‘Terminator Salvation’ Does Not Have Much in the Way of Salvation

Terminator Salvation movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009 when the movie was released.

Remember how a while back the number three proved to be an unlucky number for sequels? There was “Shrek The Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and, most infamously, “Spider-Man 3” all turning out to be tremendous disappointments. Those sequels left a sour taste in my mouth which still won’t go away (“Spider-Man 3” still eats away at me furiously).

In the summer of 2009, it looked like the fourth movie in a franchise was having the worst luck of all. We got “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the fourth X-Men film, landing with a resounding thud. Now, we have “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth in the Terminator series and the first without Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is a franchise which surprisingly found enough energy and excitement for a third movie (I don’t care what anyone says, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was good), but now it has run out of gas. This sequel brings nothing new to the story of John Connor and his fight against Skynet, and I came out of it feeling unfulfilled which has never been the case with any “Terminator” movie before.

This is the first “Terminator” movie to get a PG-13 rating instead of an R, but this is no excuse. “Live Free or Die Hard” was the first in its series to get a PG-13 and proved to be even more exciting than anyone expected. The ratings for movies like these are pretty much irrelevant these days anyway, so why wonder if “Terminator Salvation” would have been better if it had been rated R?

In a time of endless sequels and prequels, “Terminator Salvation” is actually both. It starts off some time after the third movie and takes place in the year 2018, but it also comes before the events which set off James Cameron’s original. John Connor (“The Dark Knight’s” Christian Bale) has now fully accepted his role as the leader in the resistance against the machines, and he is no longer the whiny little bitch he was previously. I know this aspect really drove fans crazy in part three, so they will be relieved if and when they ever get around to seeing this movie.

It soon comes to John’s attention that Skynet is kidnapping humans, and one of them turns out to be Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), his father who must later travel back in time to get all hot and heavy with Sarah Connor or else he will not exist. Also, John meets a man named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is not all he appears to be. Soon all these characters will come together to fight against the evil which is Skynet.

One of my big problems with “Terminator Salvation” is it does not have much of a plot. It feels like it exists more for the explosions being set off every other minute more than anything else. The “Terminator” movies were never just about action and special effects, but of great stories and memorable characters which gave these particular films a lot heart and soul which the genre does not always allow for. This fourth “Terminator” movie, however, does not have much of a pulse, and all the loud explosions become tiring after a while. You don’t feel for the characters in the way you should, and some of them get short shrift and are simply there to maintain some sort of continuity in the franchise’s timeline. Lord knows with movies like this and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” timelines are getting a hell of a workout!

Bale is the third actor, or fourth if you count the guy in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s” prologue) to play John Connor. While he remains one of the best actors working in movies today, his performance as this titular character is shockingly one-note. Part of the problem lies with the screenplay as it does not endow John with the humanity which makes him the great leader we are told he is. Bale plays him as stripped of all feeling, and much of his screen time is spent yelling and screaming at others. Watching him portray this iconic character as a real sour puss made me wonder why John Connor bothered fighting the machines in the first place.

But other actors in the movie end up getting even shorter shrift thanks to the underwritten screenplay. One of the chief victims is Bryce Dallas Howard who portrays Kathryn Brewster, a character previously portrayed by Claire Danes in “Terminator 3.” Howard is more or less reduced to walking around pregnant, working on patients and showing a constant face of worry whenever John goes off into battle. This is a character who should have been utilized more and could have provided this movie with its strongest female protagonist. Howard is a wonderful actress, but she is wasted in a movie which fails to make better use of her talents.

Another character who is ultimately given little to do is Blair Williams, a fighter pilot in the resistance played by Moon Bloodgood. She gets a memorable introduction, figures in some of the most exciting action scenes, and there is no denying she is infinitely sexy. But in the end, Blair basically exists for the sake of the other characters here, and realizing this makes things all the more frustrating.

