Friday, June 26, 2009

TERMINATOR SALVATION: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anton Yelchin
Director: McG
Runtime: 115 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Action, Sci-fi

        Terminator: Salvation opens to a resistance raid on the machine territory. McG has gone on record claiming this film is his Aliens. He flew all the way to London to get Mr. Bale sign this film, and he even rewrote the whole thing, to the actor’s complete satisfaction. One would get the feeling he intends to pull out all the stops in making this film a capable enough homage to the Cameron films, but also to make some kind of an ultimate action movie. He opens this action scene from the point of view of a missile, striking the machine base. One might be reminded of countless movies where we follow a missile following its course. Goldeneye comes to mind. But McG places his camera inside the missile, and follows it all the way, right down to the eventual explosion. This isn’t the money shot, or something to be applauded. But it certainly is something that sets the tone just right, and you get a sense that here’s a man who, in this age of incomprehensible grinder-produced action sequences, knows what he is doing, and has a clear visual strategy in mind. Not much later you learn your sense was not wrong. Not one bit.
        John Connor (Mr. Bale) is surveying the site, after the carnage at the territory, double-checking for those malevolent machines crouched in the debris. Seeing a Hunter Killer fly away, he decides to chase it in a chopper. And here is a virtuoso shot. Connor flies the chopper, and just about the moment he gains control of it, the camera which lay hitherto in a firmly third person vantage point viewing the movements from outside, zooms right into the cabin. An explosion blankets the entire area, and the chopper swirls and swirls, with dust surrounding it from every which where. Connor has lost control, and the chopper has lost its bearings. And it hits the ground. Connor strapped to the seat, wouldn’t really have his sense of balance upto scratch, and I guess he wouldn’t really know how the thud came about, and how the chopper lay oriented with respect to the ground. Instincts driving him, he lets go of the belt and falls onto the roof. We realize, along with Connor, how the chopper lay. And all of this is done in a single shot, with no edits whatsoever, and it left me kinda breathless and amazed, for action scenes of today are conceived not on paper or on the ground, but in the editing room.
        Terminator: Salvation is a superior action movie to all its peers, and in ways more than one, it seems to be a distant cousin of The Road Warrior. It is a gritty monster, unleashing chase after chase, and if its pulses were checked and its exterior ripped open to look what’s underneath, chances are it might come across as some kind of a machine. Its two illustrious predecessors were species firmly from the action genre of a different era, especially The Judgment Day, which fed upon the aesthetic sensibilities of the 80s partially owing their existence to the visual style of Michael Mann (Miami Vice) that both represented its time and contributed to it. If one would summarize the tone of those times into a pretty little theme, it basically boiled down to capturing scenes of action, often violent action, within frames of exquisite beauty and color composition. One could see those action movies and not feel any sense of disgust.
        Terminator: Salvation is something of a mutant, some of its genes belong to today’s movies – gritty grainy stuff shot in digital and constructed to rein a sense of the carnage at hand. There’s a distinct feel of the post-apocalyptic, both via the texture and the setting, and one’s immediately reminded of The Road Warrior. One could very well infer it as the influence of Saving Private Ryan. But it doesn’t believe in hand-held cameras, and it doesn’t believe in crazy slaughterhouse editing either. It respects clarity, it respects the importance of the master shot, and just about every moment of every action scene seems to have been shot from the right distance. I have complained how the new Star Trek movie seems to have been made for the television, shot from all the wrong angles and distances, and that quite a lot of it is either lazy, or needless or just plain incomprehensible. This one is a lean-mean action juggernaut, but one that doesn’t just hurl action scenes and frames randomly at us. Rather, one gets the feeling that the action sequences were actually conceived in the script, and were well designed for us viewers to neatly put the visual storytelling to together with no need for some character laying it all down for us. Many films employ a secondary character only to newsread and guide us through the action by means of such stock lines as – Hey, look there or Watch out or Look, its coming – and more of their ilk. This one lays it neatly, respecting and acknowledging the visual narration that is the sole disposal of cinema, and we feel it all the more.
        Enough said about the action. Till now I have spoken of the film in terms of only its visual sense, most of which is spectacular. At least it feels that way for outside of that magnificent Korean extravaganza The Good The Bad The Weird, I’m not I remember an action film I would recommend purely on visual terms. This one does earn that recommendation, but one ought to take the relativity of these times into account too, I believe.
        But there’s a story in there too, and some really compelling characters. Here is where that masterful touch eludes McG, and Terminator Salvation leaves us mostly unsatisfied. Oh no, not because the plot is perfunctory. Rather, as I said, the plot is probably more compelling and more fascinating than, and here I might be burnt for heresy, any of the previous movies. But there’re a whole lot of different themes and conflicted characters battling it all out with each other, and one believes this plot needed someone with the narrative skills of Christopher Nolan. And more importantly, the film could have done brilliantly by beefing up itself. As it is, the film pays attention only to the narrative of the plot, but it could have enhanced its effectiveness by paying more attention to the dramatic arcs of the plot. The fact of the matter is most movie going audiences do not get every theme unless laid it all out in a platter, much like as it happened in Watchmen. A well written scene, like the magnificently intense Batman-Joker interaction in the interrogation room from The Dark Knight, might have done Terminator: Salvation a world of good.
        Oh, I shall share not one detail of the plot with you, for speaking in strictly narrative terms, Mr. Cameron had pretty much exhausted everything there was to the Terminator-universe, and even a minor kind of detail shall act as a spoiler. Dear reader, you’re walking into a Terminator movie and I believe you’re aware what to expect.
        But what is commendable about the script – first written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, both of whom first worked on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and later rewritten and polished by high profile names as Jonathan Nolan and Paul Haggis – is its courage to let go of the trodden path and head on in a new direction. It does respect the framework of its predecessors, but in ways more than one, this could also be looked upon as some kind of an adventure along the lines of The Lord of the Rings. For the first time in the entire series, and this I believe is something to be applauded, McG and his writers show the willingness to raise the stakes, and expand the equation. The earlier films merely provided the excuse of a larger-than-life epic-war between man and machines, all the while concealing for what they truly were – one hero one villain films borrowing from the action and the horror genre. Terminator: Salvation is a war film masquerading as an action film, its script for the first time actually structures itself to brace with the real enemy – Skynet. And although that is a magnificent ambition, it also is one of the film’s prime failings. As in, the lack of a villain, or a principal antagonist. As in, a villain with a face. Even Sauron had an eye. Here, we do not find anything tangible to hold on to. Skynet is everywhere, and the film should’ve done either of two things. Doctor the script and enhance the running time so that we know Skynet is everywhere. Or give Skynet a face. I know it is dumb, I know I’m asking the film to dumb itself down, I’m ashamed too, but then even HAL was a red light. I guess that is one of the principal failings of a narrative we with our limited sensibilities and stunted intellect can never overcome. A tale needs to have a tangible villain. The success of any tale lay not in the austerity of its protagonist but the menace of its antagonist.
        The performances are all intense, much as in a war film. You expect from Mr. Bale what he delivers here, and I’m beginning to suspect he is an actor a little bit too subtle for a summer blockbuster. There’re modulations in voice, in eyes that I am not sure would be acknowledged by escapist audiences. In films as this, I believe, he could take a cue from Johnny Depp, and act a bit less and perform a bit more. Again I realize, I am asking someone to dumb himself down and forego his art. I’m doubly ashamed. There’s Mr. Worthington, who is the heart and soul of the film with Mr. Yelchin, who plays somebody from the previous films. Okay, since you have access to IMDb, I concede. He plays Kyle Reese, and it is a heartfelt performance. Mr. Worthington though seems like someone destined to stardom. He is someone with a commanding screen presence, and just about the perfect combination between acting and performing. I wish he would grow into the soul of this rebooted franchise, much like the present California Governor was to the earlier three.
        It is bewildering to me now, how this good a film was shredded to pieces. A film that has a very healthy sense of cinema. Yet, I’m a movie-goer, who for the most part, has supreme faith in his tastes. I might sound pompous and maybe even self-righteous, but I guess in order to write and analyze movies one has got to be a bit of both. In some cases, a whole lot of both. I’m not sure of the present status of the present culture of film criticism. Then again never mind, that is just me. But then again, when I see a film that in the middle of a chase sequence involving a truck and a bike, has the good wit to wink at us audience and pay a nod to the great Terminator 2: The Judgment Day by subtly and brilliantly turning the tables and have the bike chase the truck, and even have the bike jump off a bridge, I know I’m watching a rather intelligent and well-made movie. Only that this one had a lot more potential, with several themes that begged to be highlighted. Terminator: Salvation is the first evidence that the series has the potential to grow into an epic the size of the Lord of the Rings movies. If only we allowed it to. As it says, there’s no fate but what we make.

