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

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:

 

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 coöper­a­tion, 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