Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Terminator Salvation Reviewed--Let's Play Script Doctor

There is much to like about Terminator Salvation. Unlike some notable critics who absolutely loathed the newest installment in the almost 30 year saga that is the Terminator franchise, I actually liked it. Now, it is not perfect. And there are some serious issues with logic and continuity. But, I smiled, had a good time, and felt as though I got my money's worth (which is much more than I can say for the foul excuse of a movie that dares to call itself Wolverine).

What works in Terminator Salvation--giant robots; the action scenes; the visceral fun of seeing another Terminator film; ILM's cgi; and Sam Worthington's "prototype" T-101/T-800 unit. Worthington has got a great future ahead of him, and James Cameron's long anticipated movie "Avatar," is lucky to have him as the lead.

What doesn't work? Quite a bit. The analogy I would use to describe this film is that Terminator Salvation is like a piece of filet mignon in the hands of an underskilled chef. Said cook has a wonderful piece of meat to work with but overcooks it, uses olive oil instead of peanut oil to sear it, and then kills the steak in the broiler instead of baking it. To make matters worse, our overly ambitious (yet relatively unskilled) chef uses cheap cooking wine as the base for the sauce. The result is an acceptable dish that does not reach its full potential. Your dinner guests know this fact, but they humor the effort because the base ingredients are of such generally high quality.

In keeping with the metaphor, how would I improve the "dish" that is Terminator Salvation?

13 Fixes for Terminator Salvation

1. The writers and producers of this film try too hard. They have a perfect recipe for greatness and either do not "get" the franchise beyond its most superficial elements, or they do not care to understand what worked with the first two films. Sure, the Terminator films are about robots, explosions, and car chases. The Terminator franchise is also about big questions: fate, destiny, artificial intelligence, and the inevitability of the future as opposed to the primacy of free will. The first is spoken to wonderfully, the latter is relatively ignored. Solution: more homework, talking to more fans, making sure that the sequel has a great script with human drama as the foundation and base for all of the action movie elements, and reading more classic science fiction.

2. As a ghetto nerd I have spent many an evening arguing with friends about how we would survive the rise of the machines. (I love this dilemma, would AI destroy us? Or would AI protect humankind from the barbarism inherent in our souls?) Terminator Salvation fails to understand the reality of this monstrous future. Humankind has suffered a nuclear apocalypse, a genocidal war, and is now fighting a merciless foe. One would think that events would seem dour and grave. Not in Terminator Salvation. Sure, things are bad, but never do you have a sense that humanity's very existence as a species is imperiled.

3. On the post-nuclear apocalypse. The sky should be dark. Electromagnetic pulse damage should have fried most electronics, i.e. no modern cars. The surviving humans should be sick, exhausted, and psychically damaged almost beyond repair. This is the power of John Connor's character. He is a messiah who teaches humankind how to fight back against the machines. In Terminator Salvation he is peripheral. Moreover, in the world created by this first installment, Connor is utterly expendable. As a corrective, the writers and producers should watch the following clip from the Matrix animated film anthology and ask themselves, "how would a leader motivate and inspire these desperate souls?"

4. Pretty people. The characters in this film have perfect teeth, relatively nice clothes, neatly kept hair, and not a person seems deathly ill (radiation poisoning and cancer anyone?). Most glaringly, Connor's pregnant wife has apparently been shopping at Anne Taylor or Neiman Marcus. This is just plain laziness on the part of the producers. Corrective: yellow teeth, sickly people, dirt, disease, and despair. Second corrective: more religious iconography and conversations about God. The writers cannot ignore the very human reality that people in desperate situations either find their faith or utterly lose it. The film plays with John Connor as a Messianic figure, but does not follow through. The sequels must address this aspect of his personal mythology much more forcefully.

5. Please keep actor/emcee Common away from all movies produced in this country. He is so foul an actor that the Screen Actor's Guild should expressly forbid him from ever appearing in a film again. And please remove all magical negro characters that are inspired by Mad Max: the Road Warrior from the sequels to Terminator Salvation. Third suggestion: Moon Bloodgod who plays Sam Worthington's love interest is a goddess--in my pantheon of Hollywood crushes she may actually be higher than Rosario Dawson...and that ain't no easy feat to accomplish. Because of that fact my lovely Miss Bloodgod (what a name!) is out of place, and her presence is distracting. For the next few movies in a trilogy that should be more Threads and The Day After than Dawson's Creek, the actors need to get uglier, fatter, and much less attractive.

6. Simplicity. This plot is too complicated. We have a human infiltrator in Sam Worthington's character who is actually in many ways more sophisticated than the T-101 unit sent back, i.e. Arnold's model of terminator, in the first 3 films. But, Terminator Salvation's newest model of terminator is the predecessor to Arnold's version. Unnecessary. Worthington is a great character but wasted because the very fact of his presence and reveal (which was given away by the trailers for the film) is anti-climactic.

7. Brute force, bluntness, and drama. The best part of this film, and a moment that hinted at what it could have been, is the introduction of Kyle Reese's character. What would relatively untrained citizen soldiers do against robotic warriors armed with miniguns (that is a modern version of the Gatling gun for those of you out of the loop)? Would we adapt, achieve, and overcome? Or would we just die? The movie needs more of these moments. Again, the human resistance's ability to fight Skynet is never in doubt because our "primitive" firearms are able to damage and destroy the terminators. The creators of Terminator Salvation need to increase the body count of the human protagonists.

