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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Tuesday
May262009

« In Which There Is Probably A Terminator In This Movie »

Poorly Named Auteur

by BEN ARFMANN

Joseph McGinty Nichol directed this picture. He signed it “McG.” It makes me cringe to say it but: McG is getting interesting. It’s fashionable to hate the guy and maybe that fashion is on point, but there’s something in him that could be, might be, should be great. This film is not it. But the poorly named auteur has potential. High school track coaches search for it every season and upper level management goons comb the proles for it when promotion time rolls around, but few, very few souls in any field of human endeavor really have it. McG has it. Potential. Quote me.

 

How many directors can honestly marshal together all the pieces required to make a film like Terminator: Waste of Time (oops sorry: Salvation) see the light of day? The man had to: detonate a post-industrial Texaco; restrain Christian Bale’s self-importance; and convince the Governator to lend his likeness to a project that could only be called “a political liability.”

Doing these things is harder than you may think. McG has pulled together a huge, complex, and awe-inspiring-on-paper piece of movie. I really think the guy has something going for him; only maybe a half dozen other directors could have pulled off something this freaking big. It’s a damn shame the film is no good. But I suppose some people always knew that would be the case.

At the end of the film’s production, McG and the studio sent Arnold the Guv a showreel of Salvation’s juiciest parts. The man-him-self responded with doubt: “I do not know who the terminator is in this film. I do not know if there is a terminator.” Not the response McG et al were hoping for, certainly, but they should have listened.

When the truth arrives it doesn’t bring flowers; sometimes it speaks Austrian. Yes: this film lacks a terminator. “But wait. Ben. I’ve seen the trailers. There are tons of terminators. Bike terminators. Eel terminators. Huge Wild Wild West diesel powered terminators...” Right. Sure. But what Arnie and I mean is: there’s no unstoppable boo-machine in this film. The previous Terminators were sci-fi in their conceits – time travel let Cameron play fast and loose with set pieces - but their genre was always plain old Campfire Tale. Arnold in the first and Robert Patrick in the second were really just variations on The Guy With A Hook For A Hand – menacing, slow walking, deathless forces that would see our heroes terminated come hell or industrial machining accidents. Salvation has no perfect killing machine. It has no unstoppable manifestation of man’s techy hubris; just a bunch of disposable off-brand terminator knock-offs. No terminator means that it also, sadly, has no movie. (It is a movie, but it has no movie. “There’s no movie in your movie.” It makes sense. Trust me).

What does the film have instead? A long, well-rendered reference volume of terminator mythology. I suspect McG and the producers hired a 14-year-old fanboy as a script consultant – the film plays like an extended answer to every sideline question you or I might have had after seeing the first three films.

“How did John Connor gets his scar?” Oh yeah, he was cut by molten steel terminator claws. “Is there vegetation in future world?” Yep. Of the blood-red, ground clinging variety (exactly like in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds).

Do people still bother getting pregnant in the future, now that being alive basically sucks?” Um...yeah?

Bryce Dallas Howard both proves that people bang sans future-rubbers in 2018 and squanders my respect for her by flying into a detonating, war-ravaged Roboto HQ while cradling her way-preggers belly at the film’s disjointed climax. What kind of parent does that? More important: who signs up for a movie knowing her character will do that? The film is subtitled Salvation (as A. O. Scott, sage of the age, wisely put it: Salvation? really?) but it may as well have been Terminator: Appendix. There’s no rapture in this film, no religious eruption of redemption, just a lot of off-hand answers to lingering questions from the previous movies.

But damnit, they didn’t answer any of my questions. Like: do people still go to the theater in the future? Do people still laugh? I sat through the whole film and have no idea. There is absolutely zero wit in this film, and I don’t think I heard a single chuckle in the theater except for when CGI Arnold arrived rude and nude late third act.

If two good things come out of this film, they will be these: Christian Bale will only find work with feminist directors looking to study the fragility of male ego, and one of the hip New York mumblercore auteurs will get inspired by Salvation’s poster to make a post-apocalyptic My Dinner With Andre. It just tickles me to think of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory sitting down to dine in an after-the-bombs downtown Manhattan eatery, catching up on how their respective theater careers have changed now that Übermensch Skynet has taken over Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway. I really think a film like that could be great.

The mumblecore style is so resolutely dedicated to slacker production aesthetics – shitty lighting, shitty framing, shitty set design – an ambitious concept (machines run the world; men live like rats) might actually become interesting and fresh in the hands of a Joe Swanberg or a Jay Duplass, instead of just rote and un-arousing, as it has so consistently been in every $200 million + Hollywood picture that’s come down the logjam since Thunderdome plopped.

No. No you should not see Terminator Salvation. It will bore you and you will feel a little bit bad afterwards for encouraging Christian Bale. McG is an interesting, promising director. He has “the potential.” But he clearly doesn’t need your encouragement to continue making films. Neither Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle nor We Are Marshall discouraged his professional ambitions.

Your dollars poured into the abyss of Terminator Salvation will have no effect on his future plans. Let’s all just let this loud, monochromatic fanboy festival pass through theaters, like a T-Rex in the night, and hope that someone – maybe McG’s niece, or his barber – starts choosing scripts for him. Joseph McGinty Nichol, if you’re reading this: a good script can make you great. Wait for your pitch, and then swing just like you’ve been swinging. You’ve got the old-school directing muscle, and when the right project comes at you, you’ll knock it clear to Mexico. But you can’t keep swinging at the trash. Trust me. I know what puts the movie into movies.

Ben Arfmann is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. He tumbls it all here.

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