Terminator canon: according to the rules of time travel as established in the Terminator universe, the timeline is not fixed, and may be altered. This conceit only raises more questions: if the plan succeeds, he will never become the leader of the resistance. He will never send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, and he will have never existed to put in motion his plan to save humanity. If he succeeds, will he be erased from history? If so, why do we not seem him grapple with this interesting existential question onscreen? Would this not be the entire point of finally revisiting the long-running character of John Connor as an adult? It would seem the filmmakers are more interested in special effects spectacle than character or deeper themes.

Edward Furlong, Christian Bale, Nick Stahl, and Michael Edwards as John Connor in The Terminator moviesThree movies, four John Connors: Edward Furlong (Terminator 2), Nick Stahl (Terminator 3), Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation), Michael Edwards (Terminator 2)

All of which brings me to my biggest philosophical problem with the core of the entire Terminator concept: what makes John Connor so important? Terminator Salvation is the first installment in the story to finally depict him in action as the mature rebel leader SkyNet is so afraid of. But the most influential acts of leadership we see are mere motivational radio addresses meant to inspire a defeated humanity to keep fighting, a far cry from the messianic military commander that will supposedly lead humanity to its salvation. His supposed destiny is described by the cynical General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) as a religious prophecy. I would have liked to see more doubt on the part of the resistance that he’s anything special, at least yet. But instead, he inspires blind loyalty (except for a colleague’s act of spectacular treachery in releasing a cyborg mole, whom they have every right to believe is a SkyNet agent). Also, why doesn’t anybody just call him “John” or “Connor” or “hey you”? He’s apparently so important that everyone always refers to him by his full name, perhaps so the audience is perpetually reminded of his portentous initials, which rather obviously reflect the character’s creator James Cameron, as well as another mythological savior of humanity from two millennia past.


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Apocalypse Porn: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation movie poster

 

Terminator Salvation was released in a year curiously rife with apocalypse porn. The visions of world’s end in theaters that year varied wildly in tone: everything from illuminating art to alarmism to escapism. The competition to bum you out included Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which utilized the best special effects technology money could buy to depict the systematic destruction of international landmarks, and John Hillcoat’s The Road (read The Dork Report review), which imagined the scattered remnants of humanity scrabbling to survive in a world they may have themselves decimated, but long past a point where blame had any meaning. Technology is both destroyer and salvation in Terminator and 2012, but largely irrelevant to the stragglers clinging to life in The Road. All of humanity’s inventions are gone, and give neither aid nor harm.

For the Terminator series to be such a long-lasting mass entertainment is odd, considering it is set in a desolate, post-nuclear-war world ruled by a self-aware artificial intelligence. It would seem that a distrust of technology and fear of world war is a perpetual motivation to go to the cinema. James Cameron’s original science fiction nightmare is vintage 1984, with old-school optical special effects and stop motion animation that, depending on your point of view, are either quaint or relics of a lost era of handmade moviemaking. But its core concept was strong enough to become archetypal of an entire genre, inspiring countless derivative works. The Wachowski Brothers stole it outright for The Matrix, where self-aware computer programs turn against the human civilization that created them, like the Terminators before them. The Terminators stage a malicious holocaust of pure extermination, but the Matrix programs instead virtually enslave the human race while they feed on giant electrical batteries comprised of farmed human bodies. While the eponymous Matrix was a weapon of fratricide, The Terminators were instead locked in a game of time-travel chess. But in each case, the offspring of humanity are afflicted with profound Freudian complexes: they are fixated on consuming their parents.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington in Terminator SalvationThat’s so $&#%ing unprofessional, you $&#%ing cyborg infiltration unit!

The cast of Terminator Salvation was more populated with famous names than it needed to be. Christian Bale is now the fourth actor to play the role of humanity’s savior John Connor, and with apologies to Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Thomas Dekker, the first marquee name. One need look no further to spot the biggest gamble this film makes: nobody went to see any of the previous three Terminator films because they were fascinated by the good guy. From the very beginning, the big draw for audiences (and the plum role for any actor looking to make a splash) was the villain. The eponymous cyborg antagonist James Cameron created quickly became iconic and launched bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hollywood stardom and, even more implausibly, a political career.

Bale is coming from an entirely different place than a ‘roided-up Austrian amateur thespian in 1984. Bale is a capital-S Serious Actor, from the very beginning of his career as the child lead in Steven Spielberg’s still under-appreciated Empire of the Sun through to his modern resurgence in Mary Harron’s controversial American Psycho. Like Brando and Crowe before him, Bale comes across as an angry and humorless guy — possibly even unstable — in most of his roles and even his public persona. Indeed, rumors of his ill temper were seemingly confirmed by his infamous eruption on the set of Terminator Salvation in July 2008.

Terminator SalvationThis is as good a place as any to ask: why do the Terminator movies refer to these as “endoskeletons”? Isn’t that redundant?

