The big news of the weekend, even tho it is 2 days from over, is that Night at the Museum II trumped long anticipated Terminator Salvation in box office take. This news reminds me of a certain vein of discussion around the AI finale (and no I don’t watch that show, but who in queer media studies isn’t watching the aftermath?); some people argue that the AI winner is a reminder to a Hollywood invested in slick production and hype, that most people in N. America just want something “real” w/ a dash of triumphant storyline. In the world of Memorial Day Weekend openings that means that box office take is telling Hollywood that while CGI is fascinating for Directors, Actors, and gamers, most of the N. American viewing audience is still drawn to storytelling and recognizable plot lines. And just like the AI finale, that admission in no way undermines what is lost when we steer toward the middle. In both the triumph of Night at the Museum II and Kris Whatshisface, we lost diversity and complexity while we gained “entertaining enough”.
The Plot & The Director
The basic plot of T4 is that John Connor and Skynet-modified Marcus Wright have to work together against a resistance “final battle” time clock to save Kyle Reese. In the process, the major figures of the resistance are revealed and/or re-invented, and each has to come to terms with the meaning of humanity.
Long before T4 hit the screens, fans were complaining about the decision to hire McG, a 41 year old director who got his start in music videos and was once best known for his contributions to the Pop Up Video genre and feminist-lite Charlie’s Angels remakes. People were concerned he might miss the subtle nuances of the Terminator franchise. Unlike popular opinion, formed largely off the innovative liquid technology of T2, the Terminator has always been about the storyline as much as scary Arnold/Skynet coming to get you.
McG doesn’t disappoint critics. The first 30 minutes of the film are throwaway. Many less invested viewers will stop caring or wanting to understand the storyline before the plot actually starts; my movie companion was one of them. In a special on the latest installment, McG said he made sure to get “the best actors” he could find b/c he wanted to make sure that he did proper homage to the franchise. You can have the best actors in the world, but an action film without strongly written dialogue, well conceived and executed plot, and an overarching story that multiple audiences can follow, is little more than a video game. While the film does an amazing job in the last 1.15, the first 30 minutes are a video game. (And I’ve just found out the video game is already on sale, set in the the interim period between T3 and T4, and all of the characters in the film are introduced there. Hence why the film starts as if it is in the middle of the story, without explaining anything. Way to sell out the film franchise McG. So we don’t get the story we all wanted so you can make bank at the gamer store?!? Oh and Christian Bale refused to be in the video game . . . ugh)
The film also fails in its shift from Sarah Connor’s story to John Connor’s life. His mother, a once slightly vacuous waitress turned brilliant and slightly unhinged bada** is reduced to little more than old tapes that I am not sure are even Linda Hamilton’s original recordings. (They are the original script, but I would like to know where he got a tape player in 2018.) Worse than that, when we last left John, he was locked in a bunker with his future wife as the world came to an end. For most fans of the entire franchise, the next piece of the story should have been how 20 something year-old John emerged from that bunker, cultivated a global movement, and became a hero compelling enough to stop the resistance from executing vital orders from the resistance command. McG skips over this story to the film and franchise’s detriment. As one person said as we walked out the theater, “I don’t get why John Connor is so exceptional or why anyone would follow him over anyone else [in this movie].”
The Good News
Part of the reason that viewer, and the companion I took with me who has never seen any of the Terminator franchise either, were confused is because the film’s focus is not John Connor. Instead, we are given two equally compelling stories that revolve around Connor long after he has become both legend and thorn in several people’s side. One is the story of Marcus Wright, a convicted killer whose actions result in the death of his only brother. Wright, like Connor, is somewhat of a time traveler and victim of Skynet. In scenes that recreate the original T1 in reverse, Wright becomes central to the film. His presence amongst the resistance forces them to re-evaluate what makes them human and what defines heroism. Unlike Angels and Demons, these lofty questions are central to the entire storyline and carried through every scene. Thus much of the film is taking up with vignettes that explore the human condition, from marauding rapists, to people hording or sharing precious resources, to families just trying to stay alive. All of these are seen through Marcus’ eyes.
