Terminator Salvation (2009)

(1984) was built on two stock science fiction ideas. One was the old worry that machines would one day become intelligent and take over the world, threatening the existence of humanity. The other was akin to the Grandfather Paradox: if you traveled back in time and killed your grandfather, you would not exist, and therefore would not be able to travel back in time to kill your grandfather, and then you would exist to travel back in time... and so on. Thus proving (or so it is said), that time travel is either logically impossible, or it is impossible to alter the past whether time travel is possible or not. In Terminator, the artificially intelligent machines of the future sent a T-800 killer robot (who would one day become the governator of California) back into the past to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) so that she would never become mother to John Connor, who would grow up to become a resistance leader in the future human struggle against the killer machines. So, apparently the machines do not (did not?) believe that time travel is impossible, or that the past cannot be changed. Turns out they failed to prevent John Connor's birth (because the guy sent back by the humans to save Sarah Connor fathered future John), and subsequent efforts to kill John as a child also failed. And since all those killer robots kept a'coming after him all his life, Connor grew up to be somewhat hostile to killer robots, and became a leader of the human resistance against the robot overlords. So did the machines alter the past after all?

Terminator Salvation, the fourth installment in the Terminator saga, isn't all that interested in finding out. The year is 2018, some time after Judgment Day, when Skynet, the self-aware machine network, blew everything all to pieces in its ongoing effort to destroy humanity for some reason or other. Scattered pockets of survivors and resistance fighters exist throughout the California wasteland. The machines are headquartered in the Silicon Valley area, and cattle cars of humans are rounded up and taken there, never to be seen again. The puny humans are prepping to launch a final assault on the machines. Meanwhile, the machines have a hit list, and John Connor (Christian Bale) is number two on that list. Who's number one? Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a scrawny lad who seems insignificant, except that Connor and the machines and we all know that he will some day be Connor's future-past father. (Just how does Skynet know, I wonder.) And so, the son must save the father so that the son will exist in the future to save the father so that the son will exist... and so on. But beyond that, Terminator Salvation doesn't especially care about the vicissitudes of time travel, or the fact that Connor must save his father now so that dear old Dad can die in the past. You might think he'd feel a little conflicted about that, but apparently not. The movie is only marginally more concerned with artificial intelligence (and artificial life) in the form of one Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a criminal who was, in the pre-apocalypse past, executed, and who donated his body to science, or rather to one genetic scientist named Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter). And then he woke up and it was the apocalypse. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened to him (anyway, it was revealed in the movie's trailers months ago).

I would have liked to see Wright explored more as a character. He's conflicted about his human-machine hybrid status, he's loyal to humanity and full of unexplained self-loathing, and the humans, especially Connor, hate him just as much as he hates himself. His is the Terminator Redemption aspect of movie, and its most interesting innovation, but psychological depth and character are not the strong suits of
Terminator Salvation, so any possibility of exploring fascinating ideas about humans and machines are pretty much tossed on the scrap heap. It's pretty obvious why Connor (or J.C. as the case may be) hates terminators, and why he's determined to save Kyle Reese, but it cannot be said that Bale's talents as an actor are fully utilized here. He's grim-faced and raspy-voiced and... well, that's about it. Maybe that explains Bale's now infamous on-set, potty-mouth apoplexy. It was a cry for more dialogue, more substance. Connor lives (if you can call that living), but humanity is nearly extinct and civilization is in ruins -- what's he still fighting for? He's a guy apparently condemned to remember the past and repeat it, but to what end? What, Mr. Method Actor might have asked, is my motivation?

That's what I wanna know too, but as directed by McG (
Charlie's Angels), Terminator Salvation is scanty on plot and substance, fairly disinterested in big ideas, but big, big, big on action: car chases, helicopter chases, robot chases, explosions, gunfights, fistfights, and (true to Terminator creator James Cameron's original vision of the terminators) killer robots that keep coming and coming even after you blow them up, dismember them, shoot them, melt them, and crush them. The robots come in all shapes and sizes -- from chompy, swimming hydrobots to gigundo bots with clampy hands and gun turrets for heads. The Transformer-style motorcycle bots are pretty cool, but really, they'd better be since Terminator Salvation is basically a movie about animated mechanical stuff. The end of the world looks like a big junkyard -- the carcasses of robots, helicopters and cars litter a landscape where the ruins of human civilization amount to broken pylons and bombed-out gas stations. The resistance fighters are pretty well-armed with fighter jets, land mines, submarines (!) and various implements of destruction. Skynet has a factory where it manufactures more and more terminator bots. It also apparently manufactures handy dandy sets for meat versus metal action sequences that include fight scene standbys: steam, smoke, flames, and catwalks.