A pessimist might even imagine Bale’s histrionics part of a publicity campaign to create awareness and positive buzz — not just for a movie that studio executives might consider an unsure prospect in need of a marketing boost, but even to cement his own sexy reputation as a loose cannon or Hollywood bad boy. In the end, a hissy fit thrown by a handsome and overpaid celebrity wasn’t enough to prevent minor box office disappointment and tepid reviews, (a modest 52% on Metacritic). At the very least, Bale’s tabloid presence helped most of the celebrity obsessed world become aware that there was a new Terminator film coming out, when previously only Comic-Con attending sci-fi geeks had been paying attention. Personally, knowing about Bale’s tantrum beforehand actually took me out of the experience of watching the film on its own merits. I was continuously distracted by wondering which particular scene stressed him out enough to blow his top.

Bale’s prickly persona might make him eminently suitable for roles like the driven resistance leader John Connor, but it makes his range seem quite limited. He employs the exact same set of mannerisms he used for Bruce Wayne in Batman and The Dark Knight (read The Dork Report review): a hoarse voice, tensed posture, and lowered-head thousand-yard stare. Bale may play the top-billed role in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, but he is arguably not the real protagonist in either and is overshadowed by Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), The Joker (Heath Ledger), and Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) — both in terms of screen time as well as actorly showiness. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice on Bale’s part to seek out essentially supporting parts in which he allows his character to be subordinate to a cast ostensibly billed below his name. Fittingly, Bale was to earn an Oscar the next year for an actual supporting role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, so at least in one case his real-life persona completed its redemption arc, if his Terminator role John Connor didn’t.

Moon Bloodgood in Terminator SalvationMoon Bloodgood checks behind her for her character’s motivation. It’s got to be around this wasteland someplace.

I have nothing to back this allegation up, but I’ve heard rumors that the original script for what became Terminator Salvation centered around the characters of Marcus (Worthington) and Reese (Anton Yelchin). Worthington and Yelchin would have shared the focus, while the character of John Connor was relegated to a cameo appearance, but the role was greatly expanded when Christian Bale became attached. This rumor could account for the relative richness (albeit truncated) of the Marcus character arc, as compared to the one-note Connor. It would have served both characters better had the movie focused on just one tortured male savior.

Director McG’s Terminator Salvation is by no means equal to James Cameron’s two original films, but it’s really not all that terrible, and certainly better than Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. My theory is very simple: it’s too grim. The first three movies all had some degree of humor, but Terminator Salvation’s trailers and TV commercials made no attempt to tart it up as a good time. By far the highlight for the audience I saw it with was the sudden appearance of a famous T-800 model Terminator, not entirely successfully realized by applying a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger head atop bodybuilder Roland Kickinger. If a little less than convincing, it at least provided some relief from the oppressive apocalyptic despair. Also, a newly recorded voiceover cameo by Linda Hamilton was a nice touch for nostalgic fans. The always entertainingly eccentric Helena Bonham Carter appears in an significant cameo, with Bryce Dallas Howard in a totally inconsequential part that could have gone to a newcomer. Following the established rules of action flicks (perhaps best exemplified by Cameron’s Aliens), the cast includes the requisite cute kid, but thankfully she’s mute.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Terminator SalvationYes, Bryce Dallas Howard is in this movie, for some reason. Still doing penance for The Lady in the Water, perhaps?

I was able to go along with the plot for the most part, but found the reduction and oversimplification frustrating. A global war against artificially aware machines is condensed down to a hand-to-hand battle with a single T-800 on a factory floor — a self-conscious retread of the climax of the original film. But perhaps this is a better dramatic choice than what Cameron did in Aliens, which excessively multiplied the single alien threat of Ridley Scott’s original, effectively diminishing the core premise that was appealing in the first place: an almost indestructible creature driven by pure biological instinct, not malice.

Another fatal flaw with Terminator Salvation is a consistent problem with many characters’ comically blasé reactions to extraordinary situations. Connor’s right-hand man Reese rescues a guy who claims never to have seen a Terminator before, or even know what year it is. But Reese simply answers his questions, and never wonders just where the hell this weirdo’s been the past few years. Also, I understand Williams (Moon Bloodgood) bonding with Marcus after he rescues her from gang rape, but she risks the safety of an entire human outpost when she decides to free him. This choice goes beyond understandable impulsiveness and into the realm of lunacy.

Also curious is an apparent lack of imagination in realizing futuristic technology. We’re told the Terminators communicate over old-school shortwave, so evidently SkyNet hasn’t taken over the satellite network and blanketed the planet in Wi-Fi or 3G. Maybe the robots found their reception was as bad as Manhattan AT&T subscribers. I won’t go into how the gleamingly sleek SkyNet HQ includes fancy touchscreen graphical user interfaces designed for humans, or how Connor miraculously witnesses a nearby nuclear explosion without being atomized by the shockwave, or at least going blind or contracting radiation sickness. Such a thin line between suspension of disbelief (for the purposes of thrills & spills) and sheer stupidity would bother any viewer with half a brain, whether the other half is cybernetic or not.


Official movie site: terminatorsalvation.warnerbros.com

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