Marcus’ journey is ultimately one of redemption from killer to hero. He fights against an unexplained anger inside him to do the right thing & he is initially inspired by Kyle Reese. And while that inspiration comes into question when he finally reaches Skynet, Marcus makes the right decision in the end. And even it is accomplished in a scene stolen from another Cameron original, Dark Angel, it’s a message that seems particularly poignant on Memorial Day weekend and for a nation that continues to debate what it means to be N. American.
The other compelling story is of Kyle Reese, John Connor’s father. When I heard they had cast Anton Yelchin, the somewhat bratty teen from Huff and Chekov from the Star Trek update, I admit I was disgusted. While Yelchin did a brilliant job on Huff, I felt he was too young, too whiny, and too visually different from Michael Biehn to be convincing. I was wrong. Yelchin makes this film.
(Note to other directors, Yelchin is a big Terminator fan, he even had Terminator toys as a kid. When you remake movies and old television shows, these are the types of people you want to find. Unlike people who have never “really watched” or worse, are snide about the shows or their fans, you want people who will rise to the occassion under any circumstances b/c they are as invested as the audience. I believe that part of the reason the Sarah Connor Chronicles suffered was b/c of how flippantly Lena Headly dismissed Linda Hamilton, viewers, and the franchise itself.)
Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese is infused with just enough youth and heroism to show us the boy who would become Sarah Connor’s savior and John Connor’s best friend. He has an uncanny ability to infuse his heroic moments with the necessary indignation and guidance that transforms these moments from petulance and condemnation to hope and strength. Yelchin’s performance was inspired and subsequently Reese is inspiring.
The character’s story arc is extremely well written. Despite having no real resistance to support him and having clearly lost all of the survivors in his community, including his father, to the machines, Reese manages to keep both himself and a young mute African American girl named Star alive and fed. He reminds both Marcus and one of the communities they encounter together that what separates humans from machines is their ability to care about and for each other. And when he is captured, he calms the entire transport ship of captives and helps provide the leadership they need to stay alive.
His capture follows the narrative of the original Terminator film, unfortunately the writers undermine the logic in thisinstallment. Reese explains to Sarah that he and Connor met when the later saved him from a Skynet death camp. At the time neither Reese nor Skynet knew who his father was, so Skynet would have no reason to kill Reese while in custody. Despite neither T1-3 or Sarah Connor Chronicles ever revealing who Connor’s father was beyond Sarah and John, T4 starts with the assumption that Skynet already knows the truth which makes the death camp a wasted easy way to win the war. There is also an equally ridiculous scene in which Connor himself screams about Skynet killing his mother and father, and then names him, to a machine (!!!) as if he has completely forgotten that machines can be downloaded!!! Meanwhile he is keeping it from the resistance fighters?!? This logic gap is never corrected in the movie and like another major logic gap involving Wright’s character, it serves to destabilize the entire franchise if you think about it too long
Another frightening update to the Kyle Reese story in T4 has to do with the iconic clothing. When Marcus rises from the earth in one of the opening scenes, McG borrows heavily from Kyle Reese’s arrival in the past. This homage, that has a naked Wright choosing a long trench coat and combat boots that don’t quite fit, and later asking “what day is it,” reframes the original so that Kyle Reese’s clothing choices are actually modeled after Marcus Wright. And some of Kyle’s weapons knowledge also comes from Marcus. So where the original T1 implied that Kyle had learned most of what he knew from John and in turn, John learned most of what he knew from his mother Sarah who learned it from Kyle, the T4 narrative replaces Reese with Marcus. This same centering of Marcus in the overarching storyline of T4 also means the displacement of John Connor who would never have found his father or survived the Skynet assault without Marcus’ help. See the problems?
All of these issues are apparently the result of displacing James Cameron, the writer and creator of the franchise. Cameron wrote all three of the original Terminator movies and the best episodes of the Sarah Connor Chronicles. It is hard to imagine why McG thought he could pull it off without him, but according to the IMDB database, Cameron is back on the team in an unspecified role for T5.
If Marcus’ journey is meant to make us reflect on the redemption of humanity, Kyle’s is to remind us of the human spirit and the heroism that lurks in all of us.
