Movie Review: Terminator Salvation, or What John Connor Learned in Iraq

This is how franchises die. What a let down. In my review of T3, I said you would pumped for T4. I was wrong. This beast is heading into the sequelitis of the Matrix, Robocop or (old) Star Trek. What a shame. For a run-down of the ‘plot,’ try here. You don’t really need to see T1-3, as this one doesn’t use the backstory too much. Its basically an action movie, with none of the heart or interesting themes of the earlier ones.

I have always been a fan of the Terminator series as action movies. The first one was pretty clever. It had an offbeat time-travel idea (not the usual Star Trek time-travel silliness, once again on display this summer), and it smartly capitalized on the angst of the 80s about computers and war (Wargames), and postapolcalyptic life (Mad Max). The second one is probably the most intelligent action movie ever (granted, that’s not saying a lot), and continues to be the base of the popularity that eventually catapulted Schwarzenegger to the governorship of California. Even the third one was pretty good. Unfortunately this one walks away from most of the nifty and fun stuff of the series; its basically a mish-mash of every war war movie you’ve seen and videogame you played. A few thoughts:

1. On the up side, the action is pretty intense and serious. There is a grit and edginess to the shoot-outs that feels more battle-realistic than the first trilogy. It was also a nice touch that Linda Hamilton returned at least to provide the voice of John’s mother. I was always disappointed at how lamely her cool character was dispensed with in T3. I also thought the idea of putting the resistance HQ in a sub was a pretty intelligent move that flowed well from the narrative, but it prompts the obvious question (discussed below) about how the resistance to machines was able to get and maintain such fancy equipment when the whole planet was nuked. Finally, I didn’t mind that the film was set in the Skynet future. At some point the franchise had to catch up with that conflict, so I didn’t miss the time-travelling terminators that were becoming pretty repetitive by T3.

2. The acting is passable, and the sets are solid. Nothing looks ‘stagey.’ Thankfully too the CGI is good, although the Blu-ray release will be the real test of that. But wth has happened to C Bale? He was fantastic in American Psycho. The scene were has almost has a heart attack over another yuppie’s superior business card is hysterical. In T4, he basically yells all the time. And what’s up with a bald H B Carter showing up in a Terminator movie? That just didn’t work for me at all.

3. But the bad is, well, pretty bad.

a. the action scenes are so loud (as is the ear-splitting soundtrack) that they overwhelm the narrative. The story of T1 and T2 particularly were pretty compelling, and the action flowed from pretty well from narrative demand. That’s not the case here.

b. The movie pulls from all sorts of war films and video games. So, it doesn’t feel too original, and you aren’t really surprised much. The postwar future looks like – well you already know – Mad Max. The Road Warrior is a great film, and its influence just rolls on and on, even 30 years later. Battle scenes with Huey helicopters are straight from Vietnam pictures. The machines created slithery ‘hydrobots’ ripped straight from, of all possible sources, the videogame Resistance 2. The tall robot that attacks the resistance at the gas station could be a transformer. The penetration of Skynet central at the end feels like a videogame ending when you have to go after the big boss character to end the story.

c. I found the level of sophisticated military hardware and deployment wholly unconvincing after the awfulness of a nuclear exchange. The combat scenes frequently felt like a video game version of the Iraq war. So much of the hardware is taken directly from the contemporary US military that we see regularly on TV in Iraq: body armor, grenade launchers, M-60s, M-16s, A-10s, radar, rocket launchers, humvees. In the first film, the resistance is running around in basements with funky ray-guns. In this one, they have enormous above-ground installations that can support helicopters, subs, and aircraft. So its pretty much the US military versus the machines, and we’ve seen that already in Transformers. Wouldn’t the machines go after such facilities? And how could you possibly maintain such elaborate hardware in the postnuclear future? Where does the fuel come from, the spare parts, the dozens of mechanics necessary to keep the hi-tech, logistics-heavy US military in the field? And someone should tell the director that last Huey was built in 1976 and the last A-10 in 1986. It is unlikely these aging platforms would survive into 2018, through a nuclear war, and still be serviceable.

d. maybe I am too hard about the sophisticated technology, so here is some miscellaneous silliness:

i. The hot fighter pilot babe (how come they’re always super hot, btw?) falls in love with a cyborg after about 2 days. Nobody but reality TV show contestants fall in love in 2 days, and wth falls in love with a robot?! To quote the greatest line from the underappreciated comedy of Robocop 2: ‘ I don’t know anyone who wants to be a robot.’

ii. Two nuclear explosions occur in the film which the main character survives. In both, helicopters are close enough to feel the blast wave. Depending on the yield of course, you might survive the blast, but then there’s fallout too. Too unrealistic.

iii. At the end, John Connor gets a heart transplant in open air from that cyborg. Even more ridiculous, Connor had recently restarted that cyborg heart with – I am not lying – jumper cables. Hah! I am sure its ready for transplant.

iv. Why does Skynet have offices and hallways if it is a robot AI?

e. Finally, the director succumbed the easy patriotism of US action movies. In first two, the resistance was planet-wide and looked futuristic. In the third film, Schwarzenegger needed to get elected to the CA governorship, so suddenly the US military was at the heart of the resistance. And in this fourth installment, its basically the US military versus the Transformers. US military hardware now dominates the resistance; gone are the ray-guns. The resistance leaders are all Americans and the action all takes place in CA. The difference is subtle but clear. James Cameron (the director of the first two) was never a nationalist, but I guess now, after 6 years of the Iraq war, T4 had to look this way for an American audience. Too bad.

1 thought on “Movie Review: Terminator Salvation, or What John Connor Learned in Iraq

  1. Pingback: “Homefront” Video Game: ‘I Pledge Allegiance to Kim Jong-Eun’ – Hah! « Asian Security Blog

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