Thursday, May 28, 2009

Terminator: Salvation

I had the same problem with this film that I had with STAR TREK - that kid is too young to play Kyle Reese!

The strange thing about TERMINATOR: SALVATION is that STAR TREK has all of the same problems - all of them - but for some reason got much better reviews and was more readily accepted by those people on message boards who bitch about movies. I do not know why this is - maybe because most of the past STAR TREK movies haven’t been winners, yet the first two TERMINATOR movies are classics that may be two of the best genre movies ever made. When you see a STAR TREK movie, if it’s enjoyable and in focus it’s good (though the lens flare thing still bugs me)... but with a TERMINATOR movie you can’t help but compare it to the first two - and almost any film compared to a James Cameron film is bound to suffer (unless you are comparing it to PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING). You just expect more from a TERMINATOR movie.

Though TERMINATOR: SALVATION has all kinds of problems, it’s still a fun, stupid, somewhat enjoyable action packed summer sci-fi movie... but as a TERMINATOR movie? Crappy. If there had never been any Terminator movies, or if this had not been connected to the franchise - would have been dumb summer fun. Problem is, the "baggage" of the past films means this has to be better than dumb summer fun - and it was not.

Though I do not know the whole script backstory, from press stuff I know that John Conner was a minor character in the original script - which focused on the Marcus character. When they hired Bale and he became the *star*, he had the whole script rewritten and (by Bale’s account) told the writer what he wanted to do. I think this may be the case of an interesting script being turned to crap in rewrites.

I think Marcus is the most interesting character - and all of the John Conner scenes undercut the Marcus story and undercut the film. Had this been all about Marcus, this guy who wakes up in the future after the world has gone to hell and tries to figure out what happened and figure out who he is now and what his place in this world is... that would have been involving and interesting. But when Marcus is often second banana to an emotionless dude who yells and makes speeches on the radio all the time - the film loses just about everything. (For instance - the big reveal scene becomes about how Conner was betrayed by Marcus, instead of how Marcus was betrayed.)

I liked the Road Warrior chase stuff - and was shocked that the kid from ROAD WARRIOR had a sex change and was now a mute little girl, and thought the different terminators were cool - but there wasn't that one cool thing... like the liquid metal T-1000 (or the T-800 in the first film). These different terminators were okay but not mind-blowing cool. The grabber one I liked best - it made me jump a couple of times... but haven’t I seen that in TREMORS? When you think about the first film - the concept of this completely unstopable killing machine from the future that can imitate the voices of your loved ones and repair it’s skin and pass for human... that was all amazing stuff back then. And it’s even amazing stuff now. When I rewatch that film, I forget how cool it is when the Terminator pretends to be Sarah’s mother on the phone... and lures her into a trap. And the cool factor of repairing itself - the exposed machinery under the skin is right out of that Matheson short story. T2 has the amazing shape shifting T-1000 - kind of the voice imitation taken to the extreme. These things are leaps of imagination that are not present in T3 and T4 - and that is a major problem with T4 as a Terminator film. It’s doesn’t have anything so amazing that you wonder how something even came up with that. Though the big *grabber* Terminators and their motorcycle attachments were cool - a great idea within the world of Terminators - there wasn’t anything that was outside what we expect... not a problem for a non-Terminator film, but the mid-blowing elements are what we *expect* in a Terminator film.

Just as STAR TREK had plot holes you could drive a whole convoy of trucks through, T4 has all kinds of plot problems.

The other three Terminator movies are chase films - with an unstopabale killer robot of some sort after a human character. In T1 we have Ah-nuld chasing Sarah Conner. In T2 we have Robert Patrick chasing Sarah and teen John. In T3 we have Kristanna Loken chasing John Conner as a young man. In T4? No one is being chased! No one is being threatened! The biggest problem with this film is that both the antagonist and protagonist have non-existent or hollow goals. Late in the game someone notices that it might be a bad thing for Kyle Reese to be killed - but that isn’t driving the story... nothing really is. And here’s the problem with the Kyle Reese thing - Skynet has a billion chances to kill him and is so inept it doesn’t act. What’s up with that?

