Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
I'm almost positive I've written this exact thing in the past, but even if so, it remains true: You can put up with a lot of plot holes if they're holes in something otherwise worth preserving. That's why it almost always feels cheap to kick the crap out of a flick I don't like for its lapses in logic. Certainly many of Terminator Salvation's lapses are built right into the very structure of the Terminator concept, from "Why don't the Terminators just reach out and crush their targets' skulls with their enormously powerful metal hands instead of playing them a little chin music first?" on down. These are things you'd be willing to look past in exchange for other compensatory values.
In the first Terminator film, such values abounded. The genius Stan Winston's unimpeachable T-800 design. Genuinely rich and sad performances from Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton, performances that reward repeat viewings not in that they reveal layer after layer, but in that they offer a sort of warm human comfort each time. Arnold Schwarzenegger's star-makingly brutal "performance" as the Terminator. The almost absurdist violence--fists punching all the way through human torsos, post-apocalyptic automated tank treads crushing a field of human skulls, a shootout in a discotheque, a guy killing L.A. housewives he looked up in the phone book. (I'd imagine that last bit resonated on a Richard Ramirez level, by the way.) Brad Fiedel's wonderful theme music, juxtaposing elegiac synths against clanging percussion just as the Terminator juxtaposes living flesh against a metal skeleton. James Cameron's rapidly peaking talent for blending action and pathos. But most of all, the terrifying simplicity of the basic concept:
Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.
Terminator 2 has a lot going for it as well. Don't get me wrong, I saw it a couple years back for the first time in ages, and a lot of it is 100% pure government cheese, the seeds of schmaltz that would eventually blossom into the two hours or so of Titanic that weren't innocent people plunging to their deaths down the deck of a vertically sinking boat or Kate Winslet's nude scene. But T2 (the first tentpole film advertised via acronym?) was a true cultural moment--between the morphing and the Guns n' Roses song it came to define the modern summer blockbuster more than any other film this side of the Tim Burton Batman that kicked off the era--and there's something to say for being a part of that. And while the process of sanding the weird brutality of the first film down into a glossy studio sheen was already in full effect (best encapsulated in turning the Terminator into the good guy and having him shoot people in the knees) there were memorable moments and images galore: That DePalma-esque slow-motion shootout in the shopping-mall corridor, complete with sly G'n'R visual shout-out. The truck chase down the aqueduct. Danny Furlong's Public Enemy t-shirt. Linda Hamilton's survivalist-Ripley transformation, accompanied by guns that put Michelle Obama to shame. (I was also at just the right age for the scene where the orderly licks her seemingly catatonic face to strike all kinds of chords.) The T-1000 itself, dated though it might seem now--the way its head blossomed when Arnold hit it with a shotgun blast, the way it oozed into that helicopter. Robert Patrick's entire creepy gestalt--the way he'd ask passers-by if they'd seen this boy, the fact that the villain of the piece in this post-Rodney King, post-riots action romp was dressed as an LAPD officer, and that relentless full-tilt run, as courage-sappingly unstoppable in its sleekness as Arnold and his Stan Winston skeleton were in their bulk.
[Terminator 3 I skipped. I understand there was a naked lady?]
What you've got in Terminator Salvation, by contrast, is kind of like what you might get if Neil Marshall's Doomsday had been made not by a bunch of Scots gorehounds who spent most of their budget providing Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell with an all-you-can-eat scenery buffet from the craft services truck everyday, but by a committee of life-imitates-Entourage suits and former Sugar Ray video directors who refer to ideas as "properties." There's nothing in here that's outwardly insulting to your intelligence, nothing that feels like it's pandering to the lowest common denominator, nothing that demonstrates obvious contempt for the fanboy audience; in short, it's not a Michael Bay film. It's simply uninspired. It does what it's supposed to do, and nothing more.
Knowing its place as the latest iteration of one of the past 25 years' key works of pop-speculative fiction, the movie hits its genre marks, but mechanically, unsurprisingly. Michael Ironside shows up to make the kinds of people who get really excited about Michael Ironside excited, but that's essentially all he does. The existence of The Road Warrior is duly noted, while Aliens is pillaged for its mute little girl and its into-the-lion's-den denouement, The Matrix for a robot design here, a close-quarters shipful of survivors there. A bunch of cool new robots do what you've seen them do in the trailers and nothing more. The truly unpleasant, real-world evocative aspects of the holocaust wrought upon humanity by the machines are reduced to cattle-car imagery you've seen depicted much more disturbingly by, say, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Speaking of the Tim Burton Players, Helena Bonham-Carter pops up (I'm not spoiling it, you find out in the opening credits and she's in the first scene) to do exactly what you'd expect Helena Bonham-Carter to do in a movie like this. It has a "humanistic" message in the same way as Disney movies about sports teams who overcome tragedy and win the big game for the Coach. The cornpone quotient of the ending elicited audible snorts and titters of derision from the audience. There's even the full-on Republic Serial Villain speech your Ozymandias warned you about.
