Terminator Frustration

There's a really good flick lurking around in what turns out to be only an ok one. After much fanboy handwringing over what horrors McG would wreak on the once-beloved franchise, Terminator Salvation ends up being a somewhat unsatisfying mix of unfulfilled plot points set against well-directed if a bit familiar action scenes.

The movie (aside from a quick prologue set in 2003) takes place in 2018, after a self-aware computer system named Skynet became self-aware, decided humanity was a threat, and launched a nuclear war to wipe us out. Previous Terminator films have centered around time-travel where Skynet, unable to stamp out the last gasps of human resistance led by John Connor, have sent cybernetic killing machines back to the past to terminate Connor's mother, Connor himself, even Connor's future generals. The resistance of the future manages to send back one of their fighters to as protection, Kyle Reese, who ends up being Connor's father in one of those time paradoxes it's better not to think too much about. This one, however, is mired squarely in one set of battles concerning a mystery figure named Marcus and the future father, Kyle.

And that's one of the failings – the film feels somehow small. The action's not, with spectacular set pieces of lil' water terminators, big Harvester terminators, flying hunter-killers, Voltron-esque motorcycle...inators, etc. McG shows a far steadier hand putting these scenes together with more skill and seriousness than one would've guessed from the director of Charlie's Angels and Full Throttle. But every other installment has been an ultimate battle to preserve the future, and after the bombs fall and there's not much left to save, the conflicts in this one seem a bit flat. The main mystery of the movie is of new character Marcus Wright's identity, and once revealed, proves to be more of a head-scratcher than a fist-pumper. I'll save you from spoilers, but overall I think his contribution to the continuity is questionable at best.

The strong cast helps: Christian Bale brings suitable gravitas and growliness to John Connor, Anton Yelchin (Star Trek's Chekov, having a pretty big summer) is effective as a fresh-faced resistance fighter, Sam Worthington succeeds to whatever point possible as Marcus, altho Bryce Dallas Howard barely registers as Connor's wife Kate. But they're put through pretty familiar paces – while some of the callbacks to the first films are fun, even the initially intriguing desert setting eventually culminates in yet another fight in a factory.

A friend of mine reviewed the film as "too much action," and while I don't quite agree with that, I will say there's definitely "not enough of anything else." Apparently 40ish minutes of character development got left on the cutting room floor, so while I have hope for a more coherent director's cut DVD, the final theatrical film is a a string of set pieces and a jumble of unexplained ideas. Characters fall in and out of love with little explanation, alliances are made and broken without much reason, and what should be a major character's transformative moment raises more questions than it answers.

That said, the scale of the science-fiction action does carry the day... but barely. It does an adequate job setting up this next trilogy (it's not a Phantom Menace-level disaster by any means) but it's not truly a "salvation" of a somewhat fading franchise. But as they say in these movies – the future's not set; there is no fate but what we make. So here's hoping they make a more emotionally powerful Terminator 5, because despite this one's faults... I'll be back.


Origin Glory

Lemme start by making one thing clear: I've never been a Trekkie. Or Trekker, whatever. The original show always felt like a messy mix of less-than-special effects and awkward allegory to me, and the followups while varying in quality, generally followed suit. And it's not like I'm not a genre geek – in the "Kirk vs. Picard" arguments, I'd prolly answer "Ackbar." Anyway, lemme also make one more thing clear: this Star Trek rocks.

Director JJ Abrams has, amazingly, created a reboot that's sincerely respectful to the long-term fans of the franchise but also reinvents the Federation for this generation, making the crew of the Enterprise exciting and actually, you know, cool. Rather than the craggy and portly original cast or the distant thespians who populated the sequel shows, the new crew consists of young fresh faces boldy going on their first mission. Chris Pine takes over the Captain's chair – his Kirk is sort of like the offspring of Jason Bourne and Christian Slater. Zachary Quinto steps out of the morass that is Heroes to imbue Spock with a new sense of spirit and wry humor. Rounding out the eventual love triangle is Zoe Saldana, who gives Uhura an actual personality and more to do than press buttons and fill out the jumpsuit. Also terrific are John Cho (Harold without Kumar) as Sulu and Simon Pegg as an at-least-slightly unhinged Scotty.