Since the Marcus character and Kyle connect early in the film, I wonder if there was a draft of the script that focused on Kyle being the target of a chase, with Marcus protecting him... and eventually going into Skynet to rescue him? And I also wonder if the big reveal happened *near the end* in that Skynet scene that exists in the film?

The “machine stopping signal” thing - and even Michael Ironside (with both arms) in the submarine - undercuts Kyle Reese as a target. By creating a second plot that is all about destroying Sky Net HQ, we now have a second reason to go to Sky Net HQ. So, which is more important - Kyle Reese or blowing up Skynet HQ...

And it seems to be a regional HQ at that - not the thing that changes the fate of mankind, just a minor battle. Though we know this is the first of a proposed new trilogy, we still need to have the ending for a stand alone movie. McG has leaked to the press that he had a darker ending but decided not to shoot it - and even though that ending sounds interesting, it’s still a *crap* ending. It isn’t that big blow-up-the-Death-Star ending we need in a summer movie. Just more ho-hum crap... just more interesting ho-hum crap than the filmed version.

They needed to "build the legend" of the Sky Net San Francisco HQ - so that it is a really big thing, and no one has ever come out of there alive, and they steal people and... do something... to them there. Why do machines need people? Build that up into the thing that drives the story. Maybe there are other Skynet HQs, but none of them are stealing *people* and doing something with them... what could they be doing? There’s a great Philip K. Dick story (turned into the most boring movie in the world) called “Second Variety” about a future man vs. machines war where the automated machine assembly line has come up with a new type of killer machine... but nobody knows what it is. They only know it exists. The story is a quest to discover what this new type of machine is... and they discover it is an infiltration unit that looks and acts human... which leads to everyone pointing the finger at everyone else like in Carpenter’s THE THING and there’s a nice big twist end in the story *after* they think they have destroyed the man-machine. The initial mystery in that story about what the heck this new killing machine is could have been used to fuel T4. And even though *we* know what a T-800 is, and why they need human flesh to create them, the characters wouldn’t - which could be used to create suspense. We know they shouldn’t go in that old dark house where a bunch of people were killed in the first ten minutes, but they don’t. They could have given the characters clues to what happens in that factory, and the characters could have gotten them *wrong* - maybe thinking that they were peeling skin from people as a form of torture to interrogate these people and find out about the underground. That would have built some audience participation - we’d be yelling at the screen: No! They’re stealing people’s skins for T-800s! But they needed to **build** the legend and mystery of the San Francisco HQ so that it becomes the Death Star. It can’t just be some building, it has to be the biggest and most interesting thing in the movie.

Oh, and Marcus gets in too easy.

Oh, and the resistance isn’t ever the underdog in this film - making the story not work on a basic level. Hero must always be underdog. Here - people are constantly outsmarting the machines (oh, the old rope-across-the-street trick!) so that you wonder why we are watching this movie in the first place - humans are obviously going to win this.

Oh, and this was one of the reasons why people didn’t like *T2* - humans are at war against machines. So any time the humans use a machine, that’s stupid. It’s at odds with the concept. Giving the humans a huge airforce and all kinds of other helpful machines doesn’t just stop them from being the underdogs, it also has them collaborating with the enemy! BATTLE FOR TERRA has an *amazing* alien world where wind and wood have replaced metal. I think it would have been cool to create a post-apocalypse world where all machines were suspect, and humans *only* used non-computerized, non-metal, non-electronic devices. Let’s create a future where people actually *fear* machines!

You have great actress Jane Alexander, and she gets a couple of lines of dialogue? No way! I kept thinking she should be like the leader-woman from THE STAND - this could have been a great part! Instead I wondered why the hell she was in this film.

