Friday, June 26, 2015

Terminator Salvation

Image result for terminator salvation 2009After three movies about the same thing, hitting the same beats, and each starring Schwarzenegger, Part 4 was supposed to be a welcomed addition to the Terminator series.  It was supposed to be a…salvation, I guess of sorts because we were finally gonna get something fresh.  This time it’s the future we’ve heard so much about and seen brief glimpses of.  We got a war to fight guys, a war against machines.  This ought to be interesting.

Our salvation begins with the past of 2003 where a death row inmate, Marcus (Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans (2010))), signs his body away to Cyberdine for research.  Cut to 2018 where the war against the machines has just started.  John Conner (Christian Bale (Newsies, Shaft (2000))) isn’t the leader of the human resistance but a relatively high ranking member.  The fighters have found an electronic signal that can kill any machine within its range of transmission and Conner proceeds to test it as well as brood about his destined future.  Meanwhile Marcus wakes up from cryo-sleep or some shit and wanders around post-apocalypse L.A. trying to figure out what the hell happened to him and the world.  He runs into a teenaged Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin (Alpha Dog, Star Trek IntoDarkness)) and they band together.  But Reese eventually gets kidnapped by the machines and Marcus teams up with Conner to get him back.

The introduction of a new character isn’t a bad move considering there’s no Sarah Conner, T-800, T-1000 or, hell, even T-X.  But having Marcus share the good guy lead with John Conner is plain stupid.  Conner is the guy that this series has always been about.  He’s the one that Reese travels through time for and why we went through all of that insane shit in the first three movies.  He’s the one that inspires and organizes the humans to rally against the machines.  In this universe Conner is supposed to be probably the most important human who ever lived.  So to not finally have him take center stage and go up against some maniacal robots feels wrong.  It’s the natural progression of where these films were gonna go (arguably Terminator 3 should’ve been the future war installment but hey, we got what we got).  It’s so weird to me that the filmmakers thought that John Conner wasn’t enough all by himself.

Image result for terminator salvation 2009And since they thought Conner needed a buddy to help sure up the story the movie ends up feeling like you’re watching two pictures at once.  You got the boring Conner plot where he listens to his mother’s old tapes, like the one at the end of part 1, and argues with his superiors.  And you also have Marcus’ struggle to understand what the machines have done to the world and to him while he was asleep.  I’ll admit that Marcus’ tale does sound interesting on paper but it isn’t handled well on screen.  The main thing is we don’t get to know him very well which is not good considering his character driven storyline.  He’s thrown into action scene after action scene without self-contemplation or natural development to grow very much.  No one’s going to connect with him if you don’t give the guy room to breathe.

But perhaps the biggest problem with Marcus is that his whole existence really becomes inconsequential.  If he didn’t come along and shake things up for a minute Conner and Reese still would’ve met and set the events in motion that lead up to the first film.  This is a different scenario than parts 1-3.  The first was all about protecting the future while 2 and 3 attempted to alter it (in fact if the series ended with T2 then the war with the machines was actually totally prevented, but T3 changed shit and told us that the war is inevitable).  Everything you see in Salvation doesn’t mean jack shit.  It’s not about preventing or altering.  It’s a slice of the war, plain and simple.  So if you’re going to go in that direction then why not do the story that James Cameron gave us in the original (it’s Reese’s monologue to Sarah while they’re ducking the cops and the terminator in a parked car)?  Why go with this other alternate future?  It doesn’t make much sense.    

Look, I could go on and on about how poorly written this thing is with its awful dialogue, unnecessary dual plot and extremely contrived shoehorned echoes of the previous three movies (especially part 1 which it constantly references).  But I think you get what I’m saying.  It’s a really shitty script that went through a ton of rewrites and boy does it show.  It’s like the people that made this vaguely knew what the Terminator movies were but hadn’t actually seen them.

