05 June, 2009

Review: Terminator: Salvation

Ridley Scott's Alien, James Cameron's
Terminator featured a striking score, gut wrenching tension and a dynamic cast. Like Alien, Terminator maintained a sort of cult status until Cameron blew them up with big budget sequels. From atmospheric origins, both developed big franchises. But while the Aliens films have devolved into schlock (as anyone who has seen Alien V Predator can atest), the Terminator films have been far better up to now.

The Terminator films have stuck to their original premise: in the near future, a computerised defence network - Skynet - becomes self-aware and wages total war on humans. Identifying John Connor (future leader of the human resistence) as the one threat to its dominance, Skynet sends a cyborg hitman back from the future to nip it in the bud.

Terminator: Salvation breaks continuity with previous films in many ways. And while the recent Star Trek showed that it is possible to take new directions and remain faithful to the spirit of a film's history, Salvation does neither.

The film takes place in 2018, during humankind's guerilla warfare against the machines. John Connor is a prominent military leader, whose regular radio broadcasts inspire the scattered pockets of human resistence.

The plot effectively concerns Connor's attempt to rescue human prisoners - and one in particular - from a Skynet prison camp, although there are plenty of diversions, theatrics and ornamentations along the way. In fact, there are three storylines, none of which mesh comfortably, and despite its almost two hour running time, it is thin on story.

Salvation bears all the trademarks of Hollywood 'development', mashing disparate elements together to tick the boxes of what market research focus groups predict will sell. It is chock full of fanboy references to the style of the first two iconic Terminator films, without retaining any of the substance of those films's success.

The absence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who utterly embodied the role of the implacable Terminator, hangs over Salvation like a pall. Christian Bale, as John Connor, is the stand-out performer, but his characteristic 'intensity' is wasted on a thin role among many thinner ones.

It is worth bearing in mind that Salvation's director, McG, is a journeyman director, whose previous credits include Charlie's Angels, TV show Fastlane and music videos for pop group The Pussycat Dolls. In short he is steeped in shit.

The relentlessness of the machine hunter and the courage and resilience of its human prey gave The Terminator and Judgement Day a kind of mythic depth, beyond the emotional thrills. In Salvation 'grit' is a visual style, but the fear of extermination and personal doom is absent.