Helena Bonham Carter’s character of Dr. Serena Kogan could have been a great villain, but she appears only at the very beginning and end of “Terminator Salvation.” A great actress in her own right, she is also wasted in a practically non-existent role. The machines by themselves do not make much of an antagonist here, and they need that one face which can hold them all at attention. Carter’s character could have been this, but it proves not to be the case.

The script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris also contains a serious plot hole when compared to the other “Terminator” movies. At one point, the resistance discovers Skynet has a list of targets which includes John Connor and Kyle Reese. But the thing is Skynet could not have been aware of Kyle’s existence at this point in the series. If they were that aware of his existence, he would have never been able to go back in time to rescue Sarah Connor. The Terminator would have spotted Reese before he could have spotted the Terminator if this were the case. I know we are busy reinventing timelines right now, but this plot hole is completely inexcusable.

Even though John Connor appears to be main character, “Terminator Salvation” really belongs to Sam Worthington who plays Marcus Wright. Of everyone here, his character is the most fully realized as we follow Marcus on a road to redemption which takes him to a desolate future he could never have imagined. Worthington delves deeply into his character’s complex nature. Marcus Wright is not exactly a good guy, but he is not a bad guy either, and Worthington plays him as a character caught up in circumstances not of his own making. Without Worthington’s performance, “Terminator Salvation” could have been a lot worse.

One really good performance to be found here is from Anton Yelchin who plays a young Kyle Reese. Yelchin succeeds in giving Reese an energetic feel whic is almost completely different from what we have seen before with this character. Basically, we are seeing Kyle Reese in an unrefined state before he becomes the man who travels back in time to be John Connor’s daddy.

As for Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger, he is and is not in “Terminator Salvation.” With the help of CGI magic, his face was digitally placed on another actor’s buff body, and it makes it look like he never left the franchise. The audience I saw the movie with at Grauman’s Chinese applauded his appearance loudly, and it gave us all an ecstatic sense of joy to see him onscreen. However, it also proves my theory of how you can make a “Terminator” movie without James Cameron, but you cannot make one without Schwarzenegger.

And yet the most ironic thing about Schwarzenegger’s appearance is how it illustrates the movie’s biggest problem; It is missing a strong and intense sense of menace the other “Terminator” films benefited from. Realizing this makes “Terminator Salvation” an especially depressing experience as it is unable to replicate the success of its predecessors.

In all fairness, McG, best known for directing the “Charlie’s Angels” movies, does a good job with the action scenes, and the movie is never truly boring. He makes the action look like it was all done in one shot, and his handling of it is terrific. What he needs to keep in mind is how the characters need to be the ones driving the action and not the other way around. If you do not have strong characters to relate to, the special effects will not mean very much.

“Terminator Salvation” feels like it exists more for the special effects than for the story and its characters, and it makes this long running franchise feel like it has hit a dead end. Maybe it should have stopped after the third one. Considering the talent involved, I cannot help but feel like this could have been so much better. I came out of it feeling empty as if I had just seen something which went in and out of my system like a McDonald’s Happy Meal. This could have been a fresh reinvention of the franchise which thrives on imagination, but there is nothing new brought here. The Terminator will be back whether we like it or not, but will Hollywood’s thirst for franchises allow them the insight to give us a more effective follow-up? Well, here’s hoping.

* * out of * * * *

NOTE: “Terminator Salvation” was dedicated to Stan Winston, the special effects wizard who was an amazing creative force in movies like these. He will be missed.

History Repeats Itself to a Depressing Extent in ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom movie poster

Remember the scene in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” where John Hammond told Ian Malcolm they were not going to make the same mistakes, and Malcolm quickly replied they were going to be making new ones? Well, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” doesn’t make new mistakes and instead repeats the old ones as the humans once again try to save the once extinct species in way we have all seen before. Yes, the visual effects are fantastic, but everything else feels astonishingly banal as nothing new is brought to the franchise. As for the storyline, it simply shows history repeating itself, something we see happen in the real world more often than not.

