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Back to the future

Terminator sticks to the right formula


I’m always psyched to see a new Terminator movie. Just for starters, the theme of humanity battling robots for its survival is a corrective to all the environmental “messages” encoded in movies these days, and to which sci-fi movies—those funhouse reflections of contemporary anxiety—are particularly suggestible. There are, of course, worrisome implications to artificial intelligence, too, but with all the other doomsday scenarios crowding the headlines the idea of humanity laid low by computers and robots seems determinedly retro and, perhaps for that reason, extra-escapist.      

Plus, the Terminator saga is one of the few ongoing movie sagas I actually care about, one of the very few that hasn’t been ruined for me in one way or another, generally for reasons having something to do with technology. I still can’t believe how bad the new Star Wars movies stink, and I dare you to debate me on this. The tragedy of the Alien franchise is that the producers failed to grasp that the scariest thing about the alien was how you never got a really good look at it, and they failed to foresee that indiscriminate use of computer-generated imagery would rob it of its scary power after the first two movies.

That said, Terminator Salvation fell a little short of my expectations for reasons not entirely its fault. Part of it is just where we are in the story. It got to the point of put up or shut up: After repeatedly invoking a post-apocalyptic future but showing very little of it, the Terminator tale now unfolds in that oft-threatened future, and in doing so loses some of the tension arising, in the first three pictures, from opposing agents of this up-in-the-air future duking it out in a sleepy, oblivious present. Among the handful of surviving humans, it’s common knowledge what terminator robots are capable of, so no comic-violent episodes of bikers and teen delinquents picking fights with the naked guy who, unbeknownst to them, is actually a killer robot from the future, recently arrived in a big ball of lightning in the parking lot. In recent installments, comic encounters between superhuman cyborgs and eye-rubbing bystanders have bordered on self-parody, but then, this franchise has always been cheekily self-referential and there have been plenty of dryly funny moments along the way as well. I love the scene in T3 where the truck driver goes to help a woman who has just emerged from a horrific traffic accident, but scampers off when he sees her roast a tree while testing her arm-mounted flamethrower.

The suspense of T3 was heightened considerably by the awareness that doomsday was, at long last, hours away rather than years. In T4, doomsday has been and gone, and with it the uneasy relation between the present and the future that has powered the story through three previous movies. The new movie is basically all battles, though this time on actual full-scale battlefields instead of in malls crowded with unsuspecting shoppers. There’s no time travel—even in this future it hasn’t been invented yet. Which isn’t to say it’s not happening, again, somewhere in the future: As always, characters in T4 have to work through the present-day ramifications of monkeying with events that haven’t happened yet. In bleak 2018, when a mysterious wayfarer finds his way to human resistance leader John Connor, Connor must decide whether this unique stranger has been sent from the future or somehow rescued from the past.

On the whole, the Terminator franchise has aged gracefully, despite or perhaps because of a changing guard of directors and stars (creator James Cameron is nowhere near the new projects; even The Arnold appears in T4, but fleetingly, his likeness wholly artificial). It has cleverly provided for endless sequels through an accumulative, house-that-Jack-built causality requiring humans or cyborgs to be dispatched through time, or not, to kill or rescue the humans or cyborgs sent through in a previous movie. At a time when most multiplex movies are basically one big CGI sequence—just as lifelike and with just as little creative result as the Sprite commercial before the movie—it’s still worth noting that the Terminator franchise has always had charm and novelty. From the Stan Winston stop-motion of the original movie to the supercharged metallurgy of parts two and three, the terminators themselves have always been lively—last time around, even kind of freakishly sexy. Human-type cyborgs in T4 are effectively unimproved-on from previous movies, but there is a bewildering variety of new machines, including “hydrobots” and colossi colossal enough to unlimber pairs of full-size robotic motorcycles from their shins.

Terminator Salvation retains many reassuring trademarks: skulls crushed underfoot, catchphrases cleverly recycled, the father-figure thing between cyborgs and young boys, the iconic theme music that sounds like it was composed for the heavy door of a walk-in cooler. But unlike, say, James Bond, the Terminator franchise seems content with what it is and in no great hurry to change, and there’s something to be said for that, despite the now just slightly diminishing returns.

Terminator Salvation continues at the Carmike 10 and Village 6.

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