The first of this years “Giant Killer Robots” films is thankfully a lot better than the second was – although major dental surgery is preferable to seeing that abject piece of shite again. Even more surprising when you consider that it is directed by McG, a man who’s filmic record makes Michael Bay’s look like the height of gravitas and artistic pretension, and a third part that was seriously lacking. Terminator Salvation isn’t a top flight summer movie, but it’s more than up to the task of providing a solid dose of entertainment whilst we wait for the more serious fare to come along.
The real reason that it works is that – horror of horrors – it actually has a plot that makes sense within the confines of its own world. Summer movies don’t have to show any pretension of being realistic, but they do have to follow their own internal logic. Salvation is burdened by a more tricksy internal logic than many film series due to the fate versus no fate aspect that the transition between Terminator 2 and Rise of the Machines seemed to create, but gets around this by giving us the possibility that fate remains somewhat mercurial – John Conner does not lead the resistance but does occupy the position of a possible saviour, listened to religiously by those who believe that he may be telling the truth.
Likewise it has characters that are more than ciphers for the set pieces to hang around, and whom have character arcs. Admittedly they aren’t massively deep, but they’re significant enough that you actually care for them. Having someone to actually root for changes the dynamic – one of Transformers big problems was that everyone was just an opportunity to reveal the next mac-guffin, here the characters are the point – this isn’t about either John Conner or the Terminator’s but about how Kyle Reese becomes the man we know from the first film.
It’s big saving grace however is that it doesn’t focus on Conner (although Bale is given a lot of screen time to tie the story together) but rather on the possibility that other saviours we don’t yet know about may exist and are destined to play a bigger part in the story. The adverts have been pretty unsubtle about the fact that Sam Worthington plays a prototype Terminator, however it’s refreshing to see that he’s a man who doesn’t know he’s a machine rather than a machine who’s been reprogrammed to be more like a man and thus the film doesn’t fall into the remake trap that part three did (the best part of which was the ending in which the world is obliterated without the possibility of changing the outcome) – it’s little things like this that make it a success.
One thing that occurred to me over the weekend is that all three of the good films have a certain physicality to them – as much as was made about the ground-breaking effects of T2, much of the work was actually done physically. Part three relied too much on digital stuntmen and it showed, CGI still finds it difficult to give objects weight that lend an aura of reality to even the most over-the-top stuntwork. Once again the film has a certain physicality – sure, there are probably more CGI shots than any previous film, but you do get the sense that a lot of the time it’s augmenting actual filming. Likewise it shares the stripped down palette that characterised the first two films, being mainly browns and yellows (the first being red, the second blue) – little things like this stitch films together.
It’s not without problems, the ending is a little rushed and sits out of kilter with the rest of the film, but it’s far better than we had reason to believe. Given the strength of this it’s tempting to say give McG another shot at producing the second part of the planned second trilogy to see what he can make of it, although the last sequel he did was Charlie’s Angels 2, and the less said about that the better.