Three years have passed since the events of “Jurassic World,” and the theme park has been left in ruins. Now an active volcano threatens to destroy what’s left of the dinosaurs, and those in the government debate whether it is worth the trouble to save the species from becoming extinct again. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues it would be best for the volcano to destroy the dinosaurs as he sees this as nature’s way of correcting the mistake Hammond made in cloning them years ago. Meanwhile, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has formed the Dinosaur Protection Group in an effort to save them. When the U.S. senators do not come through for her, she finds a savior in Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s partner in developing the technology to clone dinosaurs, who is intent on moving the dinosaurs to an island where they will have zero interaction with humans. Of course, this also means she will have to acquire the services of her ex-boyfriend, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), in the effort to rescue them.

Okay, the “Jurassic” movies have never been heavy on complex characters as the attention is focused mostly on the dinosaurs. The reasoning is understandable, but I have grown weary of letting the filmmakers get away with weak characterizations which are always upstaged by the special effects. Howard and Pratt are fun to watch in anything the appear in, but their talents are wasted as their characters are relegated to the romantic will-they-or-won’t-they scenario which will all know will end with them kissing passionately as they can only fight their intense feelings of love for so long.

The screenplay by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly proves to be “Fallen Kingdom’s” biggest stumbling block as it takes the story of “The Lost World” and follows it to the letter to where the twists and turns the story takes are not the least bit surprising. As I’m sure you have derived from the trailers, the plans to move the dinosaurs to another island are thwarted by a team of mercenaries led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and Lockwood’s slimy right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who looks to sell the dinosaurs to the highest bidders. You would think after all these movies humans would realize they can never fully control what they have created, but when dollar signs are involved, common sense and morality always take a backseat to greed.

Actually, some characters here had interesting potential which the filmmakers really could have built on. Eli Mills, thanks in large part to Rafe Spall, wins the audience over as he does Claire when he tells her of the plan to save the dinosaurs, but he is later revealed to be a slimy bastard as he looks to profit off them instead. Spall has described Eli as being a victim of high ambitions and of allowing himself to believe he is doing the right thing. He has been entrusted with securing the financial future of the Lockwood estate, and he feels this is the only way he can do it. Still, the character eventually becomes a one-dimensional baddie whom the audience is made to hate, and it got to where I kept waiting for him to say, “Hey look at me! I’m dino-meat!”

The same goes with Gunnar Eversol who is played by Toby Jones. Gunnar is the auctioneer who sells off the dinosaurs, and Jones has compared him to a rogue arms dealer who is morally neutral about the work he is doing. This could have made for an especially fascinating character, but alas, Jones is given only so much to do here as Gunnar is designed to be an appetizer for the “Jurassic” franchise’s newest dinosaur, the Indoraptor. Considering how morally neutral Gunnar is, it would have made more sense for him to take his fate as though he saw it coming instead of screaming like he doesn’t deserve it.

B.D. Wong returns again as Dr. Henry Wu, the chief geneticist of the Jurassic theme parks. Wong plays Henry as a man whose love for science is as big as his own ego, and he is a welcome presence in this deeply flawed sequel. But like the other characters, Henry is given short-shrift to where he just ends up acting like a one-dimensional jerk.

There are some new characters added to the mix such as Dr. Zia Rodriguez, a Marine veteran and a paleo veterinarian, played by Daniella Pineda. Pineda makes Zia into a quirky presence throughout, but the character feels half-realized never fully human. As for Justice Smith, his character of hacker and systems analyst Franklin Webb is this sequel’s most annoying as runs all over the place screaming as if we couldn’t already tell how unprepared he is to be around dinosaurs. I kept wanting to slap Franklin in the face and tell him to grow a pair as his whining made this sequel even more frustrating than it already was.

It is great to see Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm, one of the most popular and fascinating characters in the “Jurassic” franchise, but his appearance here is a mere cameo as he serves to bookend “Fallen Kingdom.” This is a real shame as the speeches he gives offers us a glimpse at what this sequel could have been: a look at humankind’s abuse of various powers, and at the possibility of if and how humanity and dinosaurs can co-exist. As he makes clear how Jurassic World is no longer the name of a theme park, but of the times humanity now lives in, we are reminded of the opportunities this sequel lost out on exploring.

