“Terminator: Salvation” Review

by Dan on May 23, 2009

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Note: SPOILERS BELOW.

I’m going to be discussing major plot points, so if you value surprise in movies and have not seen Terminator: Salvation yet, I suggest you hold off on reading this.

I got around to watching Terminator: Salvation last night. In my experience of movies, most films tend to fit into a pretty linear spectrum.

Terminator 4 Scale

Then there are a couple movies that you can’t put in a category so easily. There’s a special place for the bittersweet experience of a movie that “would have been awesome except…” that is more enjoyable than a good movie on some levels, but more painful than a bad movie in other ways.

It’s an experience I had going to see Iron Maiden at age 17. It was a small show where I was stuck in a balcony and couldn’t get close up to the band, while the mixing was pretty muddy as well. If I had been in front, and the music was clearer, it would have been an amazing, life enhancing music experience. Instead it was just ok.

Terminator 4 is something like that. It has all the necessary parts of a great science fiction movie. Great special effects, solid cast, interesting story, and social/political themes to think about.

Unfortunately, the movie had started digging its own grave even before production started, culminating in three ways the movie did not do its job.

First Nail in the Coffin: PG-13 rating.

I understand that movie production necessarily is a business first, mass viewer entertainment second, and artistic expression a distant third.  This is why previews give away too much plot in movie, and producers are continually recycling successful 1980’s plots that worked the first time. If you’re going to spend several hundred million dollars on producing a movie you want a guaranteed return, especially in this economy.

As an MBA graduate, I can’t resent a producer for making Terminator: Salvation a PG-13 rated movie. It’s much, much harder to have a summer blockbuster that’s rated R. The teen market is huge, and selling comic books and John Connor action figures are that much easier when 10 year olds are legally allowed in the theater by themselves.

However, the PG-13 rating was a painful sacrifice for this movie. The violence and language is noticeably toned down compared to the first three movies. I am not someone who enjoys blood and violence just for the sake of watching pain and gore. “The Ring” and “The Grudge” are examples of movies that did amazing work despite being PG-13.

Also, I had no problem with PG-13 X-Men movies. There was no point in watching those where I felt there was a conflict with realism of scenes. With Terminator 4, however, there is a stark contrast between the emotional climate and brutality of the first few films, especially the first two. In Terminator 1, you feel the cold machine savagery of the Terminator murdering each “Sarah Connor” in the phone book on the way to his targeted victim. It’s not hidden from you. The threat is real and in your face. In Terminator 2, the T-1000 slices and impales people with his liquid metal knives and axes, showing an out-of this-world cyber-assassin. You feel what it would be like to have some unstoppable force chasing you.

In Terminator: Salvation, there are scenes where the violence is notably cut out. There’s a scene where a female resistance fighter is about to be gang raped, yet the threat of sexual violence is only implied enough so adults will get what’s going on, and children will just think she’s being mugged. I don’t have a problem with subtlety, but if the movie is going to have an attempted gang rape, it shouldn’t intentionally make it ambiguous for the children’s sake. There are also several scenes where a gunshot, or blow to the face is cut away from so you don’t see the bodily damage. Several characters are also mortally wounded with an unrealistic minimum of body damage visible.

I’ve seen much more bloody, cruel, and violent episodes of Heroes and Grey’s Anatomy than this movie. Since this movie takes place in a violent, oppressive dystopian future, you would expect more brutality than T1 and T2, not less.

Second Nail in the Coffin: Time Paradox Stretched a Little Too Far.

The first Terminator film had Kyle Reese come from the future into 1984 to prevent the assassination of Sarah Connor, the future mother of the leader of the resistance movement. If that had been all he came back for, it would have been interesting enough. However, the writers decided to have Kyle Reese actually impregnate Sarah WITH the future leader, opening some crazy time paradoxes. Now it’s literally impossible for John to be born unless Kyle Reese is sent back.

This was just an interesting paradox, until you actually meet Kyle Reese in the present. Suddenly, the movies just don’t make sense anymore. The machines apparently know that Kyle Reese is John Connor’s father, which is why he’s on the most wanted list. Why in the world would they bother sending machines back in time to kill John’s mother, if his father is readily available in the present time? It seems like a less efficient plan, to say the least.

Having Kyle in the present with John makes a rather strange predicament, because not only is John sending Kyle back in time to protect his mother. He’s sending Kyle back in time to FUCK his mother. Having John orchestrate his own birth is just implausible. Even if he can count on his mom having unprotected sex with a guy she just met, there still critical timing issues to deal with.

