Some Closing Thoughts…

May 27th, 2009


Just about every review of Terminator Salvation (including my own) said the exact same thing: super cool action scenes, but poor character development, pacing, acting, direction, etc. etc. etc.

The unanimous response to this film got me thinking… Because the truth is, I’m somewhat conflicted when it comes to a movie like Terminator Salvation and its subsequent treatment by critics and audiences.

On the one hand, I’m the biggest proponent of treating “blockbusters” and “popcorn flicks” as legitimate works of art. God’s honest truth (and I say this as a somewhat serious film scholar) is that I don’t see much of a distinction between Die Hard and Citizen Kane. In my eyes, John McLane’s battles say just as much about society and the human condition as Orson Welles ever did. A good movie is a good movie – genre shouldn’t get in the way. So, that being the case, I hold blockbusters to a higher standard. When I go to see a sci-fi/action/fantasy/sex comedy/western/whatever, I expect to see some deep stuff and be moved on one level or another.

But on the other hand… When did we start needing more from our action movies? It seems like nowadays even the most average of filmgoers expect deep philosophy and explorations of existential conundrums in movies about time traveling robots. (And obviously I’m including myself in that category.) The guys who made Terminator Salvation told us they were going to make a movie about robots who blow stuff up. And that’s exactly what they gave us. But for some reason this wasn’t enough.

There was a time (not all that long ago…) when cool special effects and exploding gas stations wrapped around a story of good vs. evil would have been enough for me. Case in point: 1997’s Air Force One. The Harrison-Ford-is-an-ass-kicking-president flick was my idea of a perfect movie when it came out. The premise was simple: Mr. Ford’s family is taken hostage, so he shoots up an airplane until he gets them back. I loved it! But ten years later, when they decided to make the exact same movie – 2006’s Firewall, where Ford’s family is taken hostage so he shoots up a room full of supercomputers until he gets them back – I kinda hated it. I was bored, I thought it was dumb, and I wondered why I was wasting my time when I could have been reading a book or doing a Sudoku or anything else that would make me seem like a cultured, intelligent member of society.

Now, there are several reasons why one might enjoy Air Force One more than Firewall (Gary Oldman is a way better villain than Paul Bettany, Wolfgang Petersen is a more talented director than Joe Forte, thriller movies are always better on a plane…), but I seriously think that our tastes in the popular have been warped by high concept genre movies like The Matrix, The Dark Knight, and The Bourne Ultimatum.

In other words, the times they are a changin’, and 90s rehash like the Terminator no longer holds sway over our collective imagination.

This probably all sounds completely negative, but it’s really just my roundabout way of saying that Terminator Salvation may be the last great action movie.

Seriously. Hear me out.

When the world’s major superpower is stuck in the middle of an ethically questionable war, and the rest of us are dealing with economic meltdown, and pigs are bringing about the apocalypse, we tend to lean towards stories about morally-complex antiheroes plunging headfirst into unwinnable conflicts and tragic last stands. So I guess we no longer have time for old fashioned stories where the good guys ride to victory as the bad guys retreat to their fortress to plot their revenge for the sequel. Which is precisely the kind of movie Terminator Salvation is. It’s an old school action flick of the kind they don’t make anymore. So while I was busy searching for answers to the deep questions of life, I fear I might have missed a wicked genre movie.

Are we a generation of intellectually-superior super-cynics, or have the kids who grew up with Terminator and Predator finally reached adulthood? I don’t know… But I will say this: I will never stop searching for the great mind-bending, life-altering action movie, but that’s no reason to ignore the McGs of the world. Sometimes a little escapism is a good thing.

In other words, I’ll be waiting for T5.

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Still Need More Terminator?

May 25th, 2009

fromtheashes1Still haven’t had your fill of Terminator goodness? Still need more killer robot action to tide you over until the DVD comes out?

Well then you might want to check out Timothy Zahn’s prequel novel Terminator Salvation: From the Ashes.

As a stuffy English major, I usually have nothing but disdain for movie tie-in books, for the simple reason that they’re rarely any good.

