A Collage of Homage, Pt. 1

Moving on fro my last post about an in-the-works sequel to a science fiction movie beginning with T, I figured it was high time I got around to writing about two released sequels to science fiction movies beginning with T, namely Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. One would think the similarities between the two would end with the fact that both deal with robots, yet they have something else in common: Both spend a significant amount of time paying homage to an existing body of fiction.

Terminator Salvation stands on the shoulders of one of the most enduring film franchises of all. The original film, The Terminator, was released in 1984; its third sequel, then, sees release a full quarter century after the original. It’s also a significant departure in two respects: One, that it’s the first film without the presence of the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger (and fair enough; after all, to paraphrase the man himself, any sequel featuring him would probably be called Terminator in a Wheelchair), and two, it’s the first that isn’t set in our modern day (impossible, as the delayed Judgment Day, when computerised arch-nemesis Skynet struck out against humanity, occurred back in 2003, at the end of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). This is the first film entirely concerned with the Future War, where humankind’s last remnants struggle against Skynet’s mechanised armies.

While Terminator Salvation is a competent film with good acting and is more to my taste overall than Terminator 3, I still have problems with it. For starters, it doesn’t have the brain of the first. It’s fairly well known amongst SF fans that Harlan Ellison threatened the owners of the Terminator property with a plagiarism lawsuit over similarities between the film and a pair of episodes of The Outer Limits that he wrote, and the overall feel of The Terminator toward the end is very akin to that show and its cousin, The Twilight Zone, putting the paradox at the centre of its story firmly in view (through Sarah Connor grappling with her decision to tell her son John who his father is) and refusing to rationalise it. Salvation, though, makes perhaps the same mistake of Terminator 3 in failing to do anything truly interesting with the paradox. In fact, it doesn’t notice a question that to me sees obvious – if the future of Salvation is no longer the “one possible future” of the first film’s Kyle Reese, does John even need to send this new future’s Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) back in time? There’s a question I would have loved to see Christian Bale’s John Connor grapple with.

Also absent from Terminator Salvation is the heart or hope of the second film. Sam Worthington does a fantastic job of realising Marcus Wright, the Terminator with the mind of an executed murderer, but the script still avoids really digging into his dilemma, and as a result his eventual choice has little oomph.

What Terminator Salvation does instead is pay homage to superficialities. I will confess, I had a few of the “glee!” moments that I had during Star Trek, like a rather apt reappearance of the Guns ‘n’ Roses track “You Could Be Mine” from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But when I left the cinema, I felt as though that was all there was to this film. While Star Trek tipped its hat to its roots, it made sure to ground each instance within the context of a plot that stood just fine on its own. But Terminator Salvation’s backbone isn’t anywhere near as strong; the filmmakers spent so much effort on the explosions and nods-and-winks (even to the point of getting Linda Hamilton back in to record more of Sarah Connor’s tapes) without realising that they happen for no other reason than because they have to. It’s almost as though they figured making Terminator fans squee was more important than justifying how, for example, Skynet can suddenly identify Kyle Reese by face and knows his significance to John Connor when the first two films established clearly that John’s father wasn’t on any public record.

Terminator 3, at the very least, could get away with doing the same because it refused to take itself too seriously. Because Salvation is set in a grim post-apocalypse, it can’t afford to be lighthearted. This, ultimately, is Salvation’s fatal flaw; too grim to entertain, too insubstantial to nourish, it’s just an adequate SF action film from a pedigree of damned good SF action films.

I’ll grapple with Transformers in Part 2 when I can get my brain working properly again.