Image result for terminator salvation 2009I’ll tell you one thing I appreciate though, how the action was shot.  Instead of shaking the camera like a motherfucker and doing a million quick cuts of close up shots, which was the standard way of shooting and cutting action at the time (thankfully I think that era is just about over), they actually give you some longer takes and distance.  You can easily follow what’s happening which is great.  It’s just too bad the action itself isn’t the best.  Most of it is very cartoony and unthoughtful.  It’s like “how about we reverse what they did in T2 where our heroes are in the truck and the bad guy is on a motorcycle, no wait, TWO motorcycles.  OK, ok and then there’ll be a big flying terminator thing they have to fight, and then an even BIGGER ship comes along, and then the humans will have a dogfight with the really big ship in their jets and it’ll be fucking awesome”. 

Image result for terminator salvation 2009Another issue I have with this film is that it tries to be a little too much like some other movies.  I already mentioned that there are a boatload of T1-3 references.  But there’s also the introduction of a 20 story tall gigantic terminator robot that’s a clear nod to Transformers.  This thing has motorcycles that come out of its legs and it even fucking morphs to become part of a larger machine.  And another major thing the filmmakers knock off is the seemingly one long uncut take during a couple of action scenes from Children of Men.  I don’t want to come off like everyone has to be original, of course not.  But these influences are so painstakingly obvious that I can’t not think about them.  They don’t blend into the picture where it doesn’t register with me until much later.  They jab me in the ribs right away and it takes me out of the movie.

McG (3 Days to Kill) directed this and he was definitely in way over his head.  The pictures he had done before this were films that were either kinda sloppy and dumb, like the Chalrlie’s Angels, or cheesy feel good stuff like We Are Marshall (full disclosure: I haven’t seen either of these movies but I think I’m in pretty safe territory with these assertions).  That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a kick ass action director waiting to break out but his track record wasn’t a good sign.  And ultimately McG wasn’t up to the task.  Yea he had a horrible script to work with but he still made this movie and signed off on the decisions that led to what you see in front of you.

Image result for terminator salvationI had said in my Terminator review that it would be tough to make a fake future war movie work but I don’t think this is the review where I get say “I told you so”.  One of the biggest problems I have with this film is that they brought the material down to the lowest common denominator.  Instead of using the future that James Cameron laid out in the first two films (part three followed suit as well) they decided to make up their own future for this one.  No laser guns or shiny machines of a particular design.  Instead we’ll use the same guns we currently have now, dirty up the terminators and mute the colors to death.  Also, John Conner’s not in charge, he’s still working his way up and has to go against his chiefs to prove to people that he’s essentially the messiah (which, once again, doesn’t jive with the story Reese tells in the original).  If they had done Cameron’s version of the future maybe it would’ve turned out better, maybe not.  But at least it would’ve been consistent. 
This movie is pretty fuckin’ terrible.  It’s so goddamn schlocky.  Jeez, people give T3 a hard time but I think Salvation is way worse.  There’s just not many good things I can say about it.  Nothing really works or makes me care about what’s happening.  It’s a clunky noisy mess.

If you haven’t seen it, keep it that way.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Terminator

Image result for the terminator
So here we are on the verge of the release of another Terminator film.  I don’t know about you but even though I love this series I never expect them to make another one until they suddenly do and it surprises the shit outta me.  It’s also interesting because I would’ve thought the original would’ve been rebooted by now.  But I guess since 1-3, and it even looks like a good bit of this part 5, are pretty much the same fucking thing over and over Hollywood didn’t feel the need to. 

Anyway, I already talked about T2 (sorta) and T3 so to fill in the gaps here are some thoughts on T1.    
First of all this is a huge story packaged into a relatively small and intimate film.  Every time I go back to the original I’m always impressed with how close it is to T2 in terms of spectacular action and a knack for great set pieces.  But more importantly the premise was there fully formed.  Technically James Cameron didn’t need to make a sequel to smooth the rough edges out or add or take away any major plot elements.  This one is very nicely self-contained as is.       