Is it too much to ask for anything really new from
T4? This movie recycles elements from Terminator and T2: Judgment Day (fair enough), and from Road Warrior, Transformers, and X-Men, and maybe Pinocchio (what with all the humanoid robots and the machines that believe they're people too). It recycles elements from those movies, but unlike those movies, it fails to be about anything. The movie looks good enough: it is mostly stripped of color, except for all the big orange fireballs. Everything else is metallic blue-black and dusty-beige, with a coating of grime. But this is a fairly standard depiction of Earth after Armageddon, and I just can't help feeling like I've seen all this stuff before. Terminator was all low-budget moxy and basement workshop innovation -- T4, like the other sequels, is clearly an expensive movie, but one that has forgotten everything that's interesting about the Terminator saga, making it completely forgettable itself.


Angels & Demons (2009)

A whole load of narration begins Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. A beloved pope has died, the grieving masses have gathered in St. Peter's Square, red-robed cardinals have assembled in the Vatican to select a new pontiff, and a priest known as the Camerlengo is temporarily in charge of Vatican City in the interregnum. Once we're all up to speed on the details of papal succession, Angels & Demons kicks into gear, with another story of ancient Catholic secrets, this one involving an underground sect of scientists known as the Illuminati, who counted Galileo among their membership. The Illuminati were harshly persecuted and killed by the Church, it seems, and now they're back... with a vengeance. The four cardinals in line to succeed the pope have been kidnapped, and even worse, a cylinder containing antimatter has been snatched from CERN, and is now somewhere in Vatican City, a ticking time bomb set to obliterate the Holy See at midnight. It's a smackdown between faith and science, see. Like this past weekend's Notre Dame kerfuffle writ large, but instead of heroic Obama representing the voice of reason and reconciliation, Angels & Demons has Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), Harvard symbologist and man of action. Oh, the irony... Langdon's the nemesis of the Vatican, but now they've called on him to help due to his singular expertise regarding the Illuminati.

Langdon's great gift is his ability to make baloney sound like ancient wisdom, and to simultaneously walk and talk, lecture and sleuth.
Angels & Demons, like its predecessor, is directed by Ron Howard and written by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, but the movie is less hysterical than The Da Vinci Code, and overall better. The Da Vinci Code admittedly set the bar pretty low, but Angels & Demons is decently diverting and fast-paced, as Langdon and his sidekick, CERN physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) vandalize the Vatican archives, decipher clues, uncover Illuminati mysteries, and run around trying to save the world from a small Big Bang. Dr. Vetra specializes in something called "bioetanglement physics," but her role here is to be the "talk-to" -- the audience stand-in to whom Langdon explains what's going on and why and what it has to do with Galileo and obelisks and the sculptures of Bernini. She also translates a little Latin (which, somewhat incredibly, the Harvard symbologist can't manage on his own), and, being a physicist, stands ready to change some batteries in that antimatter container, should it be found in time. Langdon gets himself into several close scrapes -- including a few with the kidnapper/cardinal torturer/assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) -- and proves to be a resourceful and resilient scholar in the Indiana Jones mold. He doesn't have a whip or fedora (or a sense of humor), but he's got God on his side. Or maybe it's science. Or both. Or neither.

Meanwhile, there's a jurisdictional cat fight and power struggle within the Vatican: the head of the Swiss Guard, Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), Inspector Olivetti of the Vatican police (Pierfrancesco Favino), the vaguely menacing Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the devoted, doe-eyed Camerlengo Father Patrick (Ewan MacGregor) all compete to aid and/or obstruct Langdon's investigation, rescue the papacy, and protect the Church and its faithful. It all comes to down to faith versus science, capital T Truth versus Big Lies, religion versus the Catholic Church. I take it these are the standard themes of
Angels & Demons author Dan Brown, along with a general preoccupation with conspiracy theories about the Catholic Church's centuries-old C.Y.A. mission.