And yes, there is the little child character named Maisie Lockwood played by Isabella Sermon who constantly sees through the deceptions of the adults and manages to outwit the dinosaurs chasing her. Of course, seeing her being smarter than the adults quickly becomes exasperating, and that’s even though this kind of character serves to remind adults of why they need to listen to children more often. Remember the child from Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” who told his parents “don’t touch it, it’s evil” and they did anyway? Well, you get the picture.

I couldn’t help but walk into “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with high expectations as it was directed by J.A. Bayona, the Spanish film director who gave us “The Orphanage,” “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls.” “The Impossible” had an especially profound impact on me as he depicted the devastation of 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in a way to where I felt I experienced and survived it along with the characters. I guess I was hoping he would bring that same cinematic power to this long-running franchise, but his efforts do little to improve this sequel’s poor story and screenplay.

For what it’s worth, Bayona does give us some memorable moments. The scene where the characters observe one of the vegan dinosaurs crying out to be rescued as the volcano lays waste to Isla Nublar is truly heartbreaking, and the moment where the Indoraptor stalks the helpless Maisie in a sequence which evokes “Nosferatu” as the dinosaur stretches his creepy claws out is wonderfully chilling. I also loved how Bayona started this movie off in near silence as it opens in an underwater environment. It is times like this where I am reminded of how silence is golden, and I was hoping he would use it to his advantage. But as many sequels go, this one is noisy as hell and is at times undone by Michael Giacchino’s overambitious score.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is not this franchise’s worst installment (“Jurassic Park III” still holds that honor), but it is pretty close. “Jurassic World” managed to do the impossible which was bring back much of the awe and wonder from Spielberg’s 1993 classic, but this one finds those things sorely missing to where I wondered if there was ever enough of a reason to make another sequel other than money. What we get here is the same old thing, and the results are depressing as its storyline points out how humans will keep making the same mistakes over and over again as they refuse to learn from history. It left me wondering who would be better off here, the humans or the dinosaurs. As I left the theater, I kept thinking about what Ellen Ripley said in “Aliens:”

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

Ripley had a really good point there, and this line was also proof of how James Cameron could come up with good dialogue when he put his mind to it.

* * out of * * * *

 

‘Jurassic World’ Resurrects a Decades-Old Franchise with Fresh Blood

Jurassic World movie poster

I still vividly remember when “Jurassic Park” came out in 1993. I was in high school back then, and many of my friends got to see it before I did. Their reactions always stayed with me as they described how thrilling a movie it was. One guy kept holding his arm intensely and kept saying, “It steamed the glass!” I would later find out what he meant when I saw the movie a few days later, and it was quite the thrill ride as well as groundbreaking in terms of special effects. Steven Spielberg delivered us the kind of blockbuster he had been delivering to us since he made “Jaws” all those years ago, one which is thrilling and fills you with wonder and awe.

It was later followed by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” which was more of the same but fun if you could get past the fact that Spielberg pretty much directed in on auto pilot. As for “Jurassic Park III,” a better title for it was “300 special effects in search of a screenplay.” Now we have “Jurassic World,” the latest sequel in this franchise which arrives over a decade after the previous installment. While there’s little chance in recapturing the wonder of the original, this sequel still proves to be a fun time at the movies.

Intended as a direct sequel to “Jurassic Park,” “Jurassic World “shows us how the island of Isla Nublar has long since become an infinitely popular theme park. John Hammond’s dream is now a reality, and guests are treated to a variety of shows and rides which depict these once extinct creatures in all their incredible glory. But now tourists have long since gotten used to dinosaurs being brought back from extinction, and now they want something more intense and scary. As a character notes, the park’s attendance level spikes when a new dinosaur is unveiled, and this makes the park operators create one which ends up scaring not just the children but their parents as well. And just as before, the results prove to be disastrous as the road to hell is always paved with good intentions and a misguided quest for profit.

