Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: "Terminator Salvation"

If you can still keep the time-space continuum for the "Terminator" franchise straight in your head, you must be a Nobel-winning astrophysicist.

With four movies now, a TV show (which was canceled on Monday) and original director James Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger long departed from the scene, "Terminator Salvation" is the latest in a long line of endeavors to rejigger history's orderly march in the name of science fiction mayhem.

You'll remember that Arnie played a cyborg who travelled back from the future to kill the mother of John Connor, who would become the leader of the human resistance movement to Skynet, the machine hegemony. To fight the terminator, Connor sent a soldier named Kyle Reese, who knocked boots with mom and thus became Connor's own father.

The first movie made it very clear that the time machine was destroyed after Reese and the cyborg went through, but in subsequent iterations more and more terminators and human protectors have popped up, every one of them trying desperately to alter the future.

So in "Salvation," it is the future --- 2018, to be specific. And Skynet is now trying to change the past, by hunting down Reese, so Connor can't send him back in time to change the future, which is right now, but it might be a different now if they succeed.

Or something.

"Terminator Salvation" is the latest attempt to revive a moribund film franchise via pyrotechnics. There are so many explosions it seems the movie itself is combustible. Christian Bale, as John Connor, survives two separate helicopter crashes, two thermonuclear detonations and dozens of exploding cars, buildings and robots. One starts to expect random things to blow up during quiet dialogue scenes.

In the supporting roles, Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov in another recent franchise reboot, "Star Trek") is Kyle Reese; rapper/actor Common is Connor's right-hand man; Bryce Dallas Howard is Connor's very pregnant squeeze; Helena Bonham Carter is a Skynet flunky; and Moon Bloodgood (stage name, ya think?) is a hot pilot.

The x-factor is Marcus (Sam Worthington), a burly Aussie who we see executed in a prison in 1993. He wakes up in 2018 not knowing what happened to him, but now he has amazing physical abilities. Even a Nobel-winning astrophysicist's janitor can figure out that it's not Marcus' personality that is magnetic.

"Terminator Salvation" would operate pretty well if it was a standalone flick about humans battling robots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's fast-paced and often exciting -- director Joseph McGinty Nichol (I refuse to call him by his asinine handle "McG") may be ham-handed at scenes where people just talk to each other, but the man knows how to stage action scenes.

Where the movie gets bogged down is in having to shoehorn itself into the limitations of the previous "Terminator" shows. Astute fans will be able to spot a half-dozen inconsistencies in the "Terminator" universe -- I know, because they were doing so after the screening I attended. ("Why don't the robots just kill Reese the minute they capture him?")

It's never good when your fan base knows more than you do.

2.5 stars out of four

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