Angels & Demons is fairly silly and generally implausible when you pay any attention at all to the details, and the dialogue is utterly bursting with poppycock and bunkum, but it has been expertly constructed by an able team, so it looks great and moves briskly (despite clocking in at well over two hours). The costumes and sets (needless to say, access to the actual Vatican was denied) are glorious, and Rome looks wonderfully picturesque even on the eve of the apocalypse. The international cast of potential heroes and villains performs with enough subtlety to maintain a modicum of mystery about who will be the angels and who the demons when the plot finally turns its last twist. Hanks is in serious scholar mode as Langdon, which I suppose is a necessity given the assortment of half-truths, urban legends and conspiracy theories that count for serious scholarship here -- hey, he's from Harvard, so it must be smart stuff, right? I'm all for intellectualizing summer blockbusters, although Angels & Demons achieves this not so much by undumbing the action movie than by tossing some half-smart sounding jargon and Latin at it. At least they give props to Galileo. It's a start.


Star Trek (2009)

For a TV show that had such a brief run, and which has been the subject of so much mockery,
Star Trek has lived long and prospered. For some four decades, various iterations of Star Trek have come and gone, the best of them retaining the optimistic, inclusive, multicultural, cerebral, exploratory, bright and shiny future spirit of Gene Roddenberry's original. Director J.J. Abrams (Lost) reimagines the original series and its characters, boldly going back to the future in Star Trek. This is an origin story, but with a very neat twist: time travel. Time travel is nothing new in the Star Trek universe, but it is here ingeniously deployed to reinvent familiar characters and storylines in a way that would be objectionable only to the most orthodox *Trek* constructionists. And they'd be missing all the fun. Losties can take note: Abrams does not subscribe to the boring time travel orthodoxy that the past cannot be changed. What fun is time travel if you can't change the past? (Hey J.J., while you're at it, could you make it so that Data doesn't die at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis? I'm still kinda bitter about that.)

Time travel paradoxes aside, the movie reinvents the pasts (and futures) of Trek antagonists/protagonists/odd couple James Tiberius Kirk and Spock, with an assist from a bitter and vengeful Romulan renegade named Nero (Eric Bana). Red matter, black holes, planetary destruction and a slakeless thirst for revenge have Nero wandering time and space in search of Spock who, as the story begins, is a hotheaded young geek rebel trying to reconcile his emotional human half and his coolly logical Vulcan half. Meanwhile, Kirk is born in the middle of a celestial battle, during which his father is killed by Nero. He grows up to hotrod around Iowa and get in bar brawls with snooty Starfleet types. Cocky Kirk (Chris Pine) and cerebral Spock (Zachary Quinto) lock horns at Starfleet Academy, where they once again embody the rationality vs. emotionality, body vs. mind, thought vs. action, hot vs. cold antagonism that makes them, together, the very soul of
Star Trek, and a source of both great conflict and great humor. They complete each other.

The gang's all there too: Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) is a crazy-eyed paranoid medicine man with little faith in the miracle of space travel; Uhura (Zoƫ Saldana) is a young hottie who gives Kirk the cold shoulder; Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) still has that thick Russian accent; Sulu (John Cho) is now a cool warrior; and engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg, brilliantly cast) is still the funny Scottish fella who's a whiz with a transporter. There's an ill-fated Ensign Redshirt here and there too. And there's some Nimoy fella who's pretty good as Spock Prime, an old clock watcher who offers some pearls of wisdom to young Kirk and Spock. Abrams, and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who also collaborated on the *Transformers* reboot), are not slaves to the sacred text of
Star Trek, and liberally reimagine the characters within their altered, almost-anything-goes universe, while keeping them just familiar enough that the tweaks both make sense and are a lot of fun. Pine and Quinto are especially good at evoking their original series progenitors (which they now, in narrative and space-time terms, predate), while making the characters, shaped and altered by changes in their future-pasts, completely their own. Pine's devilish performance is briskly funny, and includes subtle hints of the not-so-subtle Shatner, but without the goofy excesses of the elder Kirk, and with a youthful vigor and rawness that makes some sense (finally) of original Kirk's somewhat implausible universal sex appeal.

