Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cinema 2009: senseless aural, visual pounding

At the end of a screening of "Terminator Salvation," as the credits rolled and the smattering of shy applause quickly faded from the crowded theater, I walked to the exit at the right of the big screen. While the crowd filed back up the aisles toward the common lobby, I gave the door's release bar a rude shove and was instantly outside, alone in the cool, dark night.

Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of machines while explosions reverberated overhead in the night sky. It was a surreal moment. Sure the machines outnumbering me were only parked cars — once fearsome four-wheel drive SUVs, the writing was already on the wall for those fossil fuel guzzlers. But what about the explosions? Echoes from "Terminator Salvation," a veritable two-hour ear-pounding of a film, or symptoms of a deeper condition, call it post cinematic mess disorder?

Two silhouettes approached me from around the corner of the cineplex. In a panic I prepared to hide between a Tundra and an Avalanche. Then I noticed the approaching figures were not, as I had feared, 600-series Terminators, but only a pair of giggling teens. As for the explosions, once around that corner I could see red and blue starbursts in the eastern sky — fireworks.

"Terminator Salvation" is tough on its audience. You may even experience a similar moment of silver screen shell shock after watching the DVD.

From the opening credits, which hammer away at you with the sense of impending doom, "Terminator Salvation" reprises the relentlessness that is the trademark of its franchise. Magnificent warfare, colossal explosions, big bullets and angry overkill — it's all here. The question is: aren't we tired of all that already?

Early on there is some remarkable cinematography. When the wounded body of John Connor (Christian Bale), the leader of the human resistance against Skynet's killer machines, and the remains of a terminator are shown from above sprawled in the dust with a destroyed helo between them, that symmetry foreshadows an incipient inner battle between the nature of man and the manufactured.

But cinematography is soon sacrificed at the altar of effects and loud booms. (More than 300 persons are credited for the visual and special effects.)

There is heart-pounding action in "Terminator Salvation" but the filmmakers serve up an apocalyptic vision that looks like a World War II movie where the Nazis have been replaced by terminators. There is even a stunt stolen from Steve McQueen's role in John Sturges's 1963 classic "The Great Escape."

A series of cheesy shots is used to depict the rag tag human resistance 14 years after "Judgment Day," when the machines unleashed global nuclear war in an attempt to destroy humans. Now dressed in greasy tatters and huddled in small groups around old radios, these "good guys" wait for orders to drop napalm on what is left of their wasteland planet. Apparently they believe mankind hasn't been bombed far enough back into the Stone Age already.

In the entire film there is only one interesting character (a cameo by the governor of California doesn't count): Marcus Wright, a self-avowed bad man who insists he has been given a second chance. But Wright is played with luminous lackluster by Sam Worthington. The only good acting comes from Moon Bloodgood, a lithe, dark beauty of a fighter pilot, who overcomes such lines as "I don't meet a lot of good guys these days," to steal scenes and make her human co-stars look like early robots.

There are other new machines, but they lack originality and there is no logic for their existence.

Most of the dialog is forgettable, although I personally enjoyed the line "We need to get out of L.A." Still, I doubt it has catchphrase potential. For that I nominate the line, "The human condition no longer applies to you." Try it on your buds.

There is a new twist in "Terminator Salvation," a one-of-a-kind prototype terminator created to tip the odds in this epic war in favor of Skynet. But the preponderance of the film is tedious in its lack of originality. There are so many explosions and crashes in "Salvation" that audiences may finally get their fill, a tipping point that could eventually usher in a kinder, gentler Hollywood blockbuster. Now that could qualify as salvation.

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