Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terminate the Terminator

By David Luhrssen
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If history repeats itself, then Christian Bale has a bright future in politics. After all, who pictured the original Terminator star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the California governorís mansion when the series debuted in 1984? Like Schwarzenegger, Bale was born outside the U.S. and, prohibited by the Constitution from becoming President, will never live in the White House. But with strong ties to Hollywood, could Sacramento be the next stop on his resume?

Bale has the added advantage of being the good guy in Terminator Salvation, the stitch-in-time prequel to the series. He plays John Connor, the grim-faced G.I. Joe hailed by many as the savior against the onslaught of the machines. His authority is unquestioned among the American helicopter commandos and fighter pilots operating from bases that look like the outer ring of Baghdad. But prowling the dark sea in a submarine is another set of commanders, Russian by the cut of their uniforms. They espouse the ostensibly un-American doctrine that collateral damage is unavoidable in war. And in addition, the Mad Max landscape teems with roving thugs preying on anything that moves, and little communes trying to keep their heads down and escape annihilation.

Itís 2018 and years before, the U.S. militaryís electronic network, Skynet, attained volition and, deciding that humanity itself was the threat, turned Americaís nuclear arsenal against the world. But despite the best-laid plans of supercomputers, human military forces survived and carried on the fight. In response, Skynet manufactured an arsenal of weaponry, including skeletal man-size robots with glowing red eyes and giant models big as the Incredible Hulk, plus flying mother ships and attack jets. Time and attrition are on their side unless Skynetís off switch can be found. Every machine has an off switch.

The jumpy plot of Terminator Salvation, which often proceeds without the sinew of narrative logic, also concerns Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a grim commando who turns out to be a machine with a human heart and mind, and Connorís time-traveling father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). Naturally, there is a hotty fighter pilot to steam up the screen for fan boys. The sequence of chases and clashes with mechanical monsters suggest that director McG was influenced more by videogaming than filmmaking. Credit him, however, for supervising a convincing panoply of computer-generated SFX and painting the setting from an appropriately gunmetal gray palette. The best scenes occur in crepuscular industrial interiors and underground chambers lit by laser pointers. Skynetís genocidal program is filmed to resemble Schindlerís List and several chase scenes recall The Great Escape. McG was thinking Nazis when he thought about the machines.

At bottom, Terminator Salvation is a good story, if not especially well told, of machines displacing humanity, a specter that has haunted the imagination for centuries. The special pitch of anxiety comes from Skynetís ability to build newer and better machines, perhaps outpacing man-made technology. And hope comes from the idea that humans are not hardware, or even software programs, but a genus of unique potential, capable, if guided by even a scrap of compassion, of great deeds.

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