The story is unexpectedly poignant at several points, and frequently quite funny, in keeping with a general leaning towards feeling over rationality (you win *this* round, Kirk!). At the heart of
Star Trek is a complex tale of parents and children, of lost boys and heroic fathers and father figures, (and heroic and lost mothers too) and blackening, character-twisting grief that works all the Greek tragedy angles. The father-son thing gets especially complicated in relation to Spock and Spock Prime, with a kind of noodle-cooking, gasket-blowing entanglement of the younger-elder/father-son/before-after roles.

Times have changed not just for Spock and company, but for the science of science fiction too, and Abrams deploys some cool special effects and riveting action that are nicely balanced by the fast-talking philosophical and techno chatter.
Star Trek whizzes along at warp speed, and packs a whole lot of entertainment into its alternately light (and enlightened) and apocalyptically dark plot. Welcome back to the future.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

There's a reason why Wolverine is a perennial
X-Men fan fave. Several reasons, really: he's funny, he's unlucky at love (very unlucky, though not so much as his almost invariably dead lady friends), he's politically incorrect, he's got those way-cool adamantium claws, and he's Canadian. Also, "wolverine" is a fun word to say. There's one reason why Wolverine took off as a character in the X-Men movies: Hugh Jackman. Jackman's back as Wolverine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the title of which suggests that many more non-Wolvie X-Men origin stories from the X-pantheon are in the pipeline. The movie efficiently ticks off plot points, characters, and backstories, as if working through a to-do list for future X-Men Origins movies.

The story begins in 1845, when young future Wolverine James Logan suffers through a difficult adolescent transformation (as all young mutants must). His transformation achieves completion when he murders the man who murdered his father, who wasn't really his father, although the man who murdered him was. The filial situation is a little sketchy on details. The incident, at any rate, leaves both his fathers dead, and James and his brother (or is it half brother?) Victor Creed, also a mutant (the future Sabretooth), are soon on the lam. Next stop, the American Civil War, where young Canadians were known to escape their troubles. A montage of conflicts -- from World War I through Vietnam -- follows, with Victor and Logan always there. They are, thanks to their mutant powers, indestructible and unkillable, and rather good at fighting and killing. Logan, the more sensitive of the two, eventually loses his taste for war and murder. Victor (Liev Schreiber) is just getting started.

So, some time in the 1980s, Logan and Victor go their separate ways. Logan sets up housekeeping in a nice cabin in the Canadian Rockies with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Then Logan's former mutant cohorts -- part of an elite government assassination squad called the X-Team -- turn up dead. Logan is unlucky at love, becomes Wolverine (thanks to government-issued adamantium-infused bones and claws), escapes government custody (duh -- he's indestructible!) and goes after Victor while being chased by the military. This occasions several expensive-looking action sequences.

There is nothing really wrong with
XMO: Wolverine. Nothing, that is, that a little rewrite couldn't fix. The movie focuses rather single-mindedly on plot, on laying out all the pieces of the origin story and programming Logan's revenge motive in a way that is fairly mechanical. The result is a movie in which all the gears mesh neatly, but the messy and appealing complexity and incongruity of Wolverine as a character is blunted. XMO: Wolverine is about the creation of the berserker Wolverine, and about showing off that super strength, and Jackman's seriously jacked up biceps, which are as well-oiled as this machine of a movie. But by rubbing off the rough edges that give his character depth, Wolverine is diminished. The psychological complexity of Marvel Comics characters has always been their distinguishing feature, but XMO: Wolverine reduces the hairy, beastly Wolverine to a sleek, shiny, revenge-seeking missile.

Director Gavin Hood (
Rendition) is known for movies with social and political themes, and there are hints here of some effort to make more than a clockwork superhero movie, to reveal what really makes Wolverine tick, and to show the softer side of the adamantium man. But the emphasis on action over character makes the movie feel both rushed and hollow. Humor surfaces all-too-briefly -- XMO: Wolverine is not filled with the kind of eminently quotable one-liners that make their way into the pop culture canon, despite Wolverine's well-known (among fanboys and girls, at least) rep for remarks that are almost as cutting as his ginsu claws. On the other hand, the movie is not terribly chatty altogether, except when mutant-exploiting William Stryker (Danny Huston) is around -- he's definitely a villain in the expository mode. A movie in which you're looking forward to a long-promised decapitation to make things more interesting is a movie that really needs to be sharper and brainier. XMO: Wolverine is unpretentious and all-business, which is good, but it feels more like a coming attraction than a proper introduction.