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Movie Review: Terminator Salvation – Man and Machine

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Terminator Salvation (2009), directed by McG, stars Christian Bale as John Connor, Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright, Moon Bloodgood as Blair Williams, Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, and Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Serena Kogan.

Let me just start by saying that the first Terminator movie was a pretty big piece of the puzzle for me as a younger animal. It was one of the first times I started thinking about the structure of movies and not just their ability to entertain me. I honestly don't know how many times I've seen it, but it's lots. So I have no intention of pretending that I am in any way impartial in my opinions.

It was always about two things for me: the apocalyptic future (I like a good dystopia) and the relationship between man and machine. The first movie might still have been better if they had cast Lance Henriksen as the Terminator, which was being considered at the time. He would have played it like a praying mantis, which would have been wicked awesome, but we have Arnold, and that's another take on it.

T2 had lots of things going for it, particularly Linda Hamilton's portrayal of a woman with a badly fractured psyche and a young Edward Furlong caught in what may very well just be his mother's psychosis. I had a hard time forgiving the last two or three minutes — the thumbs up thing just made me cringe.

We will not speak of T3. The less said about that embarrassment, the better. 

All the previous movies have given us the events in sequence, but there has always been a liquid quality to the passage of time in this narrative and there has been lots of discussion about that. So this feels like a prequel as well as a sequel, which is actually kind of cool if you think about it. Here we get into the narrative before John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time. Kyle is in his teens and in danger and if he doesn't make it then the future is reset again and you really can break your brain thinking about stuff like that.

Bale plays John Connor as a soldier and a good one at that. He still has people to answer to and the chain of command goes all the way up to General Ashdown (Michael Ironside). He is spare and intense and not pleasant, but that is what can be expected.

The story does not start with him, though. It starts with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) being executed for murder and giving his body to science. When he wakes up a long way off from where he fell asleep, he is unaware that he has been rebuilt anew. They've let him keep his mind and his heart, though, and that alone is enough for the academic body to hit the ground running on the old Descartian dichotomy of the head and the heart, emotions and rationality. I won't though, because I am trying to keep this reasonably short.

Marcus teems up with the young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and again, this is a good casting choice. He is a greyhound in a world where machines are out to kill people in general and him in particular. He's got survivor written all over him and still there is a heart there. He keeps company with a young mute, Star (Jadagrace), so we get a glimpse of his care-taking qualities.

I have to say that is one of the things I liked about this version of the future. We get a populace that actually represents the young and the old as well — not only the strongest survive, but those most fitted to their environment.

The machines are the real stars here to my mind. We get to see a variety of model Ts and they show the typical development — they start out clunky and heavy and grow lighter and more efficient as the model develops. That is very clever of the writers, I think.

We also have the big HKs and the smaller modo-terminators, a motorcycle variety, and a hydrobot. We also have the huge, big enormous destroyers and the smaller spies. All of these machines have various insect-like qualities, many mandibles and arms and a carapace.

Skynet was always clever enough to work its way around mankind and you have to think of the plot like you'd approach playing chess against a computer. It will sacrifice and it knows every variable, every play ever made and you will find fighting it a lesson in humility. The basic plot is that Skynet is laying a trap for the scraps of human resistance still out there.

The Marcus character does signal what it is right from the get go, if you know what to look for, like the ability to make anything mechanical run, and just the speed and stance and the beatings he survives.

So all in all, I like the premise of the movie, I like the blasted desert version of the future. I think the key figures, John Connor and Kyle Reese, are well represented. I think they could have done a better job on following up the tradition of a strong female character, because the female fighter pilot falls into some of the typical traps of the action genre. It's not enough to make her a soldier, that does not a warrior make, as we all well know. And the token cute kid is mostly just there for form as far as I can see.

Worse, maybe just because I don't like the delivery, is the "take my heart" moment towards the end. For those of you who have not yet seen it I won't spoiler the thing, but it rivals the "thumbs up" in pure cliché to my mind.

As far as the actual action is concerned I have less than no complaints, actually. These guys can blow stuff up with the best of them. McG has also made sure to reference the other movies in stylish shots, settings and a thousand other things (including the Guns N' Roses song "You Could Be Mine") that makes my fannish side grin with glee. I happen to think the industrial site fights and the visual references (ah, the crushing of a human skull under a steel Terminator foot) work very well. It's not lack of imagination, as some critics have suggested, it is homage. Homage is allowed, even if it is just an action movie, you know.

My overall impression is that this is the movie I wanted after T2. I might actually have wanted it after the first movie, come to think of it. That would have done interesting things to the ideas of time and narrative. But as things stand, it is a good movie, it is entertaining and thought provoking, if you are of that bent, and it is more true to the original concept than I had expected.

Also, there are explosions. Did I mention the explosions?

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