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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Set Phasers to Awesome: Star Trek

Star Trek movie poster


Like the 1966 Corvette a reckless young James Tiberius Kirk commandeers in an early sequence, the new Star Trek is precision-crafted for speed, sex appeal, and total awesomeness. Kirk launches that beautiful machine off a cliff, but thankfully director J.J. Abrams never does the same with the movie. Star Trek (the first in the franchise to go by the perfectly terse name of the original TV series) joins the rarified ranks of the few other modern blockbusters that thrill and entertain (not to mention cost and earn massive piles of money) yet have lasting merit. Make room on the DVD shelf for a new entry in the canon, alongside Jaws, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man 2.

Trek has a long tradition of utilizing the science fiction conceits of time travel and alternate dimensions to playfully subvert its characters and mythos. The original series introduced the Mirror Universe, giving the cast the chance to reinterpret their goodly characters in hairier, eviler alter egos. Two of the best movies brought the Enterprise back in time, first to save the whales in the 1980s (in the lighthearted Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), and later to witness Earthlings’ first contact with an alien race in 2063 (in the underrated Star Trek VIII: First Contact). Two of my personal favorite Next Generation episodes “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “All Good Things” tasked Captain Picard with course-correcting an Enterprise skipping through time, no matter the sacrifice. The fun in these kinds of stories comes not just from their brain-teasing sci-fi concepts, but in enjoying new twists on the established characters fans love. But any real innovations were always only temporary, the status quo always quickly restored in time (so to speak) for the next episode.

Anton Yelchin, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana in Star Trekall hands on deck

Thus, the Star Trek franchise has managed to maintain a single (albeit massively complicated) timeline across six TV series, ten movies, and countless novels and comic books. There’s even a niche market in the continuity data itself, as evidenced by popular wikis like Memory Alpha and reference tomes such as Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future. Such catalogs of the incredibly complex future “history” in which Trek is set are useful not only to obsessive fans, but also to the writers charged with creating new stories that don’t contradict what came before, at least too badly.

A certain degree of renewal was already built right in to Star Trek. When any one premise ran out of ideas, an ensemble aged beyond plausibility, or ratings dipped, the producers could always start over with a new ship, a new space station, or in a new year. The most radical departure yet attempted was the ultimately disappointing final series, Enterprise. The prequel, set years before Kirk would take the helm, got off to a great start with a Starfleet crew a world apart from any we had seen before. As many have pointed out over the years, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry may have modeled Starfleet on the Navy, but the original 1960s series was basically a Western set in space. The 1980s The Next Generation reconceived Starfleet as kind of trans-species peacekeeping fleet, a kind of U.N. of The Milky Way. So, set between Earthlings’ rough-and-tumble early spacefaring years and the later idealistic intergalactic cooperation, Enterprise featured a bunch of cocky cowboys brazenly taking their values out with them into space, baseball caps firmly screwed on heads, and phasers defiantly set to kill. The series seemed poised to be a somewhat obvious but fruitful metaphor for an arrogant, George W. Bush-era United States forcibly spreading democracy where it wasn’t welcome. But its quality (both in writing and in special effects budget) bottomed out in just a few episodes, and even the smoking-hot, well-endowed Vulcan T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) couldn’t keep the show on the air.

Zoe Saldana in Star TrekUhura models the latest in 23rd Century Bluetooth fashions

The entire Star Trek franchise seemed all but dead after Enterprise‘s cancellation, not unlike the no-win scenario Spock devises as a test to torture Starfleet cadets to see how they cope with failure. A cherished part of Star Trek lore is that Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, and thus cheated in order to win Spock’s unwinnable test. Paramount evidently learned a lesson from Kirk’s lateral thinking, for the first they they have given the OK to an irreverent new creative team to permanently reboot Trek from top to bottom. Nearly all of Trek’s meticulously maintained continuity (excepting, ironically, the failed Enterprise, set chronologically before any of the events of this movie) has now forever been redefined as belonging to an alternate timeline. At least, that is, until the next reboot. As the heavily-advertised appearance of Leonard Nimoy as the original “Spock Prime” attests, nothing necessarily precludes the reappearance of any beloved original actors or other kinds of crossovers between timelines (anything in possible in science fiction). But Star Trek does mark a very clear end to Star Trek as we knew it.

After 40 years of unreliable quality control and diminishing box office, such drastic measures were arguably essential to preserve Trek as a viable franchise. But I do sympathize with the grumbling of longtime fans upset at scrapping everything and starting over. And this is not even to mention the many writers, directors, and actors that created the no-longer canonical stories. All of which hasn’t disappeared from our reality, and will be enjoyed forever on DVD, but this film does render pretty much everything that came before it as second-class Trek. I can’t help but wonder how all future spinoffs are now going to be handled on a practical level. For instance, if there are to be future comics or novels featuring the characters from The Next Generation, are the physical products going to have to be labelled as taking place in the now-depricated original fictional universe? How does “Trek Classic” and “Neu Trek” sound?