Thought Kyle Reese's speech after he was captured was good, and I liked the allusions to the war on terror in some other character's dialogue, much of the dialogue was OTN crap. Instead of finding ways to recycle some of those iconic lines of dialogue from the first two films, they needed to come up with *new* iconic lines. This is a major problem in the film biz right now - instead of trying to do something new and interesting and unique... a film that amazes us now - everyone seems to be picking through the bones of past films giving us a bunch of remakes that are more of the same. And T4's biggest problem is that it is nothing new - no amazing new ideas and no amazing new lines of dialogue. Find me an original quotable line of dialogue in this film! We can’t predict what is going to stick with the audience, but we can sure as hell write some amazing dialogue that gives them a selection of things they might quote. Give them bland, stale dialogue and they aren’t going to remember any of it.

Another big problem with the film is that it’s not emotional. The great thing about the first two Terminator movies... and even the third one... is that they were filled with big emotional scenes and big emotional decisions. “I now know why you cry.” Man, no line in film has gotten me to tear up like that one... and I was crying for a freakin’ robot played by the future Governor of Califlowernia. We can learn a great screenwriting lesson by tracing that line through the preceding movie - it was set up so well! The set up scenes were great scenes! There was *nothing* in T4 even close to this - the big emotional scenes all belonged to Marcus, and many were undercut by John Conner’s character. Conner had *zero* emotional scenes, and that is the biggest mistake in the film. By making the leader of humanity into this cold heartless idiot, they make me wonder why I should care whether the machines win or not. I mean, why would I want a world where humans act more like machines than the machines do?

I ditched the TV show when it became apparent that they had no idea what they were trying to do. The show jumped the shark in whatever first season episode that was when they jumped up in time - it became a dopey soap opera instead of a show about John Conner learning the skills he would need to lead the human race to victory. I don't think those are *fighting* skills - I think it's learning what makes us human. The first season ender was great - but second season was just more crap. They never figured out what the show was *about* - and that ends up being the problem with T4, too. What is this movie about? What are the big emotional decisions the characters must make?

Remember in T2 when Sarah goes to kill Dyson (the always great Joe Morton) who she thinks is the evil dude who will start Skynet... but he’s a nice guy with a family? And she realizes she still needs to kill him? That is one great scene without a single special effect. Hey, and if we *only* look at the character of Dyson, what an amazing journey that guy takes! How many big emotional scenes does he have? And his final scene - how haunting can you get? I can still hear his raspy breathing in my mind. Every character in T2 has *big* emotional scenes and *big* emotional decisions to make... And even in T3 we get some big juicy scenes - Kate and her father, John realizing he must step up to be the leader, and that ending... Plus, one of the fun elements of T3 was the bickering couple being chased - kind of like Hitchcock’s 39 STEPS - and even though they dislike each other, they are fated to be married. Doesn’t seem likely throughout the movie, until that big ending where we realize it’s inevitable. As much as you may not like T3, it still works as a Terminator movie, and it still has some great emotional moments and one hell of an ending.

T4 - what are the big moments? Where are the emotions? They squandered a great chance for -something- with the relationship between Marcus and the Moon Bloodgood character. A great place to put in those little detail moments that later pay off in “I now know why you cry” moments. But we got nada. And that relationship was nada. I really liked the idea of a hot kick ass woman, but they even squandered that! Hey, this was the CHARLIE’S ANGELS director - you’d think he could have at least got that part, right!

I liked that they brought back Helena Bonham Carter from the opening scene - but that scene was undercut by the earlier reveal. But it seemed like Bryce Dallas Howard (who is hot) is only in the film because her character was in T3... and they needed some way to make Christian Bale seem like less of a machine. And Common - who has one of the most interesting faces in the biz - is completely wasted as Conner’s pointless second in command. Why not give that guy something cool to do? This gets back to the “what’s it all about, McG?” thing - but why weren’t we given different characters with different theories about how best to *have* a future of mankind? Let Common completely disagree with Conner, let Jane Alexander have a strange theory that makes complete sense in this post-apocalypse world, create a *discussion* of what the future of mankind should be. A debate. Give us some *ideas* that we can think about later!