What I liked most about “Jurassic World” is how its screenplay acknowledges how tired and worn out people are by watching dinosaurs in this day and age. This is exactly how I felt after watching “Jurassic Park III” as what was once thrilling and magic had since become depressingly routine. As a result, the script has a subversive feel as it ponders our need for the same level excitement we had in the past, and of how desperate we are to relive or top it. Now on one hand this sequel has a lot of things going for it as the filmmakers explore the desires of both the public and the corporate world which continues to be blinded by dollar signs at the expense of everything else. This wouldn’t be a theme park without a Starbucks or a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville Restaurant in it, and both are on display here. Heck, even Buffet makes a cameo carrying a couple of margaritas, but when the dinosaurs start wreaking havoc, it’s clear he won’t have time to look for his lost shaker of salt.

On the other hand, the movie has its characters making incredibly dumb decisions which will have audience members scratching their heads in disbelief. Then again, this wouldn’t be much of a movie if everyone used their common sense on a regular basis. Those of you who have watched “Jurassic Park” over a thousand times will be instantly reminded of famous dialogue like when Ian Malcolm talked about how scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could create dinosaurs to where they never stopped to think if they should. Then there’s Ellie Sattler who made it clear to Hammond he will never have control because that’s the illusion he was trying to avoid.

Then again, the one line which stands out most is when Hammond said how he “spared no expense.” When we get our first glimpse of what has become of Isla Nublar, we are reminded of what Hammond said as it has accommodations your local Motel 6 can only dream of offering guests. They may leave the light on for you, but they can’t give you amazing vistas or prehistoric creatures to look at.

Actually, one of the best moments in “Jurassic World” comes from B.D. Wong who reprises his role of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie. When asked why he and the other scientists created the new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, Henry responds, “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”

In terms of the human element, “Jurassic World” does suffer a bit. Then again, these movies have never been about complex characters as much as they have been about dinosaurs. Still, one of the best things about this long-awaited sequel is Chris Pratt who lends his “Guardians of the Galaxy” charisma to his role as Owen Grady, a former military officer and velociraptor trainer. Pratt adds the heroic element this movie demands, and his comedic skills are put to good use.

Another terrific performance comes from Bryce Dallas Howard as the park’s operations manager, Claire Dearing. It’s great to watch Howard take Claire from being a work obsessed park employee to a badass heroine who ventures out into the danger zone to save her two nephews before they become the dinosaurs’ main course.

It’s also a kick to see Vincent D’Onofrio here as the antagonist Vic Hoskins, head of security operations for InGen. The actor manages to take what could have been a simple one-dimensional villain and makes him a lot more interesting. You can see in his eyes how he has a secret plan for the dinosaurs which has yet to be revealed to our heroes. Of course, we all know how D’Onofrio’s character is going to die, and it is not pretty.

Spielberg once again stayed in the executive producer’s chair for this sequel, and the director is Colin Trevorrow who is a very lucky filmmaker as he went from directing a movie with a budget of $750,000 (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) to this $150 million summer blockbuster. While he is not able to fully recapture the wonder of “Jurassic Park,” he makes “Jurassic World” a solid piece of summer entertainment which brings out the kid in you. Trevorrow also creates moments which will have the audience cheering loudly, showing he is more than capable of giving us the kind of crowd pleasing movie we expect in the summertime.

“Jurassic World,” like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was stuck in development hell for years before it finally came to fruition. For the most part it was worth the wait as it comes with a stronger story and screenplay than the last two “Jurassic” movies could ever hope to have. There’s plenty of great dinosaur fights, tourists getting terrified, and there are characters here worth rooting for. All in all, it does what a summer movie should do which is entertain you from beginning to end.

Of course, when you look more closely at the story, it illustrates how history keeps repeating itself when dollar signs get in the way. Once again humans deluded themselves into thinking they could control dinosaurs, and nature finds a way to prove them wrong. With “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” about to be released, I imagine we will watch humans again trying to tame these prehistoric creatures, and their efforts will prove to be largely futile. Oh well, hopefully we’ll get another entertaining sequel in the process.

* * * out of * * * *