But two things set From the Ashes apart from your standard movie novel. For starters, this is not the regular novelization of Terminator Salvation that just rehashes what you saw on screen. Rather, this is a legitimate prequel that details the events leading up to the opening minutes of the film, meaning that this is brand spanking new content that you will not see in theatres.

But the real reason I decided to check out From the Ashes was because it was written by none other than Timothy Zahn. Zahn’s name may be unfamiliar to the layman, but he’s nothing short of a hero to Star Wars fans. In the early 90s, Zahn penned a trilogy of much-loved novels that continued the Star Wars saga following the events of Return of the Jedi. Any Star Wars nerd worth his salt will tell you that Zahn’s trilogy is way better than anything George Lucas has produced in the last twenty years. These books (along with several other Star Wars novels) played a big part in my childhood and (unfortunately?) influenced my taste in literature for years to come.

So obviously I had to pick up Zahn’s Terminator novel.

Now, I should say right away that From the Ashes is a far cry from Zahn’s best work. If you’re expecting another Heir to the Empire, you’re in the wrong place. In fact, From the Ashes betrays many of the trademark weaknesses of movie novelizations. It’s fairly evident that Zahn was working on a deadline, and there are several awkward points in the novel that feel rushed.

But none of these weaknesses stop From the Ashes from being an incredibly fun ride. Not only do you get plenty of high-flying action sequences, but the novel also includes much of the character development missing from the film. John Connor and Kyle Reese take center stage, and both men get the chance to tell their own story. Furthermore, background characters like Bryce Dallas Howard’s Kate Connor and Common’s Barnes, who were largely ignored in the film, get their chance to shine in Zahn’s novel.

So pick up From the Ashes. It’s not about to win the Pulitzer, but it’s tailor made for Terminator fans who want to delve a little further into the war against the machines.

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What Next?

May 23rd, 2009


WARNING! This post contains spoilers for Terminator Salvation.

Whether you thought it was brilliant or thought it was crap, it’s undeniable that McG has laid the groundwork for an exciting new series of films with Terminator Salvation. The key players have been introduced, the conflict between man and the machines has been reignited, and the Connor family is together again for the first time since T2. And seeing as contracts have already been signed, it seems inevitable that we’ll be seeing another Terminator movie within the next few years.

So the question is, where do we go from here?

To recap, Terminator Salvation ends with John Connor winning a decisive battle against Skynet at the precise moment when the entire human Admiralty is wiped out, meaning that all the pieces have fallen into place for Connor, who is now seen by the majority of the survivors as nothing short of a religious icon, to take control of the Resistance once and for all.

But the war is far from won. Skynet has perfected its ultimate weapon in the form of the T-800, and the Resistance has suffered a crushing setback following the destruction of its aquatic headquarters.

So, to sum it up in the most grandiose terms possible, the stage is set for the final battle where good will triumph over evil and all that other cool Biblical victory stuff.

The way I see it, a sequel to Terminator Salvation could be what X-Men 2 is to X-Men 1 (or, for those of an older generation, what Wrath of Khan is to Star Trek: The Motion Picture). The boring origins plot is out of the way, and now we can get to the good stuff.

For example, now that John Connor has met up with his teenage future-dad Kyle Reese, we can see the super-angsty interactions between father and son. I have the sneaking suspicion that many Terminator fans were frustrated by the fact that T4 glossed over the highly problematic relationship between John and Kyle. We’d been waiting twenty-five years to see these two finally meet each other, and unfortunately any deep conversations were interrupted by a surprise appearance from Arnold (which was totally awesome, so I really shouldn’t complain). But I guess I have to respect McG for not trying to shoehorn that conversation into the last ten minutes of Salvation. Rather, he put it on hold for the next installment when he’ll have time to handle it properly… which is an incredibly gutsy move, but he does deserve points for sheer confidence.