Race and Gender
While T4 is a decidedly male centered storyline, there are several important women in the cast from the first shot to the very last. What is exciting about these women is that they are both racially and age diverse. They are also intelligent and an integral part of the storyline and the team. Thus we are giving female scientists, doctors, fighter pilots, and community leaders. Their work is implicated in the progress of both Skynet and the Resistance and at least two of them, one a small child, ensure that the resistance lives to fight another day.
What is disappointing about these characters is that despite all of this, they never seem to escape traditional gender roles. Jane Alexander’s considerable talent is wasted in her role as a sort of earth mother elder who challenges the hoarding of the “younger” members of her group. The role made sense and she plays it well, but it was just so much stereotype as evidenced by her complete reduction to caretaker in the Skynet prison. For a woman who entered the movie putting gun toting men 1/2 her age in check, standing there hugging children to her in a prison was hardly the way one would have imagined a true earth mother would go out.
The self-proclaimed bada** fighter pilot, Blair Williams, played by bi-racial Asian American Moon Bloodgood, spends much of her infamous fight scene knocked out or off screen while Marcus comes to her rescue. She does get in a few good punches, but there is considerable screen time where she is literally passed out on screen or missing from the shot all together. She is quickly reduced to “girlfriend” or “love sick” as a result of her “hero coming to the rescue.” Despite having been in the resistance long enough to be one of Connor’s major confidants, Williams sells him out within 24 hours for a man no one is actually sure is still human. She even tells him the Resistance code language in a similarly ignorant move; given that not all of the humans are on board with the Resistance, spelling out their special code to mark hideouts to a man she just met is unthinkable. Accept, you know, she’s a girl and he’s hot. And despite all of the talk about humanity, her brothers in arms turn on her with the same 5 second precision when she “ma[kes] her choice.”
Kate Connor, the resistance physician, is Connor’s pregnant wife. She spends the bulk of the film giving him longing glances and acting as his comforter in a world that just doesn’t understand what he is going through. (cue small violins please; seriously, Thomas Dekker did angst and conflict much better than Bale did in these scenes with Howard. I found myself wondering why these moments were included when all they did was negatively engender Howard’s character and take away from Bale’s mostly spot on performance; maybe the DP was walking by again.) While Kate clearly has the skills, she lacks an intelligible subjecthood in her own right. Those who remember T3 will find the transition from Claire Danes to Bryce Howard’s Kate a serious decline in the depiction of an outspoken and free thinking equal to John Connor. If we think about Sarah Connor’s transformation from T1 to T2, Kate’s transformation is a complete reversal. Where she should have been getting stronger, she is turning into supporting cast. And again, this is the reason the storyline would have benefited from starting back at the bunker where Kate still wasn’t sure she liked John all that much. We could have seen her develop the skills that made her the Resistance’s key physician; remember, at the end of T3 she was a veterinarian not a medical student. We could watch her grow closer to Connor as they fought alongside one another to build the Resistance. And then the pregnant, doting-eyed, Kate would be a single facet of a complex women. The failure to do that, More than leaves those of us who remember T3 concerned about what this means if the death of John Connor is not ultimately prevented, as it was not in T3. (And for the record, I do think that is the moment T3 went off the rails, b/c according to T1 John Connor was moments from destroying Skynet when Kyle was sent back in time. “Skynet was defeated” and its last ditch effort was to send Arnold back. If that is true, there is no way that Skynet would have had time to kill John Connor and send back the T-X while Kate Connor modified a T-800 to send back to stop it.) To her credit, Howard infused the character with enough strength that I think given the right script and character development can turn Kate Connor back into something more than John’s care taker.
Ultimately, both Kate Connor and Blair Williams could have taken a page from Jesse Flores, a bi-racial Latina character played by bi-racial Portuguese-Asian Aussie Stephanie Jacobson, who was both bada** and loyal. She was in love with Kyle’s brother and often motivated by the death of their unborn child. However, she managed to balance feminine with strength in ways these two characters miss. She also had many fight scenes in which no man needed to come to her rescue. In some ways, I noted a bit of Jesse in Howard’s Kate that I am looking forward to seeing in the next installment.