5 comments:

Trippman said...

To me the film feels slightly like a parody of a war film. Maybe it's the music. But I agree, it feel very much like an intimate, involving war movie, especially with Bale's authentic mannerisms.

man in the iron mask said...

But Trippman, tell me. Please guide me.
Why is this film supposed to be bad? Are we attaching no importance to visual storytelling? Doesn't the film do a bang-up job at that, and not providing exposition after exposition through newsreel dialog? HAs our culture of film and film criticism gone dumb?
Sigh!!

By the way, how are you? Long time man.

Trippman said...

Hey I never said it was bad, I loved it. I'm surprised at the reaction myself. Several images in this movie just feel so delicious, apocalypse-porn like I haven't seen before. It was really refreshing that the camera didn't have its own almost self-aware jerkiness found in so many action flicks--it instead just faithfully follows the jerky action on screen(if I remember correctly).

You remember me? I remember my TDK rant, sorry for being a bit of an ass, but TDK somehow works to piss me off. A bit like you and slumdog. I still read all your reviews(well the ones where I've seen the movie), sorry that I hardly comment. Anyway, can't wait to see your Transformers: REVENGGGGE Of The Fallen! review

just another film buff said...

I haven't seen this film, but I do agree on the final para. Sometimes this hostility of the critics seems crazy. I have always respected Shyamalan for what he is. He clearly knows what actually makes for fear and what actually makes for horror. Sadly, every time a Shyamalan film comes out, its gone.

!Teq-uila Del Zapata said...

good story and good cinema, but movie has not so good climax and in the end it looks so predictable. you know bale will be saved and he will be donated with the heart, could have atleast tried a better ending.