And then there’s the issue of time travel. If it needs saying again, here goes: I freaking love time travel. So I’m glad that McG has assured us that any future Terminator movies will focus on the mythical time displacement field. The time travel machine is the last big mystery in the series, and I’m glad that instead of being dropped into the background, it’s getting its own movie.

But then there’s the issue of Marcus Wright…

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Marcus shuffles off this mortal coil with a classic redemptive, heroic sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean he’s gone. In fact, McG mentioned in an interview a few days ago that he’d like to return to Marcus’s character and explain his origins in the sequel.

And I think that would be a big mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, Marcus was a cool character and Worthington played him well, but it felt like Marcus was taking time away from the stuff we really wanted to see – like the John/Kyle dynamic and the issue of time travel. McG seems convinced that Marcus is a stunningly poetic commentary on what it means to be human, but that’s sadly not the case. Marcus is a guy with robot bones, and that’s all. There was no Shakespearean exploration of morality and mortality, nor was there any deep philosophy written into the character. He was just another soldier who happened to have some cool superpowers. I guess what I’m saying is, if it was up to me, I’d put the kibosh on the Marcus storyline. His character ended perfectly, so let’s not beat a dead horse.

But what would you like to see in future Terminator movies? What needs to be answered? What needs to be ignored? Let us know in the comments below!

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the future

Opening Day!

May 21st, 2009


It’s review time!

Considering my wildly enthusiastic rants over the past few weeks, I suppose it’s a forgone conclusion that I liked this movie.

And I abso-freaking-lutely did.

But I have plenty to say about it, so here goes…

Terminator Salvation is easily the second best Terminator movie ever made. Way better than Terminator 3, even better than Cameron’s initial Terminator 1, but just shy of beating out the indomitable Terminator 2 for the top spot. And that’s okay. In my books it would take a filmmaking act of God to surpass that movie.

So what makes Terminator Salvation work?

Well for starters, McG has perfected his trademark stylized action sequences. In Charlie’s Angels 1 and 2, McG experimented with very detailed, long-take action scenes that often relied heavily on computer-generated effects and came off looking slightly cartoony. In Terminator Salvation, McG has erased any of the silliness that plagued his earlier work to create some of the most suspenseful, hyper-realistic one-take action scenes ever captured on film. It reminded me of Children of Men… but, you know, with robots. Truly some of the most amazingly choreographed sequences I’ve seen in a long time. There’s a particularly notable scene at a gas station that’s orchestrated so well it’s downright uncomfortable to watch.

Furthermore, the movie is led by a very strong cast. Right off the bat, I should mention that Anton Yelchin really surprised me, and I suppose I owe him an apology for doubting him. He nails the headstrong teenage attitude of young Kyle Reese without coming off as annoying, which is no easy feat (I’m looking at you, cast of Harry Potter). Sam Worthington also knocks one out of the park as the deeply confused robo-human with a shady past. The guy’s got enough chutzpah to share the screen with Christian Bale, but he’s also got the chops to play the romantic lead. That being said, if Mr. Worthington wants to continue acting in Hollywood, he needs to work on his American accent.

And of course Christian Bale is Christian Bale. If you’ve seen the new Batman movies, you know what to expect. The man is the 21st century action hero.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Terminator Salvation is not without its share of flaws.

For one, I was slightly irked that we didn’t really see anything we haven’t seen before. As I’ve been saying for weeks, I’ve been waiting to see the future war against the machines since I was 15, but what we see in Terminator Salvation doesn’t really advance the master plot in any significant way. John is still waiting to take the reigns as leader of the Resistance, and Skynet is still years away from facing any serious threat from the puny humans. Of course the ride we get is incredibly fun, but I was hoping to head a little further into uncharted territory. That being said, they sure have set things up for an exciting new wave of sequels.

There are also some other picky film critic things that I would be remiss if I didn’t point out. For example, the dialogue is a tad awkward in points (try not to laugh at Marcus Wright’s opening exchange), which shouldn’t be a problem for a Terminator movie, but I guess I was expecting more considering the caliber of writers who worked on the script. There were also some sci-fi nerd issues I had regarding Skynet’s actions… How did it know certain things about the Connor family? Why did it dillydally with Kyle Reese? The answers are all there, I suppose, but it would have been nice to see things spelled out more clearly.