The other major, but likely to be overlooked part, played by young African American actress Jadagrace, is a young girl who can hear the HKs and other Terminators coming before anyone else can. Her skills are invaluable to keeping Kyle Reese and ultimately John Connor alive. Though they actually carry her around like a rag doll prop in one scene (seriously, both Marcus and Yelchin tuck her under their arm and run about the set with her little legs flopping out from under their thick arms), she is also ever vigilant. She is the one who discovers the nuclear power cells that Reese and Connor use to hide behind in an outmatched fight (unfortunately no one covered their flank so it didn’t work) and she is the one who picks up the lost detonator switch and makes sure it is back in Connor’s hand at the critical moment. She is also the one who finds Reese when Connor can’t and saves him from the Terminator.
On one level, her “disability” and how it enhances her abilities rather than “cripples them” is a testament to an anti-ablist narrative in the film. Little Star is watched over by all of the key players in the cast as a valuable member, and as I said, she is also mostly watching out for all of them.
At the same time, her skill replaces those of dogs in the franchise. As Kyle Reese painstakingly explains to Sarah Connor, dogs can hear the Terminators coming and can also sniff out “skin jobs” so they are “invaluable in the future.” Through flashback sequences in T1, we see the dogs save Reese’s life and they are an ever present part of the series from that point forward. It’s as if McG has forgotten the basic tenants of the Terminator universe, even as he uses the infamous photo of Sarah Connor with a dog at her side. While those who do not remember this fact will happy with the depiction of both ability and blackness represented here, we cannot forget that in McG’s universe, the dog is replaced by a little black girl.
I also kept being reminded of the anti-hero in Wolverine played by Ryan Reynolds/Scott Adkins. General Stryker had his mouth sewn shut and then permanently sealed b/c he thought he talked to much. I couldn’t help but wonder if the natural haired black girl who couldn’t speak was a similar motif, in which she was welcomed for her cuteness and her smarts but expected to be silent and shoved to the margin without complaint. You make think I am taking this too far, but when most black people in film are wise cracking side kicks, including little-Mr-needed-to-shut-up Jaden Smith in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the decision to make a silent black girl character, especially one that replaces a dog, cannot be overlooked.
The other black character in the film is played by ever pleasant on the eyes Common. He is under utilized in this film which is unfortunate. Common was one of the only entertaining parts of Smokin Aces and did a compelling tho throwaway part in last summer’s Wanted. If he’d been given a larger role, he would have made this film even more male centered but at least justified his presence. While he was never demeaned in this role and was clearly a trusted part of the team, it was hard to take him seriously as little more than background given that even the critical conflict between him and Marcus stemming from the death of his brother was handled with such short shrift. I can only hope he is given more to do in T5.
As implied earlier, Bloodgood’s role is much larger than Common’s. While she never escapes gender stereotype, and again I say if all you are is the pretty-girlfriend-in-tight-pants-and-low-cut-top then it doesn’t matter if you can carry a gun, the film does avoid typical anti-Asian gendered depictions of Williams. When Williams is attacked by 4 men who intend to rape her, they do not make engendered racist comments that dot much of N. American films particularly summer blockbusters staring Asian women. Where I expected something akin to Bruce Willis’ offensive comments in the resurrection fo the Die Hard franchise, McG gave us a scene that firmly demonized the male rapists and left much of their sexist and all of their potentially engendered racist comments to the viewers’ imaginations.
In fact, where McG fails in overestimating the entertainment value of multiple explosions, he exceeds at a vision of the future that actually reflects the diversity of the present. Soldiers and civilians alike are peopled with both white people and people of color, women and men, elders, youth, and 3o somethings, able-bodied and differently-abled. The crowd scenes also reflect the California landscape, which despite conservative Californian’s efforts, is a multi-lingual and multi-racial place. Thus people speak Asian languages and Spanish alongside English. Unfortunately, for all of the racial diversity in the film, Latin@s are still missing as characters in their own right. Relegating them to the background is one of the only major issues with race in this film I can really find. From crowd scenes to one liners to important characters, McG has done a better job than almost everyone else in ensuring visual diversity and up against Night at the Museum that casts white actors as Africans and Middle Easterners, it’s a shame the box office didn’t turn out differently.
