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My Digital Facial Reconstruction Will Be Back

May 31st, 2009 No comments

I suppose that it’s telling that I’m only now getting around to my take on Terminator Salvation, despite having seen it more than a week ago. It’s certainly not the disaster that I feared once the name “McG” entered the conversation, but it did leave me wanting more. Like someone to care about.

The first time I saw The Terminator, I was tantalized by the brief visions of the future war against the machines: gritty resistance fighters duking it out with floating hunter-killers atop a field of human skulls. That’s one reason that I was disappointed in Terminator 2*, as it not only trod the same modern-day ground as the original, but it appeared to close off that 21st century timeline. And it’s one reason that I liked T3 more than most people, because that film’s concluding minutes all but guaranteed that the next one would be set in the killing fields.

So, 25 years later, we’ve finally reached the future. And it’s not quite as cool a place as I’d hoped.

Don’t get me wrong: the tech on display is amazing. The chase scene involving a fifty-foot robot and self-aware motorcycles is alone worth the price of admission. If you’re there for the explosions, you’ll get your fill.

The core problem is John Connor. We know that Connor is vital to the future of mankind. Why? Because we’ve repeatedly been told so. The thing is, the same seems to true for everyone, including Connor himself; he’s the savior because they’ve been told he’s the savior, not because he’s done anything to deserve the distinction. He appears to be one more grungy cog in the resistance machine, albeit one with his own radio show. 

Granted that the movie, in the person of the inevitable Michael Ironside, does call him on this. But one important thing lacking from Terminator Salvation is the moment where he steps up to become the leader of men we’ve been told about, the role for which his mother trained him.

Neither the script nor actor Christian Bale bring anything to the character to make the audience care about John Connor beyond his alleged destiny. He’s Batman without Bruce Wayne; all gruff and little charm.

In addition, for much of the movie he’s overshadowed by a new addition to the franchise, a mysterious man named Marcus whose secret was thoroughly spoiled by the film’s promotion. Marcus is a cyborg precursor to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-bot of the earlier installments, and as such he instantly becomes more interesting than Mr. Growly.

The plot itself presents another problem. At first glance the central dilemma is an interesting one: Conner must rescue the young Kyle Reese, the man who he will eventually send into the past to become his own father. The trouble is that somehow Skynet is somehow aware of Reese’s importance as well. I don’t think that anyone ever explicitly says that the machine intelligence knows the exact nature of the relationship between Reese and Connor, but it knows enough to target Reese for termination. The extent of Skynet’s knowledge becomes a big issue when it’s revealed the computer is using Reese as the bait to lure Connor into a fatal trap; why not simply kill Reese and rewrite Connor out of existence in the first place?

Also, after The Matrix: Revolutions, did we need to have another dystopian future supercomputer present itself as a giant Wizard of Oz head? Would a machine bent on eliminating humanity have the need to interact with humans in such a manner?

In the end, perhaps the biggest flaw is that Terminator Salvation appears to be marking time. The humans win a victory, but it’s clear that the war is far from over, and we’re still a movie or two away from completing the paradoxical circle set up back in ’84.

One thing that I really did like about Salvation was that its “final boss” was Arnold himself–or at least a digitial reconstruction of him. It’s a fitting acknowledgement that for all of the fancy hardware of the sequels, the most impressive thing is an Austrian bodybuilder.

* I’ve never shared the geek love for T2. Cool morphing tricks aside, too much of it was shoot the robot, reload, repeat…for two-and-a-half hours. Despite the presence of a character with knowledge of Skynet tech, no one ever considered a plan that didn’t involve futilely shooting the robot again. The plucky heroine from the first film became a raging psychotic, and the young John Connor was a twerp. Last, but by no means least, I was annoyed by the conceit that crippling a bunch of policemen was an acceptable alternative to killing them, given that nothing the cops could bring to bear against Arnold would have stopped him from calmly walking over and taking the guns from their hands.

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