Performance-wise, there's nothing remotely as interesting as what Schwarzenegger, Biehn, Hamilton, Patrick, or even Furlong brought to the table. Christian Bale commits with the same level of utterly sincere, borderline-homicidal intensity he's brought to all his recent roles, but you're left feeling that all that distinguishes his John Connor from his Batman is post-apocalyptic stubble; I liked him better in Reign of Fire. Common and Bryce Dallas Howard look and sound Very Serious. Moon Bloodgood has a legitimately awesome name and showed some spark, but in a thankless role constructed to showcase the bland tan good looks that Hollywood still considers exotic, the kind of part that if better written could have given Maria Conchita Alonso or Jenette Goldstein something to run with. Only Sam Worthington as human-machine hybrid Marcus distinguishes himself, as sort of a slightly less reptilian Dean Winters in a matinee idol's body, but he's consistently undercut by undercooked writing that avoids the most interesting aspects of his predicament and leaves his words and actions little more than cliches.
Of course the movie pushes all the franchise-specific buttons you'd expect it to, but in as rote a fashion as it does anything else. The weather-beaten photo of Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor makes an appearance, as do her prophetic cassette-tape messages to her son, but they come across as just another reason for Bale to brood. Terminators are defeated in manners that call back to the previous films' methods of dispatch, only to surmount them this time around because...because it's the fourth film in the series, I guess. Danny Elfman riffs on the original film's score in a manner just as forgettable as everything else Elfman has done in a decade. The much ballyhooed Resistance is reduced from the first film's memorably desperate underground community to an international military committee straight out of the "It's a Small World" U.N. sequences in Spider-Man and X-Men, a redux of the Nebuchednezzar crew from the Matrix movies, and metonymized groups of fighters gathered around their radios a la Independence Day. Some people cheered for the requisite utterings of "come with me if you want to live" and "I'll be back," but I sure wasn't one of them. Admittedly, the movie's hulking, skeletal, soon-to-be outmoded T-600s cut an impressive figure, with the tattered remnants of their human-clothing camouflage attempts lending them a zombified air, and there's one bona fide moment of genuine wish-fulfillment movie magic--though it's been spoiled everywhere, and the film (or more accurately its budget) seemingly couldn't wait for it to end.
But despite all those attempts at fanservice, Terminator Salvation just completely whiffs on the key component of the first two films, their set-up: An implacable killing machine is sent to kill a vulnerable person, and a vastly outmatched protector is sent to stop it. Instead of that relentless chase-movie structure, you have a convoluted morass of constant, bloodless explosions and gunfire, amid which two separate heroic protagonists drive two separate storylines that are artificially grafted together during a completely narratively unnecessary action sequence. (It features the second of the film's two you-are-there helicopter crashes, for crying out loud.) Moreover, no one is yanked from the everyday world into a nightmare war of man vs. machine, giving you something to ground yourself with--it's all nightmare all the time, but an indistinct nightmare, like a twelfth-generation copy of more vivid material strewn with shards of rebar at random. There's no hook, it's just...there.
So yeah, I could regale you all night with the movie's logical pitfalls and dropped balls, its "but why didn't they...?"s and "what was up with...?"s and "shouldn't he have just...?"s. And honestly, in some cases they're so glaring I wouldn't be able to overlook them even in a movie I otherwise loved. (Keep in mind this is no Crank: High Voltage, a film so ludicrous it can begin with its main character plummeting to his death; Terminator Salvation Is Serious Business, and therefore must rise and fall with the Maximum Seriosity of its plot mechanics.) But it's all small beer compared to the generally dull character of the film itself. I actually came close to getting up and leaving, not because I was so outraged or disgusted, but simply because about two-thirds of the way in, I knew the movie had nothing more to show me. I don't doubt that everyone involved wanted to make a really good movie, and again, I never felt insulted. But with no compensatory warmth or weirdness to make it feel less like a product and more like the product of someone's barely controllable imagination, Terminator Salvation does what it's programmed to, and that's it. It thinks it's human, but it had better think again.