All in all, though, Terminator Salvation is a Terminator fan’s movie. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just another reboot. Far from it, in fact, Terminator Salvation achieves the seemingly impossible goal of creating a movie that’s deeply entrenched in continuity and fan-service, but also manages to create a jumping-on point for new audiences. Furthermore, McG is a man who loves movies. Listening to him in an interview yesterday, it was clear that this is not a guy who’s trying to make the next great art flick. The man has no pretentions. He knows he’s making popcorn blockbusters and he loves it, and that’s why this movie is so darn entertaining, despite some obvious problems. If I had to sum it up, I’d say this: the man put a Great Escape reference in a Terminator movie, and that should only happen in my dreams.

So go check out Terminator Salvation. It lacks some of the depth of T2, but it’s got more than enough to make up for it, and you won’t be disappointed.

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Why Now? – Part 2

May 20th, 2009


Last week I looked back at Terminators 1 through 3 and explored how each movie corresponded to a specific period of technological discourse.

Today I want to look at Terminator Salvation and try my best to understand why this movie is coming out now – because, as a pseudo-cultural historian, that is my absolute favourite question to ask.

Well, right off the bat, I suppose the simple answer is that we’re in the age of reboots. Dead franchises like Batman, James Bond, and Transformers are all proving that starting over from the beginning is a very profitable game. Even plain old sequels to forgotten series are making money (Indiana Jones 4, Die Hard 4, Rocky 6, Rambo 4, etc.) so I guess it’s just time for another Terminator.

But that’s a little too simple and pessimistic an answer for my tastes, so allow me to go further…

As I mentioned earlier, the Terminator franchise has always revolved around our conflicting fear and dependence on technology. And when I say technology, I’m talking everything from nuclear bombs to blackberries to the cotton gin. It’s a discussion about machines. And the first three movies, when viewed as a whole, walk a nice middle line, neither condemning nor praising a techno-society, but suggesting that we might want to keep our eyes open and think about what we’re doing before we go ahead and do it.

So where does Terminator Salvation fit into this equation?

Well, welcome to 2009.

Even in the scant six years between T3 and now, “technology” has advanced to the point where we need to update our discussion. To sum everything up in a nice cynical fashion… now dating is done through Facebook (not to mention the “sexting” craze), every fourth grader needs a cell phone, and “doctors” are seriously starting to believe that technology is making us stupider (though, as a proud member of this new stupid generation, that seems an awful lot like an obsolete generation’s failure to understand their successors – sort of like the generation of parents who hated the Beatles).

So enter Terminator Salvation, where we meet a group of people living on the edge, hoping to build bigger and louder machines in order to defeat the biggest and loudest machines. Guns, planes, cars, even PDAs ensure survival, but a failure to understand basic radio signals spells doom. And the key to winning it all? The one guy who’s half-man and half-machine – Marcus Wright.

To my eyes and ears, Terminator Salvation is a look at a society where an understanding of technology is absolutely necessary to belong. Much like the world I find myself in, if you can’t work with machines, if you don’t know them inside and out, you don’t have a job. (As a writer working on the Internet, I find this highly entertaining.) And the ideal human is the guy who can actually become a machine, but can still cry and feel pain and make heroic sacrifices and all that other mushy “human” stuff.

So I guess what I’m saying is, amidst the unbelievably cool action scenes (which I’ll be talking about tomorrow), Terminator Salvation might just be the most intelligent movie of the summer. McG absolutely nailed the allegory – the “discussion” about technology is over; the machines are here and they won. Now it’s about surviving and fitting in. And hey, it’s not such a bad thing after all. At the end of the day, we’re still people who can fall in love and be heroes and make tough choices, only now we’ve got craigslist.

So check back tomorrow for my review of Terminator Salvation and have an excellent opening day!

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a little philosophy

Chatting with McG

May 19th, 2009