Saturday, May 30, 2009

Worthington makes this new 'Terminator' worthy

Another week, another sequel, prequel or reboot. The cynic in me wants to dismiss “Terminator Salvation” — the fourth film in the “Terminator” franchise — but damned if the film isn’t actually pretty good.

Coming 25 years after the first “Terminator,” this is the first film in the series to not star Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is also the first in the franchise — with the exception of a brief prologue — to be set entirely in a future in which humanity is battling an army of self-aware machines known as Skynet.

Christian Bale stars as John Connor, taking over the role previously played by Nick Stahl and Edward Furlong. Connor is a leader in the resistance who has been told all his life that he will lead humanity to victory over the machines.

Another key returning character is Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). Reese was sent into the past in the first film to protect John Connor’s mother Sarah from a terminator and in the process became John Connor’s father.

In this film, Skynet has targeted Reese for termination because they somehow know this whole sordid timeline and if you kill Reese you therefore kill Connor. Confused? Just go with it.

Although Bale gets top billing and in an opening title card it is implied that Connor is the salvation of the title, the real star of the film is the relative unknown Sam Worthington as Marcus, a mysterious man from the past with no knowledge of this new terrible future.

Trailers, commercials, clips, interviews and reviews have revealed a plot development involving the Marcus character that comes about an hour into the film. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid all promotion for the film, don’t watch or read any of it as it ruins the uncertain tension of the first hour.

Worthington steals the film. He has that allusive “it” factor that draws you to him as a performer. As Marcus, a man trying to forgive himself for a dark past and understand an uncertain future, he has a compelling, introspective screen presence.

The screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris doesn’t exactly give Worthington, or the rest of the cast for that matter, the most compelling dialogue, but he makes it count and is able to say so much more in what he doesn’t say.

Bale is good here as a hardened warrior, but unfortunately is forced to shout clunky, cliché dialogue like, “If we stay the course, we are dead! WE ARE ALL DEAD!” He is better in the quieter moments as when he is delivering radio broadcasts to the resistance.

Yelchin is having a good summer with this following on the heels of “Star Trek.” As with that film, he is very good. He is believable as a young survivalist and he brings warmth and humor to the performance.

Another standout in the cast is Moon Bloodgood who is Marcus’ love interest. She shares several key scenes with Worthington and they play off each other nicely. Bryce Dallas Howard as Connor’s wife doesn’t fare quite as well. She gives a solid enough performance, but doesn’t get much time to develop it.

At times the film tries too hard to reference the previous films. A callback to the immortal “I’ll be back” line works surprisingly well, but Schwarzenegger’ face digitally placed over a body double’s face is less effective. It is a moment meant to please the fans, but it is more of a distraction.

Directed by McG (“Charlie’s Angels”) the film has an appropriately bleak post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The tone and much of the action scenes recall the “Mad Max” films more so than the “Terminator” series, which works in the film’s advantage.

McG has constructed some good action scenes particularly a chase involving motorcycle terminators and a wrecker. Luckily, this is more than just a special effects film. Although the film doesn’t quite have the strong character connections of the first two, it is given a real human connection thanks to Worthington’s Marcus.

There are reportedly two more “Terminator” films to come, but I was left content with this one. I really don’t need to see another. But there is more money to be made, and therefore more sequels will come.

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