Criticizing the plots of popcorn action blockbusters is usually a fool’s errand. Nobody cares if Hobbs & Shaw makes any sense, but surely it’s fair game in the Terminator franchise, where untangling pseudo-scientific time travel logic is 99% of the fun.
So the biggest disappointment of Dark Fate (other than its singularly unmemorable title, and the cruel execution of a digital Edward Furlong avatar) is that it offhandedly tosses its biggest question marks into a trashcan of exposition. I’m glad this movie revolves around three women, and relegates Schwarzenegger to a supporting role, but it seems to me that if your story involves a robot assassin that reprograms itself for good, after a lifetime of guilt and regret, that deserves more than a few perfunctory lines of exposition.
While we’re on the topic of telling-not-showing: Dark Fate introduces a new, rather creepy idea to the clichéd evil A.I. subgenre. Rather than a diabolical Matrix-style plan to subjugate humanity, the A.I. in Dark Fate simply turns off the world’s power and then sits patiently on its circuitry butt for a few decades while most of humanity kills itself off. Again, like Schwarzenegger’s Cyberdyne T-800 developing a conscience offscreen, this is far more interesting than any of the car chases or plane crashes.
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:
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 Wachowskis 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.
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 infamouseruption on the set of Terminator Salvation in July 2008.
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: 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.
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.
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.
Avatar is the perfect distillation of all of James Cameron’s worst tendencies: an obsession with the marine corps (while trying to have it both ways: worshipping the hardware and lingo, but casting them as villains), embarrassingly heinous dialogue (undercutting every dramatic moment with somebody droning flat one-liners like “oh shit” or “this’ll ruin my day”), a token wise Latina available for cleavage and wisecracks (Michelle Rodriguez, more wise than most of the white and/or blue people, anyway), a greater interest in technology over people (both on screen and behind the scenes), and a core anti-war message contradicted by glorified slaughter and explosions.
If Cameron had a purpose in mind for Avatar other than as a showreel of the latest technological breakthroughs, it seems to be an endorsement of violent protest. If so, the civilian population of Iran might find something of interest here. More the pity the Na’vi didn’t happen to be green, in which case critics might be discussing the film in terms of current events instead of being distracted by the shiny special effects masking the soulless narrative and blank acting (with the significant exception of a very funny Giovanni Ribisi and especially Zoe Saldaña, who manages to make an impression despite not technically appearing on screen — as a conventional photograph, anyway).
The official Avatar talking points require mention of the sundry technological breakthroughs that come tethered to every Cameron film, mostly having to do with computers. The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) were relatively quaint in their utilization of models and stop-motion animation, but The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and Titanic (1997) each debuted incrementally advanced computer animation techniques, for the first time fully integrated with live action photography. I clearly recall watching T2 with an audience gasping and applauding in amazement during a shot in which the liquid metal robot T-1000 (Robert Patrick) literally turned itself inside out. There’s nothing in Avatar to compare to that communal moment of delighted awe in 1991; my 2010 Avatar audience oohed and aahed during the first 3D effects visible in the attached trailers (mostly for disposable kiddie movies like Despicable Me), but our eyeballs were already beaten into submission by the time the main feature rolled, and the packed house sat silently through the 162 minute-long barrage of computer-processed flim-flam.
I’ll spend a paragraph on the positive: Steven Soderbergh, who previously collaborated with Cameron on Solaris, reportedly said after seeing the film that “There’s gonna be before that movie and after“. It is inarguable that Avatar marks the tipping point in at least two key filmmaking techniques we’re certain to see even more of in the immediate future: 3D photography and virtual filmmaking (the congruence of photorealistic CGI with motion capture, basically a turbocharged update to the old practice of rotoscoping). The superlative 3D is applied equally well to both the live-action and animated sequences (indeed, most of the film is a melding of the two). It’s more refined and subtle than any 3D film I’ve seen before, including U23D, Beowulf, and Coraline, all of which resorted to in-your-face showing off common since the early days of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Meanwhile, the motion-captured CGI characters are even more smoothly integrated with live-action photography than previous high-water marks like the T-1000 in T2, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that’s not even to mention the startlingly detailed and immersive computer-generated backgrounds and environments.
The other big talking point is of course its staggering expense. It’s hard to remember now, years after Titanic‘s box office receipts broke records worldwide, but its $200 million budget was originally an object of ridicule and put the very existence of two vast corporations at stake (20th Century Fox and Paramount). Avatar inflates the accountants’ calculations to the insane level of circa $237 million, but Cameron’s instincts appear again to have been right; Avatar has already (at this time of writing) earned a billion dollars worldwide, a mere two weeks after release.
As guest blogger Snarkbait wisely predicts, 10 years from now Avatar‘s special effects will be laughable, and all that will be left is the story. And when that story is a warmed-over retelling of the European conquest of America (more recently retold in Terrence Malick’s The New World and as SlashFilm notes, Disney’s Pocahontas) set in a sci-fi world seemingly stolen from the paintings of Roger Dean, isn’t the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of technology and years of production all for naught? It’s impossible not to compare this folly to the Star Wars prequels, made long after Lucas fell down the rabbit hole of obsession with filmmaking technology and no longer had anyone around him willing or capable to say no. This blogger happened to watch (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air right before and after Avatar, and can attest that there is no substitute for good writing and acting. People will still be rewatching films like those long after Avatar is forgotten.
Must read: The blog Papyrus Watch catches the use of the cliched font in the movie logo and subtitles. Papyrus was designed in 1982 and is now commonly found preinstalled on most computers.