Film Comment reports: First Look at “Terminator: Salvation”

“What does it mean to be a quote human being?” director McG asked the crowd. As he spoke, a ten-foot tall automaton scanned the screening room with its glowing red eyes. “If we were graduate students at NYU, we could discuss the philosophy of it for hours.” As compelling as I found the question–might this mechanical toy express more genuine humanity than the unctuously insincere McG?–I have to admit that I felt less inclined to wax ontological than to imagine the endlessly awesome ways that this robot could be dismembered, blown up, or otherwise atomized into a million glittering pieces.

Ah, the simple joy of staging physical destruction as cinematic spectacle. From what I glimpsed at last night’s clips preview, T:S contains at least one really whiz-bang action set piece. It involves a human capturing mega-machine dubbed The Harvester, two deployable motorcycle robots, an eighteen-wheel oil tanker, and an obstacle course-like highway littered with abandoned cars. Of course, this couldn’t help but recall that iconic sequence in T2 where John Connor zips through a concrete flood-control channel on his moped while the T-1000 pursues him in a Mack truck. Both set pieces are models of analytical clarity: maximum visual legibility yielding maximum visceral impact. But the contemporary version ultimately comes up short.

While it’s hard to fault McG for not matching the plate-spinning complexity of a James Cameron set piece, what’s less forgivable is how he’s seemingly drained the franchise of its playful postmodern irony. McG said he wanted to “reboot” the Terminator films by taking them in a “darker” direction. That he repeatedly referred to The Dark Night as if it were Citizen Kane gives you a pretty good idea of what he’s aiming for. (Note that TDK scribe Jonathan Nolan was brought in for a rewrite.) Though not-so-thinly veiled political allegories were a foundational component of the original Terminator films, Cameron’s self-conscious enjoyment of the sheer absurdity of the sci-fi conceits injected those films with an insinuating sense of humor. Absent that humor, will the franchise devolve into pretentious self-seriousness? Will maddeningly vague references to contemporary political realities lamely attempt to telegraph some sense of moral gravity? Will the whole thing just feel empty without a star turn from that most inhuman of humans, Arnold Schwarzenegger?  Mmmaybe.

But hey, at least that robot will finally get blown up.

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