In addition, the creators of Terminator Salvation seem to have forgotten that the relative invulnerability of the terminators is the foundation for the drama (remember the first Terminator film's point that Kyle Reese is unsure of his ability to defeat the T-101 with "these weapons"). This important detail is totally undermined within the opening moments of the film.
As a fix, Terminator Salvation needs more blunt, desperate moments where dozens if not hundreds of human beings are willing to die in order to kill 1 terminator. We do this again, and again, and again because we have no choice. This is the drama and sadness that the new trilogy must capture in order to be successful.

8. Background and frame. Terminator Salvation is a relatively empty world. It needs to add constant activity in the background of its scenes. One of the key dramatic elements in the war against the machines is that they never tire, surrender, or stop in their pursuit of genocide. In Terminator Salvation the viewer never has a sense that humankind is fighting this type of enemy. For the sequels, hunter killer robots must be in the sky at all times, the resistance must be under siege, and victory must always be in doubt.

9. Military consultants. Terminator Salvation would greatly benefit from the addition of a few lines of dialogue that hint at the dynamics of the war fighting situation which humanity has found itself in. The ability of the resistance to use aircraft to fight Skynet seems unbelievable as presented. How would they survive Skynet's aerial assault? Wouldn't Skynet's local radar and satellites detect any planes in the air? A simple fix would be a throwaway comment on the fact that the resistance is using obsolescent aircraft and helicopters such as Huey's and A-10's because they are immune from Skynet's computer viruses and overrides--nix the Osprey's in the next film. A second fix would necessarily be an allusion to the resistance's ability to obtain fuel, spare parts, and mechanics to keep these vehicles in the air. A third fix would involve a clear communication to the audience that the resistance rarely uses these precious assets, and when they do, their small fleet of aircraft must stay under some arbitrary altitude (say 300 feet) in order to have any chance of survival.

10. Second suggestion on tactics and strategy in Terminator Salvation--the idea of the human resistance using submarines as a base of operations is well considered and inspired. The idea that satellite phones (and probably GPS) would still function is fanciful. This is sloppy writing where the script is building up to a big event and takes the easy road (the resistance would likely travel at night and use human "runners" on bicycles or silenced motorcycles to coordinate locally). Final thought on this point: scarcity is a way of life for insurgents, a condition made more desperate for humanity following a nuclear attack. Again, we should see the resistance desperately taking weapons and ammunition from the terminators as their armaments are among the few guaranteed to give the human soldiers any fair chance in battle.

11. The anti-climax. Because we have seen the first three films, there is never any real fear that John Connor will die, because if he did, a paradox would be introduced into the fim. John Connor should know and acknowledge this fact. If Bale's Connor did this, he would have every excuse to be brash bordering on careless. Connor would know that his survival is assured until (at least) the moment when he sends Kyle Reese to the past, and Bale's character would be more heroic in deed as a result (if played correctly, this could introduce a great deal of angst into Conner's character because he would feel like a fraud as his survival is never in doubt).

My plot correction: begin the movie with Reese and Connor meeting each other within either the first 30 or so minutes of the film and plot the movie around that encounter, or have them meet in the last 20 minutes as they work together to resolve the climax of the film.

12. Skynet is foolish, inefficient, and illogical. If Skynet knows about Reese's importance (presumably from the terminator in the third film) then why not simply eliminate Kyle once he is discovered? Also, what is most ominous about fighting artificial intelligence? Its ruthless efficiency. This is an area where Terminator Salvation could be much improved.

Also, the deus ex machina moments with Worthington in Skynet--and the resistance's assault on the installation is another example of lazy, piss poor, writing.

Continuing forward, humanity finds strength through its creativity and hope. Here, our capacity for irrational behavior is an asset in battle because we are capable of unpredictable behavior. This is alluded to by Connor but never developed--it hangs in the narrative as a note, but is never seen in the film. It must be made the heart and soul of the sequels.

13. Final thought: a heart transplant as field triage in the middle of a desert ain't gonna happen. Second final thought: I would have much preferred the rumored ending where Worthington's character becomes John Connor. This would have given all the films an existential weight as a terminator pretending to be a human is actually the leader of the resistance. Alas, Terminator Salvation has no such courage.

Terminator Salvation is a fun film that I will watch again. But, like Transformers, it is a perfect fit for the DVD format because you can fast forward through all of the unnecessary scenes and watch the action pieces. Is this a complement or an insult? I am unsure. But it is a fitting observation with which to describe this most recent installment in the storied Terminator franchise. See the movie, have fun, and lower your expectations...and maybe the sequels will live up to what this newest installment could have been.


LeonX said...

Great post. I haven't seen the movie and I don't plan to. Regarding your number 11 fix wouldn't that also make John Connor feel also immortal as well?

misterchane said...

co sign the great post.....i thoroughly disliked the movie for all the script doctor reasons you stated...
t800 standing in for connor would have been brilliant
good look with the animatrix embed

chaunceydevega said...

@Leon--see the movie, just with reservations.

@Misterchane--what are some of your other critiques? I am thinking of seeing it again with fresh eyes.