Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movie Review: Terminator Salvation

Yesterday I finally got around to seeing the new Terminator movie. I've been putting it off, mostly due to the bad reviews the movie has been getting in the US and over here. So last night, I expected the worst and came out having quite enjoyed the movie. This left me musing all day why I liked the movie and the critics didn't. I didn't find an answer, but left me with enough arguments to write my own review. So here it goes.

Here's what I liked in the movie: having moved the franchise to the much vaunted Days of Reckoning, the movie does a good job of conjuring up an apocalyptic mood. Rendered in almost colourless hues, with impressive CGI backdrops of bombed out cities, and with the constant threat of machines out to grab the last humans, the mood of despair and paranoia couldn't be better visualised. The action scenes are well orchestrated, and despite what one may fear, not as drawn out as they could be (but it is an action movie nonetheless). They leave enough room for character development, story telling and of course for repeating the message underlying the first Terminator movies (i.e., men and the rise of the machines etc.).

The cast is very strong, lead by the central character of the half-human/half-machine Marcus, played to great tragic effect by Sam Worthington, with great support from Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Helena Bonham-Carter and others. The movie, to me, felt more like an ensemble film than did the previous movies, which I thought was a good thing as it did not rely on the "lone hero" cliché.

This brings me to the negative points in the movie. I see two main ones. One is that the director and/or writers obviously felt like kids in a candy store and came up with any machine possible for the CGI guys to implement. Was there really a need for sentient motor bikes, transformers, flying saucers and even machine kraken (though I liked those)? Less would have been more, and might have helped to focus the action on the sinister, skull-headed terminator models, who got pretty much side-lined but were the most impressive of the lot.

The other weak point of the movie: a totally underwritten, bland John Connor. The character which was supposed to take centre stage stays on the side-line, mostly because the writers did not provide him with a background (unlike Marcus, who gets an origin story of sorts). There is no link back to the boy of the previous movies; there is a vague attempt at continuity provided by the voice of Linda Hamilton on tape, but this doesn't really do the job of filling in the holes. There are some good ideas (the prophet who isn't believed, the good soldier who learns to disobey), but overall the John Connor storyline feels rushed and incomplete.

The pregnant wife that the writers plant at his side is treated even worse: she's there, she's pregnant, she utters a few lines - but we do not know where she comes from, how they met etc. etc. . The movie's makers could have created a more credible story line by developing a boy-meets-girl around John Connor, in parallel to the budding Marcus-Blair romance. This would have gone a long way of making the character more approachable.

So, in the end, the movie is carried by Sam Worthington, and while this makes the movie less than perfect, it doesn't make it anywhere near awful. The film delivers intelligent entertainment, and if the writers learn from their mistakes and concentrate more on developing John Connor, then the planned next two instalments should really work.

If this was a starred review, I'd give Terminator Salvation 4 out of 5.

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