Terminator Salvation: A Nerd’s Notes

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I couldn’t really call myself a scholar of the Terminator franchise. Mostly what distinguishes me from other Terminator fans is my unusual ability to enjoy and re-watch T3: Rise of the Machines. This is partly though not entirely accounted for by my lingering celebrity crush on Claire Danes. (True story: I used to live with someone who was a TA for Claire Danes at Yale, and we had a message from her on our answering machine tearfully pleading for an extension … it’s not a really a story. But it is true.)

We already have a review of Terminator Salvation up, which I agree with pretty much completely — basically there are some kick-ass action sequences, but the movie’s human story is a near-total failure. Also, I know the Terminator movies are especially fond of weaving this Web of internal references, but this must be the single most densely allusive movie ever made.

Notes follow, more or less in chronological order as they occurred to me. Also there are mild spoilers:

— Helena Bonham Carter = random! Because Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes left her humiliation tragically incomplete? Seriously, how weird to see a big-time Merchant-Ivory thespian in the cast.

— Early on you get Christian Bale shoving a chopper pilot out of his seat. One of a long series of visual quotes from T2

— Connor’s chopper crashes, upside-down, in a dust-cloud … and he’s OK! Gentlest helicopter crash ever.

— It ain’t Terminator till we’ve seen a naked dude. Though this may be our first moment of actual on-screen man-gear in the franchise.

— More references: that’s the road from the end of the first movie. And there’s a dude crushing a Terminator skull! And is that the truck from T3? Is this movie entirely remixed from shots from the earlier movies? Yes. Yes it is.

— The opening credits should have prepared me for this, but oh my God it’s Chekhov.

— I’m pretty sure I suffer from borderline prosopagnosia, but still: I am having a hell of time telling John Connor and Marcus Wright apart. If only they hadn’t been given the exact same amount of stubble.

— Again, I should have been ready for this, but oh my God Chekhov is Batman’s daddy.

— Bryce Dallas Howard does a pretty convincing Claire Danes impression. Maybe that was her on my answering machine.

— Half of this movie is about John Connor, and the other half is about the mysterious Marcus Wright. People are awfully incurious as to who Marcus Wright is. Maybe there are a lot of people wandering around in the post-apocalypse who don’t know what year it is, and haven’t noticed that the world has been taken over by robots. But still.

— I’m trying to put my finger on what exactly doesn’t work about this movie. It jumps around too much: the earlier T movies were basically character studies, about a small group of people thrown together in an intense way, and how they interact. This one’s got too many characters. Plus it’s sort of leaden and humorless. The earlier movies were grim, but all the pop-culture references lightened the mood — they didn’t take themselves too seriously. The fact that they had Schwarzenegger, a walking sight-gag, on screen most of the time helped with this. This one takes itself too seriously. It’s almost as if it’s actually trying to warn us about the threat of future world domination by cyborgs.

— That said, I want to give T4 full marks for the action stuff. Even though the incessant referencing of T2 is almost monotonous at this point (motorcycle off bridge from T2 FTW!) The audio alone is astounding. Plus it’s the first one of the movies that really takes seriously the question of what a malevolent global software network would build if it could build anything. Why would it stick to bipedal androids? It probably would build huge headless giants and angry riderless motorcycles.

— Though boo to the designers for thinking SkyNet would build human-scale, human-navigable factories. Surely they wouldn’t bother with hallways and doors and such.

— What is it with future dystopias and little-kid sidekicks? It was lame in Road Warrior and Waterworld, and it’s lame here. And this is speaking as someone who actually has a little-kid sidekick in real life.

— Marcus Wright (I guess Marcus Fenix was taken) has got to get his Australian accent under control. Doesn’t really suit an L.A. gangbanger, or whatever he’s supposed to be.

— The references keep stacking up. The people-moving bins from War of the World. The missile-takes-out-a-bridge shot from True Lies.

— I can’t quite tell if Marcus is re-enacting the 1984 Apple ad when he busts a monitor toward the end of the movie. (Maybe the Apple Tablet will turn out to be SkyNet.) No wait, I can, he was. And hang on — did he just take out his restraining bolt?

— The T-800’s run on red matter from Star Trek! It all fits together.

— I am not going to tell you how the movie ends. But it is literally and most unfortunately heartwarming.