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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As You Like It (2007)

As You Like It movie poster

 

I’ve been a Kenneth Branagh fan ever since seeing the joyous trifle Much Ado About Nothing on a date with my first girlfriend in high school. Probably to my date’s dismay, it was also the moment I fell passionately in love with Emma Thompson. Later, I enjoyed his down and dirty Henry V, the Hitchcockian noir Dead Again, the over-the-top-and-beyond bombast of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even met another future girlfriend at Hamlet. But As You Like It is decidedly lacking in Branagh’s proven flair for translating theatre to the medium of cinema. In the US at least, it was originally intended for theatrical release through Picturehouse, but went straight to HBO.

Having never read the play nor seen it performed, I’ll cop to having done a little cramming on Wikipedia, the 21st Century answer to Cliff’s Notes. Branagh has relocated the action from a duchy in France to an enclave of expatriate Europeans in 19th century Japan, but to what advantage? There is little sense of a European community abroad in an alien land; in fact very few Asian actors appear at all, even in the background. A silently-staged ninja attack is a promising opening, but ultimately disappointing to arthouse audiences with highbrow wire-fu expectations raised after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Bryce Dallas Howard in As You Like ItRosalind & Celia’s pretty frocks

Obviously a low-budget film, As You Like It suffers in ways that similarly-priced movies made virtue. Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors, for example, made the cheap sets part of the fun, and beat Branagh by a few years to the device of an epilogue featuring an ensemble cast breaking the fourth wall by literally walking off-set and behind the camera.

As You Like ItClash of the diapers

Other miscellaneous disappointments:

• There’s an over-reliance on long, clumsy steadycam takes, especially one fumbled shot in which Kevin Kline’s face is obscured throughout most of his delivery of the play’s most famous monologue: “All the world’s a stage…”

• With a private English garden standing in for the forests of Japan, the overcast weather mutes the color palette. The most vibrant colors are the occasional blossoming tree and the pretty frocks worn by Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia (Romola Garai).

• Brian Blessed (a regular in Branagh’s company) doesn’t do nearly enough of his trademark shouting. Perhaps he was afraid to rupture the delicate Howard’s eardrums.

• The omnipresent score is really, really bad.

• And finally, As You Like It sports what must be the cheapest fake lion in cinema history; it was probably possible to stage something more convincing on the stage in Shakespeare’s day.


Official movie site: www.hbo.com/films/asyoulikeit

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The Lady in the Water

The Lady in the Water movie poster

 

I don’t know where to start with this one. I’ve been a M. Night Shyamalan fan from the very beginning, even when the role was better described as apologist. Even to a fan, nearly every film comes with a "yeah, but…" disclaimer: The Sixth Sense is an excellent piece of slight-of-hand with some genuine emotion, but let down by an extended montage at the end recapping events recontextualized by the already-clear Big Plot Reveal. Unbreakable, my personal favorite, is a remarkably mature character piece on a real-world Superman, but whose comic-book origins probably alienated a mainstream audience that wants its comic book movies clearly signposted by garish costumes and action set pieces. Signs is a perfectly crafted sci-fi thriller that doubles as a wildly funny comedy (an intentional one, I should be clear… more on that later), but the delicious suspense is nearly ruined in the end by the filmmakers’ overconfidence in their shoddy CGI alien.

The Shyamalan backlash started as soon as The Sixth Sense, perhaps in direct correlation with its box office take, with people falling over themselves claiming to have detected the Big Plot Reveal well ahead of time. But with The Village, the time for fans’ dithering began: if not nearly as bad as its critical reception, it was a disappointment. A promising scernario satirizing the contemporary situation in Bush’s color-coded police state is stifled by a lack of humor uncharacteristic for the director, not to mention an underwhelming twist ending without the emotional punch of The Sixth Sense.

The classic Shyamalan film is a schematicly constructed jigsaw, which in itself is a great pleasure. But in The Lady in the Water, the tail wags the dog to an even greater degree than The Village. Humorless, pretentious, and forehead-slappingly… well, sorry for the cheap shot… stupid.