Thursday, 4 June 2009

Film Review: Save me from Terminator Salvation...

I was a bit surprised - but not hugely bothered - when stupidly-named film director McG (previously responsible for two exhausting, barking-mad 'Charlie's Angels' films) was announced as the man behind the camera for 'Terminator Salvation', the latest in the long-running and popular movie SF franchise. You see I'm not really precious about the 'Terminator' saga; I was actually a bit of an Arnie-come-lately (arf arf), only catching up with the first two movies on DVD just before the third movie 'Rise of the Machines' came out a few years back. I enjoyed the films - I'm one of the few who really rates T3 - but I wasn't plunged into pits of despair at being informed that one of Hollywood's more lightweight directors was talking the reins on the latest in what seemed, in any event, like a played-out franchise. I also wasn't, as it turns out, expecting a film like 'Terminator Salvation' which bombarded my senses with explosions, fights, stunts, CGI this and CGI that and left me utterly unmoved, largely disinterested and at times actually quite bored. How odd.

Technically, of course, the film looks astonishing. The aforementioned special effects sequences - and God, there are so many of them that the film is practically one big special effect - look incredible. There's an action scene in the first part of the film involving a giant Terminator and some robot bikes which veers on the breath-taking. Elsewhere there are hordes of flying machines, robots, devastated land and cityscapes and even, believe it or believe it not, the odd explosion. But ultimately none of this matters, this is all just window-dressing and it counts for nothing if it's not supporting a decent story and interesting characters. 'Terminator Salvation' really has neither of these. Set in 2015, years after the Skynet machine revolution has flattened Mankind, an adult John Connor (Christian Bale looking dead-eyed and disinterested but at least not using his ridiculous growling Batman voice) is one the leaders of the human resistance fighting back against Skynet. Along comes Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington, the film's only shining light) who's a bit fuzzy about his past and who harbours some terrible secrets of his own. When the Skynet machines capture hordes of humans (including young Kyle Reese who, for reasons too arcane for me to remember here, is actually John Connor's father...somehow) Connor tries to head off a planned mass assult on Skynet's San Francisco base so the humans can be rescued. And that's more or less your lot...

'Terminator Salvation', despite its big noisy visuals, rarely even threatens to take flight. It's humourless (fatal in SF, a genre which has a tendency to be far too po-faced), the dialogue is perfunctory and forgettable, the characterisation back-of-a-fag-packet stuff. The film looks gunmetal grey and dreary, its colour palette pretty much non-existent; the trouble is we've seen this sort of post-apocalypse wilderness thing once too often, from Mad Max all those years ago down to gubbins like Babylon AD and The Mutant Chronicles and even our own risible Doomsday from last year -it's all unshaven blokes in leather bouncing around in jeeps brandishing big guns. And for a series which started out by giving a big, important role to a female - Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor - the women here get short shrift indeed (Bryce Dallas Howard is criminally wasted) and there's even a sequence where one female character trips and falls during an escape scene and has to be rescued by big butch Marcus. Elsewhere the film evokes Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds', with human being scooped up like dolls and thrown into cages in the backs of Skynet machines and worst of all once or twice I was even reminded of the two best-forgotten 'Matrix' sequels.

'Terminator Salvation' torpedoes itself even more by referencing the series' past - "I'll be back" makes an appearance (the only time the audience reacts to anything on screen) and we get a snatch of Guns'n'Roses' 'You Could Be Mine' from T2 and, of course, Arnie appears courtesy of CGI magic for one fight scene. Unfortunately these little kisses to the past only serve to remind us how much better the old films were and really makes us want to walk out of the theatre and go home and watch one of the originals again.

As the film creaks into its final reel and Marcus infiltrates the top security Skynet installation with about as much difficulty as walking into a public library and John Connor also arrives on the scene ready to usher in more explosions and robot mayhem, I was looking at my watch and even grateful for the distraction of the bloke two seats down who seemed to be determined to send a text message every three minutes. But maybe I'm being a bit too unkind; 'Terminator Salvation' really isn't a bad film, it's just that I like a bit of humour and personality in my movies, especially my fantasy flicks. This is just by-the-numbers SF, a Terminator movie for the sake of it, realising on screen sequences and scenarios the fans have drooled about since those tantalising Terminators-and-tanks-crunching-human-skulls scenes in T2. The reality of all that turns out to be just more grizzled people in tattered clothes rushing around the desert firing guns. I've seen it all before and I've sene it done better.

The greatest irony, perhaps, in 'Terminator Salvation' is that, for a film about the human spirit crushed by the tyranny of the machine rising up and fighting back in the name of Mankind, there's precious little humanity on display here. The people are as mechanical and functional as the machines they're fighting against and, asthe remains of Connor's little band of heroes flies off into the sunset, promising that the battle will continue, I could only hope that no-one out there in Hollywood decides we should see that battle enacted on screen in another 'Terminator' movie. I think I'm done with this series now.

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