I went into this one with low expectations. The director of Charlie’s Angels shooting a movie written by the writers of Catwoman? No thanks! Fortunately I was wrong. Dead wrong. Terminated wrong, even.
‘K, maybe not.
Terminator does not disappoint. The machines are gritty and convincing, the landscape one of deserts and blasted cities, and in true 80s sci-fi tradition, Skynet has built a glowing blue monolith big enough to see from space for its lair. Although the film does not quite mirror James Cameron’s hazy blue hellscapes from Terminator 1 and 2, it belongs to the same world, a world where awful machines try constantly to kill you for no reason. An excellent job is done making the terminators look flashy and new without betraying the industrial asthetic of the original films.
The cinematography is good too. The camera bobs around a lot, but not too much, and action scenes are immersive and well-framed. The effects shots are pretty well composited, thanks in part to a generous use of real models and props. The film does have an unhealthy dependency on closeups of people’s faces during conversations, to the point that whenever talking happens the screen is totally filled with the speakers’ faces. That’s okay- this ain’t a talkin’ movie, it’s a terminatin’ movie.
The human element is less successful than the machine element, but not in the way you might expect. Anton Yelchin’s performance as they young Kyle Reese is heartfelt and compelling, a big step up from his rather phoned-in part in Star Trek. Sam Worthington, a terminator who doesn’t know he’s a terminator and so uses his terminating skills for justice, is an exciting hero with lots of (wasted) potential. Michael Ironside is in there, and I’ll watch anything with Michael Ironside in it. Moon Bloodgood plays a pilot who… well, who is better than she was in Pathfinder. But she’s only been at this for three years, and I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
No, the weak link in this production is, amazingly enough, Christian Bale. I feel funny saying that because, you know, Batman, but there it is. Bale pressed director McG to expand his part, butted into the editing room daily, and judging from the press basically enfant terrible’d his way around the set start to finish- and it shows. What was meant to be the story of Marcus, the killer cyborg with a heart of gold, becomes all about Bale’s John Connor. Bale deadpans his way through meaningless bookend radio broadcasts that hurt the flow of the film, chews scenery like Shatner in any scene he’s allowed to join, and generally wrecks the pace of the film. A strong director (Nolan) who can keep Bale in line can extract a good film from him, but he obviously isn’t someone who can be trusted to go all auteur. His over-the-top performance brings the film down, and makes him seem like less of an actor than he really is.
My verdict: Terminator Salvation is a fun summer action film, well worth your seven bucks. It has action, adventure, a tiny modicum of drama, and a charming 80s feel that matches the original movies- but weak direction of a pushy star kind of drags it down.
Oh, and Arnold’s CG head looks way better than Patrick Stewart’s CG head in Wolverine. Just putting that out there.
…But how did Skynet know who Kyle Reese was before he went back in time?