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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Terminator Salvation is one of those movies that falls under the category of "it seemed like a good idea at the time." A few weeks ago, I was talking to a guy I know who is as big a fan of the series as I am. We were both excited that this fourth installment was going to focus on the futuristic war between man and machines - a war that has heretofore been glimpsed only briefly. Turns out that the approach wasn't so smart after all, because when a movie focuses on a war, it's going to be about a war. The appeal of the Terminator series was always that it was about the people who would eventually fight that war. In other words, everything I liked about the franchise is strangely missing here.

The story (and I use that term loosely, but more on that in a minute) is set in 2018. Christian Bale plays John Connor, the man who has been prophesied to lead humanity to victory over the Skynet computers that have taken over the world. A leader in the resistance movement (Michael Ironside) announces that the group may have found a way to defeat Skynet once and for all. I'd tell you what it is, but the film never goes into much detail, It's what Hitchcock called a McGuffin - the thing that's vitally important to the characters, but not necessarily to the audience.

At this point, it seems like Terminator Salvation is heading in the right direction. But instead of following Connor, the story suddenly starts following a new character named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death row inmate who agreed to sell his organs to Skynet. Wright's history - as well as his importance to this story - is withheld from us for over an hour, which means we spend a lot of time watching a character we have no attachment to. Without giving anything away, the plan to defeat Skynet is a bit of a red herring. The film eventually gets around to it, but for the most part, the emphasis is on Wright's secret (not hard to figure out) and how it could potentially tip the war one way or the other. This is a potentially interesting idea, yet the screenplay never figures out a way to incorporate it smoothly with John Connor's journey.

In part, that's because Connor isn't developed much. In previous films, he was a scared kid or young man, forced to grow up through the realization that it was his destiny to save the world. This time, we find him already in that role, but without any kind of conflict or opportunity for growth. Character development is one of T4's biggest flaws. Connor is a Generic Leader, Wright is a Generic Mystery Man, and all the other characters - including resistance members played by the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, and Jane Alexander, are one-dimensional at best.

There's also a problem with the sequence of events. I'm not one of those people who think that a movie series has to be slavishly faithful to its own mythology. Show me a good time and I can overlook a few things that don't quite add up. That said, Terminator Salvation throws in some things that are head-scratching in their incompatibility. For example, Connor meets Kyle Reese (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin) who, we learned in the previous films, was his father, sent back through time to protect him as an unborn child. But in this movie, Connor is significantly older than Reese. How can a child be older than his father? I'm sure some obsessive fan of the series will e-mail me with a convoluted (but in his eyes perfectly logical) explanation. It doesn't matter, though, because the film itself doesn't really answer the question, and so anyone who doesn't have a PhD. in the Terminator movies will be confused.

A few things about the picture are good. I loved the visual style of the film; everything is silver, including the tint of the images themselves. Some of the action scenes are pretty cool too, especially a chase involving motorcycle-riding terminators. The grand finale is a battle royale between Connor and all manner of terminator prototypes.

There's actually quite a lot of action here, which may be enough to please viewers who are looking only for a visceral thrill. Personally, that's part of - but not totally - what I always enjoyed about the series. Focusing on the war and Wright's secret takes the emphasis off the premise's beautiful simplicity: John Connor must be saved or mankind will perish. I really missed the excitement of that very basic concept. No amount of explosions or shootouts can match the genuine, bite-your-nails suspense of a single life perpetually in danger from deadly cyborgs who will never stop coming until their objective is complete.

Terminator Salvation doesn't fit well into the series James Cameron started some 25 years ago. The meandering plot never finds any sure footing, never explores its ideas in any depth, and never gives us a single person or situation to genuinely care about. By the time a badly digitized simulation of a certain California governor appears for a wink-wink, nudge-nudge cameo, I was shaking my head in disappointment. I can't remember the last time I felt so let down by a movie that I was so excited to see.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

Terminator Salvation arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray on Dec. 1. in widescreen and fullscreen formats. The DVD contains no bonus features except for a digital copy of the film. The Blu-Ray is scheduled to have two different cuts of the film - the theatrical cut and an R-rated Director's Cut. Behind the scenes featurettes and a "Maximum Movie Mode" in which director McG deconstructs the film's key moments will additionally be included. It is frustrating, to say the least, that these features are not being made available on the DVD version as well.

Terminator Salvation is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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