“I’m not worried about myself; I’m worried about the future of the human race”, seems like something either Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Willhelm Reich would scribble down in their diaries, but no. It’s one of the opening lines of Terminator Salvation (2009), directed by none other than McG, of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) fame.
This is the first time in the series – after enjoying two installments by James Cameron (1984, 1991), and one by Jonathan Mostow (2003) – that I felt how wide a gap stretches between the broad statements being made in the material (e.g. “There is no fate”), and its basic silliness. Three times before, I got tricked into believing what I saw; I let myself be pulled into caring about the future (or lack of such).
Not this time, though. I found myself strangely detached from Terminator Salvation, maybe because the terminators themselves lost their uniqueness, in this post-Transformers (2007) and just-pre-Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen (2009) era of ours. It’s sad how Skynet warriors resemble their fellow machines from the Michael Bay franchise. There’s nothing in them of the steely relentlessness Robert Patrick brought to the role when he was T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). At this point, we don’t care for a C-600 any more than we do for yet another hyphenated Nokia X-something. It was their character that let the machines rise in the first place. Not much of it here, unfortunately, and even Arnie seems more blank than ever when he makes his brief appearance: buck naked but for a puff of smoke, which conveniently covers what each California voter should be entitled to see.
The acting is good; in case of Sam Worthington – especially so. He plays half-machine, half-human, and shows more feeling than anyone else around, but it’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Only Jane Alexander seems a little bit blasé, but then, she already saw plenty of post-apocalyptic America in Testament (1983), so it’s no news to her. I also liked Anton Yelchin’s turn as Kyle: fresh from his Chekovian speech slips in Star Trek (2009), he gets a chance in Terminator to breathe some freshness into Wordsworth’s phrase about the child being the father of a man. He’s a father to Christian Bale here, and if I were him, I would have a serious talk with my boy about mutation, because Bale is still talking in his Batmanesque “greetings-from-the-well” tone here.
One of the least comfortable things about the Terminator movies is the way they dehumanize violence. What always bothered me was not the extremity of the dehumanization, though, but precisely its selectiveness. In the world of this particular movie humans do kill, but what they kill is not human, and thus not a object for identification or sympathy. However brutal the humans will get – or however brutalized – their reactions are always justified and morally right, no matter how savage they may be. It is, after all, a machine on the other end of the punch.
It’s an effective way of absolving the audience of any guilt that might have otherwise appeared. It probably has some political overtones, too. Even though Bale shouts at one moment: “If we stay the course, we’re dead!”, the movie is comfortable with violence as a way of operating in the world (note the listless, joyless way the little girl hands a flare to Worthington, to blow up some machines – it’s not even an adventure to her, just business as usual).
In the beginning, the difference between humans and machines is being defined in ritualistic terms Antigone would approve of: “We bury our dead”. But towards the end, it’s the more general “strength of the human heart” that’s singled out as the defining factor of humanity as opposed to machinery. I approve completely, but I feel like McG doesn’t really care for what his movie is about. I much preferred Cameron’s coldness to the microwave heat of Terminator Salvation. It burns, but there’s no real energy or feeling in it. To quote one stand-up comedian: “Anything that gets that hot without a fire comes from the devil”.