T4 is one of the first big blockbuster films to envision a diverse world in which most of that diversity is positive. No one but Bryan Singer has managed to do that in a really long time and as long as McG returns to the original feminism of Cameron’s Sarah Connor then I think the women in this planned trilogy will also come into their own right in the end. Unfortunately for now, while there are lot of talented actresses, and critical female roles, in the film there are no women or girls who transcend gender stereotypes. At the same time, while Star Trek gave us the worst cast female cameo ever, T4 gives us the best one.
As implied there are no queer characters in this film.
McG is also trying to be innovative with the Terminators themselves in this film to varying success. On the one hand, he gives us highly skilled water and road Terminators and on the other, devolved robots. In the T4 special, McG explained that he took the models from the original movies and intentionally devolved them in order to show a progression in Skynet’s innovations. It makes sense that just as the progression from the T-800 to the T-1000 made huge leaps, the T-800s were a huge advance. What does not make sense, is that while the Terminators are devolved in this film, the water based and motorcycle models are as evolved as non-liquid based technology could be. How do these two technologies exist? And why is McG so careful in his thinking about the Terminator models while violating one of the key tenants of the franchise: Terminators cannot swim. If Skynet can make vicious eel like terminating machines then why couldn’t they figure out how to make the T series swim?
Visually, the T series comes across as clunky and behind the times. While I both understand and applaud McG’s thinking on this issue, from a viewer standpoint it was the wrong choice. Many people i the audience I was in were bored by the T series, as evidenced by text messaging, talking, etc. To me, they came across as poorly funded Saturday movies on the Scifi channel or z-rate scifi from the 80s, hardly scary to a generation raised on CGI. The eels were much more terrifying. However, they not only exposed a logic gap but also seemed stolen from the Matrix (much like the supposed recap verbage at the beginning was out of place homage to Star Wars).
There is also a surprising cameo related to the T series which had this Terminator fan giddy. My companion guffawed and when I asked her about it later, she said “oh please. Isn’t he like the governor?!” While she thought seeing an “old” politician on screen was ridiculous, having not seen any of the prior films but knowing Arnold played the original Terminator, I thought it was both amazing and creepy. Creepy b/c we now have a freakish explanation for why the original series looked like Arnold; I mean, it is a Californian company and Californian lab thatproduces them . . . Talk about real life shifting the meaning of art. The rise of Arnold was much scarier than Tom Hanks drivel about statues in Angels and Demons.
One of the other major logic gaps related to the machines in this film is the existence of Marcus himself. I cannot give away the plot, but suffice it to say that if Marcus is a hybrid, why is he the only one? And if his body is 90% metal then what does his heart do and how are both it and his brain (which has been chipped ala the T series from the TV show Sarah Connor Chronicles) uncorrupted by Skynet?
Ultimately, if you are willing to ride through the first 1/2 hour of the film, you won’t be disappointed. The movie pays homage to many of the others in the franchise, including resurrecting beloved lines and characters. It also follows the story Reese tells in T1 fairly accurately while violating some of the storyline from T3. While John Connor is certainly not the most compelling character in T4 (people actually laughed at the Batman like growling Bale did in much of the early scenes in the theater I was in), Yelchin’s Kyle Reese is a profound presence from beginning to end and Sam Worthington and the character Marcus Wright do not disappoint.
While there are major logic gaps throughout the plot that if you discuss them long enough will completely undermine the entire film and the franchise, I think most people are willing to giver Terminator some leeway. Ultimately, if McG and his writers clean up some of the logic, focus their lens back on the question that plagues the majority of us, ie “what makes Connor exceptional,” and trusts his actors and his scripts more than his explosions, the new trilogy will shine as bright as the original. If not, there is always the final episode of TSC which blew this movie out of the water.
all images come from Terminator Salvation and are the property of Warner Bros Studios except
- Ben Stiller. Night at the Museum II. Dir Ben Stiller. studios
- Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese. Terminator. Dir James Cameron. MGM, 1984.
- Claire Danes as Kate Brewster. Terminator: Rise of the Machines. Dir. Johnathon Mastow. Warner Bros. 2003.
- Stephanie Jacobs as Jesse Flores y Brian Austin Green as Derek Reese. “Today is the Day Pt. 1” Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles. Writer James Cameron. Fox. 2009.
- Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor w/her dog. Terminator.
- Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. Terminator: Judgment Day. Dir James Cameron. Lion’s Gate, 1991.