Problem is - I don't think McG knows why we cry.

The film seemed to fight any chance at being more than just summer action crap - it often seemed like they were on to something and then buried it - between Marcus discovering who he is and throblem is - I don't think McG knows why we cry.e signal going two ways (these things seem connected) it seemed like there was a better draft of the script somewhere that got destroyed in rewrites - where the intentions of things like this were not understood by the new writer... or maybe it was just the director who didn't get it.

Like STAR TREK, I think if you are going to do something in a beloved series you have to do something great... not something that just cashes in on the name brand. I still don’t understand why the stupid summer movie that is T4 is any worse than the stupid summer movie that is STAR TREK - they both have the exact same problems (Nero's loopy plot, only one big emotional moment, a massive amount of plot holes, crazy coincidences, how come Kirk & Spock can walk to the Fed Outpost when both had to hide in the cave from monsters earlier, etc, etc, etc). But since most of the previous STAR TREK films sucked, a silly summer movie version of STAR TREK is considered "good". TERMINATOR: SALVATION has to carry all of the baggage of the first two great fims, and the third okay film... and collapses under the weight. I liked the film as a dumb summer action flick, was disappointed in it as a Terminator movie.

Two more films in this proposed trilogy... but did this one terminate the last two?

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Where's The Beef? and why act 2 should be easy.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken Caesar salad.


ObiDonWan said...


Emily Blake said...

All good points. I think the main reason Star Trek was well reviewed is because it was FUN. Terminator was so heavy handed there was no room for fun.

And here's another thing. Star Trek made Original Spock part of the story. Terminator threw in an Arnold cameo.... why exactly? All the nostalgic references were out of place, whereas in Star Trek they made sense for both character and scene.

For those reasons, Star Trek's flaws are easier to forgive but Terminator's are annoying as hell.

mrswing said...

I've been longing for a 'future' Terminator movie since 1984 - I always found the future war sequences the most interesting and exciting parts of the films.

Figures that now I finally get my wish, they put an android at the helm and screw it up...

These are bad times for screenwriting, especially where Big Summer Movies are concerned.

wcmartell said...

Being humorless is a problem... but the big complaint about T3 was that it had humor. Kind of a no-win situation.

And STAR TREK was filled with all kinds of stuff swiped from the previous films and series - Green Girls! That *seriously* undercuts that movie's gee-whiz factor in ways having the T-800 doesn't.

Both films have the same problems. It's the perception - the baggage the audience brings - that makes the difference.

- Bill

Emily Blake said...

But the green girl didn't take me out of the story. When I was the green girl it was like, hey she's green, and then the story kept rolling.

When you see Arnold you're first impressed as hell with the effects guy, but then you're expecting something. I don't know about you, but I thought that would go somewhere. This is the first time in many years he sees his old protector. Will he react?

Nope. That guy could have been anybody. They raised a question and didn't answer it.

So while Star Trek did a lot of references, they weaved them into the story, whereas T4 just planted them in there to go SEE? This is a Terminator movie after all!

James said...

Totally agree about the "baggage" of the movie. Ironic that one of the BEST people at dealing with baggage of a franchise is James Cameron, and here's his baby being butchered -- again.

Anyway -- just one quick thing. The lack of liquid Terminators was because this was taking place before they existed -- supposedly.

This was before they had refined the T-101. The first ones had rubber faces. We spotted those quick. The new ones... were Arnold.

It does pose an interesting dilemma in the life of a franchise, though, when the audience is expecting bigger and better and they get -- uh, weirder.

The whole time travel thing does jostle everything around a bit. Son's older than dad. Who's teaching who, right?

I always thought it would be a funny bit if John was just completely turned of by who Kyle was as a kid. "This is my father? We're fucked." :p

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