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A Baleful glance at Terminator Salvation

June 26, 2009

This is a guest post by Nick Mann.

Much has been made about just how bad the new Terminator movie is, but two things that I find people have been going easy on are: the idea of revitalizing the series in the first place, and Christian Bale’s performance.  I want to address these two things, because they are abstractly linked, at least in my mind.

First of all, revitalizing the series… I guess enough people that grew up with the first two James Cameron films have a special place in their hearts for the lore and characters those movies introduced into pop culture and would welcome an expansion of that world – provided it was done right.  I don’t count myself among that camp.  Personally, I was surprised that my friend David and other reviewers of the new film mentioned the ‘flashbacks to the future’ as some of the more impressive of the first two movies.  To me the scenes set in the future were just there to accompany some expository information which contextualized a story firmly set in the ‘present’ of 1980/90 society.

Maybe I shouldn’t go any further before admitting I’m not a HUGE fan of the first two films.  I thought the first one was a good, the second a great, film.  But they didn’t change my life.  The third film, not written, directed, or (in my opinion) even conceived of by Cameron is not worth discussing in association with the first two as it was a sloppy kind of ‘sequel’ in the classic sense – cashing in on the success of the original by simply trying to one-up the original (bigger explosions, more advanced robot, etc).  I would go so far as to say that, given the limited involvement of the original cast and crew; and with special effects that don’t hold a candle to the originals, despite advances in CGI in the interim between the films; it was pretty much of ‘straight-to-video’ quality.  All that the third one manged to do was ruin the first two a little bit. Here’s how…

The physics and logic of the time travel, which the first ones hinge on, just doesn’t make any sense if you think about it too much.* Still, who isn’t willing to suspend their disbelief for an awesome movie about killer robots from the future?  Just turn off your brains and accept what Kyle Reese tells us in the first one, “The future is not set.” and “There is no fate but what we make.”  However the ‘twist’ in the third one is that those mantras were utterly wrong – things work out according to some predetermined timeline of history after all. So now what are we left with?

We have a John Connor who must accept his role as savior of mankind, sleepwalking forward through time, knowing that he will eventually send his future father into the past to impregnate his mother… But he better not get killed in the process, or else all hope for mankind is ruined, but then again, we know that he does succeed because the future is set, so any time he’s in jeopardy, no matter the odds, he’ll get out.

Clearly anyone who’s given this much thought (say, for example… the writers of subsequent Terminator movies) should realize that the saga of John Connor has been written into a corner and there’s no point in continuing the narrative.  Any new film would need to kill off John Connor in order to totally challenge what we thought we knew about the future or, at very least, focus on other characters.  Terminator: Salvation doesn’t have the balls to do the former, and makes only a half-assed attempt at the latter.  It was clear that John Connor was going to be a major player in the new movie because they cast Christian Bale for the role.
This brings me to my second point… Christian Bale brings absolutely nothing to this movie – in fact he undoubtedly makes it worse.  Both his motivations and the performance itself are laughable. Bale has spent a long time establishing some artistic credit with movies like American Psycho and The Machinist among others over the years.** And he’s also proved he can do blockbusters with the successes of his recent outings as The Dark Knight. Technically at this point in his career he can pick and choose his projects as he pleases… He’s already breathed life into a suffering franchise (the new Batman films, just alluded to) so I have to question why he saw a need to try to do the same thing again?  Surely he’s got all the money he needs for a few lifetimes and what did he think he could prove here?  After seeing the movie, I get the feeling he just likes being the action hero that shouts in a big voice.

I have to admit, when I first caught wind of the most recent Terminator project I was just slightly deceived into thinking it might be good because Christian Bale was in it… I was sadly mistaken and I want everyone to know I will never again give a movie the benefit of the doubt because Christian Bale was involved.  I’m going so far as to say this was less than a mere ‘lackluster’ performance.  This film calls into question Bale’s integrity (if you think he had any to begin with). Maybe it’s time to step back and look at things from a different perspective for a second. Sure you can hail him as an artist, often quirky and perhaps larger than life at times, but undoubtedly talented…  But there is a certain time when almost every star’s ego gets out of control and their talent pretty much disappears in a great puff of narcissism.  I call as evidence Al Pacino, and Angelina Jolie to name but two.  Also let’s not forget Bale was a child star — virtually every child star ends up fucked up and off the deep end at some point.  This may mark the beginning of a sad decline.

Don’t just blame the script – Bale should have known since day one that this was going to be a bad bet and it didn’t even take him into new territory, having succeeded with blockbusters in the past.  It was pretty much bound to be a fruitless venture. Maybe he began to realize this himself during production and took it out on the Director of Photography.

P.S. yes I did see Reign of Fire back in 2002, and no that didn’t tarnish Bale’s integrity in my opinion, so take my opinion or leave it based on that.

(* If you want a mind-blowing sci-fi time travel experience I suggest you watch 12 Monkeys.)

(**I never actually watched The Machinist, but cite it because Bale famously slimmed down to like 100 pounds or something for the role.  Is the movie actually any good? I can’t attest to that.)

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