And bridging the gap between this movie and previous ones is Leonard Nimoy as Spock, who anchors the time-traveling plot that's fairly twisty, but generally coherent. The villain's a bit of a throwaway – Eric Bana does fine with what he's got to work with, but Nero's not gonna go down in Trek history with Khan, the Borg or even the Tribbles. But what holds it all together is a smart, snappy script that's a refreshing change from today's brooding antihero deconstructions. It's an affectionate nod to the original show's optimism, again retooled to connect with a more urbane audience. And long gone are the legendarily cruddy special effects – the movie's consistently elegant and spectacular.

So strap on your regulation Federation jumpsuit (updated to resemble actual wearable apparel ;), leave any lingering Klingon language baggage behind and get ready for a big slam-bag science fiction actioner that might just be the most fun flick of the summer.


My first Tweetup, I guess

Don't wanna get too Harry Knowles on you, but should prolly share the circumstances that led to this review. After watching an amazing basketball game and a thrilling but disappointing hockey game, I figured it was time to settle into some DVR before falling asleep. Until I checked Twitter and saw that RealHughJackman was en route to my local theater for a midnight screening of Wolverine. Figuring what the hell, I grabbed a cab and arrived in time to snap this shot:
Shook the man's hand and wished him a great weekend, particularly with the piracy issue and all. He was gracious and fun with the fans - even the ones wearing gloves with foam claws protruding from them. So I'll confess to some potential bias, as the normally pretty manic midnight show crowd was buoyed to frantic hights by having Hugh Jackman in attendance, watching us watching him as...
I didn't have terribly high hopes for this one. Not that Jackman doesn't do a great job with the role, but the franchise's high point was X2, seeming to turn the corner into nonsenseland with the threequel. And frankly, I'm a little burnt out on prequels at this point given that, at some level, you know where it's eventually gonna end up. So how does it hold up?

Pretty good, actually – it's not without issues, but I was pleasantly surprised. The crowd's enthusiasm may have helped smooth out the rough spots, but overall it's a solid actioner with a surprisingly appealing supporting cast. While Wolverine's origin obviously takes center stage (um, hence the title ;) we're treated to snippets of of stories from the wider mutant universe – lots more Sabretooth, a bit of The Blob, some Gambit and more. Some work better than others, but they all help to flesh out a tale we've already seen a decent handful of in the first three films.

The movie spans a couple centuries, starting with James Logan as a child, where we see his mutant powers (and simmering rage) emerge, and traces his evolution into the cigar-chomping antihero we met in the first X-Men film. Along the way, we meet his brother, his maker, his lover and fellow fighters. Some are more successful than others – Liev Schreiber does Sabretooth much better than in the previous movies, and the young General Stryker hits the right notes to line up with how he acts later in life. Many of the other mutants are good, if underutilized – Gambit and Deadpool being prime examples.

Taylor Kitsch (Riggins from Friday Night Lights) is a great Gambit, but we don't get to him until pretty late in the film. And Ryan Reynolds shows incredible potential as Deadpool, but his role, while pivotal, is pretty minimal. This is one problem with the movie overall – it feels like a launching pad for several other franchises, but how they're used here doesn't really lend itself to doing that successfully. I'll avoid too many spoilers, but future movies would either have to take place in a different decade or get retconned to a point where they're sort of unrecognizable. There are also a ton of cameos, only a couple of which really strain credibility.

On a technical level, the movie starts slow but ends in pretty spectacular fashion. Despite rumors of directorial trouble, it doesn't bear the marks of something that spent too long into the ending room or switched direction mid-stream. There's a bit of today's typical over-edited action scenes, but in general it's a pleasure to watch. So overall I'd say strike a blow against digital piracy and head out to watch Wolverine this weekend – it's a good big-budget kick-start to the summer that'll play much better on the big screen than in a blurry Quicktime window.

And hey, I met Hugh Jackman! ;)