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star TrekSpock has had enough Kirk and can’t take it anymore

But back to the topic at hand: the totally awesome new movie is packed with glossy art direction, genuinely exciting special effects, fight scenes, chase sequences, and attractive young actors young and attractive enough to strut about on the big screen in their space scanties. Despite all this gloss, it somehow manages to not be totally stupid, which is more than This Dork Reporter can say about your typical summer movie (*cough* Transformers *cough*). However, I can’t help but point out a few, forgive me, illogical plot elements, especially in the mad rush towards the end:

  • Why does Kirk bother firing upon Nero’s ship as it’s being torn apart by a black hole? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe Kirk feared Nero would time travel yet again to create mischief in yet another timeline (hey, there’s always the inevitable next reboot in a few years).
  • Starfleet is busy elsewhere in the galaxy, so we see the cadets mobilized into a strike force to confront Nero. So why is the Academy still full of students when Nero’s ship reaches Earth? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe they were Freshmen not qualified to do more than merely swab the decks.
  • It’s wildly implausible for young Spock to maroon Kirk on the same planet that Nero did Spock Prime. The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: nope, I got nothing. I mean, really, come on! (but still, the movie is awesome, just go with it)
  • The hardest plot point to swallow is why Spock Prime does not accompany Kirk back to the Enterprise. Would he really risk the fate of Earth because he thinks it’s more important that Kirk and his young self forge their destined friendship? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: yes.

But enough complaining. Did I mention the movie is TEH AWESOME? There’s not one bad performance to drag things down (a notable problem with Watchmen – read The Dork Report review). Despite being tasked with recreating characters beloved by fans for over 40 years, no one attempts an outright imitation or caricature. The most faithful is Zachary Quinto as Spock. Beyond his eerie physical resemblance to Nimoy (maybe not how he actually looked in 1966, but how he might have), he has a fresh take that plays up the character’s internal struggle between emotion and logic. Chris Pine artfully embodies Kirk’s blend of righteous nobility and brash rule-busting attitude without aping William Shatner’s famously hammy style (for which we all, admit it, love him). Karl Urban nails Bones as a seasick pessimist, and Zoe Saldana and John Cho bring welcome sass and physical action hero prowess to Uhura and Sulu, two characters often left on the sidelines. Only Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg come close to overdoing it. Pegg mugs and shouts, playing Scotty as much more of a mad Scotsman than James Doohan ever did, and Yelchin overexaggerates Chekov’s accent for pure comedy. But that’s not to say both performances aren’t hugely entertaining, just like everything else on display.

Simon Pegg in Star TrekPegg gives Scotty’s accent all she’s got, Captain!

Star Trek goes much much further with Spock’s half-human nature than any of the Trek I’ve seen. Spock was such a key ingredient that almost every version of Trek that followed was obligated to include a similar character: most obviously the android Data (Brent Spiner) in The Next Generation. We are reminded the Vulcan species is not naturally emotionless, as many casual fans assume, but rather a deeply passionate people that holds its warlike nature in check by elevating logic to the level of religion. A purely devout Vulcan would be about as dramatically interesting as a robot (but it must be said that even Spock’s father Sarek (Ben Cross), a high-ranking Vulcan elder, privately admits to being moved by the irrational emotion of love). The aged Spock Prime is practically jovial, seemingly having come to terms with his duality. It’s actually rather heartwarming for a longtime fan to see him at a place of peace with himself.

I have room for one more small complaint: there’s an overreliance on clichéd father issues as easy story shortcuts to define character, for which I blame J.J. Abrams. Both Kirk and Spock are torn between rebelling against and owning up to their respective heroic, accomplished fathers. Abrams also built his TV series Alias and Lost upon the same dramatic crutch, in which seemingly every character is primarily motivated by strained relationships with absent and/or bad fathers (e.g. Sydney, Jack, Locke, Kate, Miles, etc…). One wonders, statistically speaking, how many people in the world actually do have such complicated relationships with their dads. Maybe those that do are just more likely to make their careers writing scripts for Hollywood.

None of the many Trek sequels, prequels, or spinoffs to date have ever reached the mythic status of the original series and its core dynamic duo Kirk and Spock. Star Trek makes a bold bid to reclaim what made the original such a phenomenon: it goes back to the original scenario and characters, and thoroughly remasters, reinvigorates, reinvents, and gives them a swift kick in the ass. It restores the names Kirk and Spock to the realm of legends and icons.

Official movie site: www.startrekmovie.com