Kyle, holding the penis of power, has to have sex with her A) while she’s ovulating, B) while she has the specific egg in her ovaries that John came from, C) with the exact load of sperm John came from, with the exact sperm getting into the egg to fertilize it. To put it another way, Kyle has a higher chance of picking the right Cheerio out of a Costco sized box fifty times in a row while blindfolded, than pulling this off.

Needless to say, unless it’s destiny for John to be born no matter what, counting on the same zygote to be created this time around has a billion to one odds.

So maybe it is unstoppable destiny for John to be born; but if so, why is John freaking out about saving Kyle’s life? If it’s going to happen by fate, then there’s nothing anyone can do, machine or human, to stop it or help it along. It’s an all or nothing deal. It’s either guaranteed to happen, even if they don’t go to rescue Kyle, or the odds are so amazingly low it’s a moot point anyway.

There also is a rather bizarre narcissism of John to think he HAS to be the one to lead the salvation of humanity. While he’s a pretty good military officer, there’s no indication that other people couldn’t run the show just as well. He’s not the General of the Resistance, so it looks like they have it well under control, with or without him.

Third Nail in the Coffin: The Complete Incompetence of Skynet

I’m still holding out on a prayer that the problems in this movie will be resolved in the upcoming sequels, but it looks doubtful at this point.

For a while in the movie, it was looking rather unbelievable that Skynet would not recognize Marcus as a rogue machine, and not realize John Connor is in the building, with all their surveillance technology. Then it’s revealed to Marcus that the Machines knew and planned everything to get Kyle and John in the base, that all Marcus did was planned and foreseen by them, and that the end of the Resistance was coming. I was very happy at this point, because it showed that Skynet was actually smarter than I would expect, instead of completely retarded.

Then they proved me wrong once again.

Instead of killing John and Kyle when they easily have the chance, they put Kyle in a holding cell, and instead send only robot after robot to fight John with their bare hands instead of just shooting John in the head when he’s not looking.

There’s a long scene where Skynet gloats to Marcus of how he’s being used and how he’s so pathetic with no will of his own, yet they have nothing in place to keep Marcus from breaking out and trying to rescue his friends. There is literally zero security in the room, and the machine doesn’t seem to anticipate that Marcus might try to escape, despite knowing full well that Marcus doesn’t want to have John and Kyle die. It could have easily taken the rest of Marcus’ free will away once they had him back in there and sent him on new missions, or just had him do further missions with more subliminal programming, while he thought he was still doing the right thing.

What came to mind was the 1960’s Batman TV show where the Joker has Batman in a cell and proceeds to tell him all his plans in detail including how to foil them, which always leads to Batman saving the day. I have a hard time believing that a robotic Skynet is emotionally egotistical enough to put bragging rights above mission security.

There are plans for two more sequels in the works, and I can think of only a few ways the producers can make sense of Skynet’s apparent incompetence.

Ending 1: Skynet knows they’ll win the war anyway, so rather than change the past, they just want to preserve status quo and make sure John and Kyle get together.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Ending 2: Kyle was hooked up to some machine when John found him. Maybe what Skynet was doing was sterilizing Kyle so he’ll be sent back to the past “shooting blanks,” so to speak. Even better, maybe they radiated his sperm so when he goes back to save Sarah, she gives birth to a 3 foot tall retarded John Connor who even can’t tie his own shoes, let alone lead a revolution. This will lead to a very confused Resistance army who is trying to lead their battle plans based on Johnny’s Crayola drawings.

Ending 3: After several years of not getting anywhere in the war, John Connor comes up with the brilliant idea of detonating a nuke to cover the sun so the machines don’t have any solar power. Without energy, the machines are forced to use humans as batteries, and keep their brains occupied by plugging them into a device they call the Matrix.

Personally, I’m hoping for Ending 3, but you never know with Hollywood. On the plus side, I really liked the Marcus character, and thought he embodied a lot of tough masculine qualities you don’t see as much in movies these days. I actually thought he’d be a better addition to the resistance than John Connor. Christian Bale was pretty good, but there were several scenes where it looked like he was just reading his lines and not trying to act.

Also, I noticed a few shout-outs to fans of the earlier movies, which were quite fun. John Connor was listening to Guns ’n Roses “You Could Be Mine,” which was the song playing when young John Connor was introduced in Terminator 2. Also, there was an AMAZING cgi-created 1984 Arnold towards the end. It looked very real, albeit not very expressive. If they can make a cgi version of Arnold from 25 years ago, then the Hulk movie creators have NO excuse for their pathetic cartoon looking green monster.

All in all, recommended, and possibly better than Terminator 3, though I sometimes question whether they should have just ended at the second movie and let it remain a fully classic series.

Comments welcome.

–Dan

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