One of the strongest scenes in the movie is the story Reese tells Sarah about John Conner.  It builds beautifully and the payoff about this whole time travel termination thing being about her unborn son is heavy as shit.  Even though I’ve seen this film a bunch of times and know the story very well I still get chills.  This tale that Reese weaves into our hearts hints at how big the Terminator universe is.  There’s the development of a super smart computer defense system, then a nuclear war, total machine takeover, human work camps, the rising up of the humans and finally a whole machine vs human war.  There’s so much crap going on in that backstory but it’s clear as day and compelling as shit. 

I also love that we don’t actually know why the terminator is after Sarah and why Reese needs to protect her until forty mins in when the scene I mentioned above happens.  It would’ve been so easy to have some scrolling text or narration at the beginning to fill us in (the opening text only tells us that there’s a war, nothing else) but it was much smarter to wait until the right time and build a serious amount of tension.  It was also smart to give this exposition while Sarah and Reese are hiding from the cops and the terminator.  They still need to be on guard and extremely careful which adds some weight to what could’ve easily been a dry slog that horribly interrupts the energetic flow.        

Image result for the terminator 1984 future war kyle reeseThe original has more of the war torn future in it than the first three.  It’s really remarkable how they were able to do so many future war scenes on such a small budget.  A lot of that stuff is cardboard, half built models and a ton of smoke to conceal the cheapness but man it looks good. 

On a bit of a side note, I can see why Cameron didn’t want to have the bleak future be the main setting for part 2.  It would’ve been really tricky to make a convincing movie about a fake sci-fi war where humans fight machines with laser guns n’ shit.  Either it’s gonna turn out incredibly (but probably not so bad it’s laughably) cheesy or too grim to the point where it’s not that fun to watch.

Now this Terminator is probably the darkest of the bunch in terms of tone and those war scenes are definitely heavy contributors to that.  Cameron doesn’t go for too many laughs and keeps the situation pretty damn dire.  Sure he did throw in a love story (which T2 subverts completely interestingly) but I’ll give it a pass because we’re talking about John Conner’s parents here.  One is a dude who traveled across time to ensure the survival of humanity, and the other is a badass chick that also does her best to ensure the survival of the human race.  Sarah has to keep that shit up for decades too making her stronger and more vital then Reese.  

Having Arnie say almost nothing in the entire thing was a really smart move.  I think people wouldn’t have taken this character as seriously if he talked all the time (T2 is ok because the character was already established, plus they turned him good which completely changes the dynamic).  Just being a merciless and mostly silent killing machine takes restraint, especially in the 80’s when being over the top and tacky in action movies was the norm.

Image result for the terminator 1984Overall this film feels like what it is, a genius filmmaker’s first rodeo (yes, yes I know Cameron directed Piranha II before this but really this is his first baby).  It’s shot pretty well, looks pretty good and has an awesome story.  You get the sense that if they gave this guy a bigger budget to work with and a script that’s at least just as good then he could do some nasty damage.  And he did.  It’s easy to look back now and see Cameron tighten and perfect his filmmaking skills on subsequent movies.  But I think you can totally recognize on The Terminator that this guy knew what he was doing and that it wasn’t a fluke. 

T2 tends to get all the glory and, ok, it certainly should get about 90% of it.  As a result we also tend to push the one that started it all aside.  Most people seem to have an attitude of “well we have T2, what do we need the first one for?  It’s just the same thing but worse”.  That’s not right.  This is a really fucking great movie that’s a must see for everyone.  It can stand on its own two feet and kicks so much ass.  The magic that this thing works makes the world go round, no shit.

One last thing, I just wanted to mention that Cameron has had some fantastic car chases in his movies, The Terminator included, and he doesn’t really get credit for that.  Good job Jim, I’ll be the first to say out loud that I like your car chases.