Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Well, yes, good, fine, bang-bang, yes, visual effects, splendid (actually, and in many ways, it's a rather desolately beautiful dystopian visual text), broody, yes, action-y, yes, clumsy religious typography (crucifixion,* atonement, sacred fucking heart) yes. This movie is just what you expect it to be, which may not be wholly a bad thing.

What's wrong with the picture? Not that it's particularly poorly rendered, except in one central way; but that one way happens to ruin the whole. It misconstrues the symbolic logic of its franchise.

What is the Terminator? The Terminator is Death; his grinning titanium skull the latest incarnation of an ancient western tradition of iconic momento mori. The first film dramatised, straightforwardly and therefore effectively, life's struggles and attempted flight from death's implacable pursuit. The simplicity of the narrative served the story perfectly, because our own mortality is, on one level, wholly linear and perfectly simple: it will come; it will come straight, it will come straight for you; it will not stop. Without exception, that's the fate of everybody in the world. This unsettling existential truth is at the heart of the original movie's enduring resonance. In a nutshell, the first Terminator movie said: death is singular, implacable and after you. That's true. (What I mean when I say this is that although we know, intellectually, that death is general, not singular--that although we die individually others live on--nevertheless that's not how it feels. Our impending deaths, as the end of our world, feel like the end of the world).

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) told the same story with one wrinkle. It was a text that said: death is still singular, still coming for you personally, still implacable. But it is also protean. That still works, as a core metaphor; and the chase-narrative line of that film was as linear as the first, which is good. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) parsed the metaphor the same way as the second film, and although it inevitably felt second-hand, or after-thunk, as a result, at least it had enough by way of courage-of-convictions to go with an appropriately downbeat ending.

Terminator: Salvation ditches the eloquence of its own core metaphor. It can't resist the opportunity to throw all manner of ingenious terminator-types at the screen: robot jets, giant robots, robot motorcycles (which are also the giant robot's knees), robot half-men-half-biscuits, robot mini flying saucers, robot 1984-vintage Schwarzeneggers, robot conga eels, robot Helena Bonham Carter hologrammatic heads, robot gun emplacements and robot concentration camps. A lot of these realisations are ingenious, and fun to watch, but they mean that the film is, at its heart, saying: death is a whole bunch of stuff, and the notable thing about death is that it is cool. It is saying: death is a futuristic obstacle course. It is also, incidentally, saying: death isn't personal; it is, on the contrary, spread all over the place, and happens to other people. This accords with the bitty, overlong narrative trajectory of the film, and it gives the filmmaker opportunity for staging both thrills and spills. But none of it is, as an observation about death, true. And because it entirely lacks the individual existential resonance of the first film, Terminator: Salvation feels like just another forgetable summer movie.

What happened to the death's-head momento mori? This is what happened: it became a pizza. Of course it did.
*Marcus, the blandly handsome chap with the Evangelist's name, starts the film on death row. Why is he on death row? Because he killed 'his brother and two cops'. What's his brother's name? Abel, presumably. The two unnamed cops? I'm guessing they were called Dismas and Gestas. How is he executed? He is strapped to a cross, with state centurions, er, policemen standing beside him, and an audience watching. Is this actually how murderers are executed in the USA? Of course not. Will he rise again? Yes. And save the world? Yes. Will he sojourn in the desert? He will. Will he carry stigmata--in the palm of his hand, say? Yes. And will he be tempted by the devil, but resist the temptation? You bet your sweet religiously-symbolic bippy he will.


Rich Puchalsky said...

I've only seen up through Terminator II, but I think that your summary misses the most powerful moment of it -- the time when Sarah Conner has a vision of the post-nuclear-holocaust world and decides to try to prevent it, rather than settling for the survival of her son within it. It's powerful precisely because it acknowledges that death affects more than an individual life, and that while individuals must die, it is possible that entire societies need not die, at least not suddenly and painfully.

Adam Roberts said...

I'm now wondering if this is a translatlantic differend (the yankee finding himself drawn to the moments that highlight collectivity, and ethical choice; the limey unable to see beyond the individual existential dread); or if it's just that you're a well adjusted social being and I'm a crazy egoist. Hmm.