Back in the mid-90s, when I was just entering my late 40s (right after my first divorce), my dad picked me up from a movie theater in Chicago where I had just seen a Saturday matinee with a friend. On the drive home, he asked me what I thought of the movie. “It was great,” I said, running a hand through my long white beard, “The special effects were awesome, obviously, but it was also really funny, and exciting. The acting was good, just everything was perfect. Dad, I’m being completely serious right now: it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.” I was talking, of course, about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie. Now that I am almost 100 years old, my tastes have changed, but I still expect the same kind of wide-eyed, over-enthusiastic post-viewing hum from my summer movies. I want to be plucked like a string (no instrumo). Granted, one could argue that bright, summertime excitement and an ash-gray post-Apocalyptic wasteland are simply incompatible, and that the expectations for Terminator: Salvation should have been adjusted accordingly, but the fact that the movie depicted a living nightmare of sub-human survival was not what made it a miserable experience. It was the fact that this movie stinks.
I had high hopes going into this one. I really “enjoy” post-Apocalypse stories, the Terminator franchise in general has been very fun (minus the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger beats up the lady robot in the bathroom in Terminator 3 and also the rest of Terminator 3), and the trailers were great. And for as much as I mocked and ridiculed McG for being an unrepentant man-boy-douche with a joke for a name, a history of terrible films, and having a small penis, I wanted this to work out, I really did. I wanted to walk out of the theater and say “Hey, I had this McG guy all wrong. He’s a great director. I bet his dick is huuuuuge.” Nope. He is really bad at his job! And in this economy!
First of all, enough with all the screaming and yelling. This movie should been called Screaminator: Yellvation. I’m all for some loud, aggressive action that just makes you want to get a tattoo of a Diet Red Bull on your FUCKING NECK, but this was ridiculous. Every other line of this movie was shouted into my face, and the only person who could possibly have found this more obnoxious than me was the BABY that someone had brought with them (to a 10PM showing on a Thursday, because of how parenting is hard!).
Second of all, the motorcycle terminators were the biggest disappointment in cinema in 2009 (nice try, Lars Von Trier). They were so neat and scary in the trailers, but it turns out they are incredibly easy to kill. Sometimes you can even use them as slingshots to ruin robot spaceships. And that’s fresh! (That is not fresh!)
Speaking of using motorcycle terminators as slingshots to destroy robot spaceships, almost all of the action in this action movie felt really tired and unexciting. Not as tired and unexciting as the slow-motion fight scenes in Watchmen, say, or the Photoshopped mutant.jpg fights in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but still. Bruce Willis launched a cop car into a helicopter last year in Live Free or Die Hard (now that movie was how you do exciting-retarded), Wolverine launched himself off a motorcycle this summer, it’s like enough with the throwing stuff at helicopters/robot spaceships. Not throwing a motorcycle at a helicopter is the new black.
But on to the actual movie as a chapter in the Terminator series: huh? If you think about it, absolutely nothing happens. At the end of the movie, we’re in the exact same narrative place that we were in the beginning. John Conner is going to continue to fight against the machines. The end. This whole thing was a narrative red herring. Even Terminator 3, which was basically a rehashing of Terminator 2 but with tits, brought us to Skynet’s self-actualization and the global Apocalypse. This was just…nothing. Not that we didn’t get another half-imagined exploration of the complications of time travel, America’s new favorite thing. Like, again, OK, if Skynet kills Kyle Reese and he can never be sent back in time and John Conner can never be born then John Conner would never have been born and this movie would never have happened. Fuck you, Terminator: Salvation. You are not a good enough movie to warrant me spending another second trying to think through your plot as if it makes sense.
AND DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THE ENDING. Although to be fair, it does remind me of that New England Journal of Medicine study about people who need heart transplants because they got stabbed with a big piece of metal?! Ugh. See, that’s the thing: if even someone who by all rights has no idea what he’s talking about, ever, knows that that’s not how things work, your movie been had problems. For example, I also know that you should not detonate a NUCLEAR EXPLOSION when your helicopter is still HOVERING OVER IT.
AND DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THE HAM-HANDED JESUS IMAGERY*. Seriously, don’t even get me started. Please.
Sam Worthington was fine in this movie, I guess, except when he alligator wrestled that watersnake terminator? That was ridiculous. But good job. He only had minimal trouble hiding his obvious British accent even. Anton Yelchin was fine in this movie. I like him pretty good. Blood Moongold was ridiculous, although I’m pretty sure her ridiculousness started with someone writing into the screenplay “She is a tough fighter in the resistance and her name is BLAIR.” Christian Bale needs to apologize AGAIN for his on-set meltdown because come on. The cinematographer could have WALKED INTO THE BACKGROUND of any of the shots in this movie and IT WOULD NOT HAVE AFFECTED THE PERFORMANCES. And Common was the same as he is in every movie. Common.
I think it says something that the part where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face was CGI’ed onto a bodybuilder’s naked body was one of the least terrible parts of the movie. It was kind of fun, even. Yiiikes.
And that gets to the root of the movie’s aesthetic conflict. The original Terminator was a campy b-movie that embraced its low-brow ethos even as it worked on a relatively high-brow narrative level. It was fun! And if you want to turn it into a turgid, piss-yellow drag, knee-deep in nuclear ash, that’s certainly a legitimate direction to take it in, but you’re going to need a better director than McG. The guy can’t direct his way out of a MLB commercial.
Not that everyone agrees.
All in all, a huge disappointment, and yet it is a disappointment steeped in optimism. There were plenty of red flags along the way, from the original selection of McWorst, to the recent news that they had to rewrite the whole script to Crystian Babyle (perfect), and yet we wanted the best from everyone. We gave them the benefit of the doubt even when they did not deserve it, and they fucked us, but something tells me we will fall for it all over again next time. Because we are great.
*OK, but Dude, McG, even film students don’t use that much heavy-handed Jesus imagery. Even MADONNA doesn’t use that much heavy-handed Jesus imagery. Ed Hardy saw this movie’s heavy-handed Jesus imagery and was like “ew, lame.”