Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Sitting in the theater, I began to wish that John Conner would send a machine from the future to terminate this franchise. Terminator Salvation gets some things right, and it works better than Terminator 3, but that doesn’t make it good by default. My one word review is “unnecessary.” The filmmakers obviously hoped to reboot the franchise, but this franchise should’ve ended in 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The innovation of the first two films has dried up, and now it just feels tired.

This fourth installment unfolds in the year 2018, several years after machines have wiped out humanity in a nuclear holocaust, dubbed “Judgement Day.” The few survivors of the human race have formed a resistance movement against the machines, led by John Conner (Christian Bale). Not everyone recognizes Conner’s leadership, while others treat him as a near-religious, messianic figure. While fighting to ensure humanity’s survival, Conner sends out radio broadcasts in an effort to locate Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the man who eventually becomes his father (Reese later goes back in time to impregnate Sarah Conner, which almost makes sense, but not quite). Reese journeys alongside Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a mysterious stranger whose true purpose is gradually revealed.

My biggest complaint stems from an overall lack of purpose. The cast performs well, in spite of unimaginative dialogue, but the predictable plot holds no revelations or big surprises. I sat in the theater, thinking of various plot twists that might have made the film relevant. Still, the post-apocalyptic California feels extremely real, thanks to some top notch visual effects. Most of the action sequences achieve a gritty, war film realism, and I must confess that I was prepared for campiness that never came, which was a pleasant surprise. The superb design of the film actually made the film’s other lackluster aspects all the more apparent.

The first two Terminators (especially T2) have a good mix of humor, drama, and various types of action sequences, but Terminator Salvation never strays from its dismal, monotone battle scenes. Is the future really so joyless? A world completely devoid of humor (or even smiles, for that matter) doesn’t feel very human. The compelling battle scenes marry phenomenal CGI with traditional techniques like handheld cameras and long, uncut shots, but the action isn’t grounded in characters that we care about. Some innovative dialogue with a little humor thrown into the bargain would’ve gone a long way.

It’s worth noting that I was fully prepared to love this movie. I saw it as part of a Terminator marathon at a local movie theater. The first two Terminator movies played, followed by the midnight premiere of Terminator Salvation. Seeing the films in one night made me aware of all the minor throwbacks and tributes in the new film, and there are several, but it also made me more aware of what the latest chapter is missing. When Terminator 2: Judgement Day ended, James Cameron obviously intended for the story to be over. Then other writers gave us the lackluster Terminator 3, and I at least hoped that this new film would provide some closure, but it doesn’t. The “salvation” promised by the title never arrives. The film ends completely wide open, guaranteeing sequels, but if the writers were going to relaunch this franchise, they should’ve started with a story that justified that decision. At one point, John Conner looks into the camera and delivers the franchise’s most famous line: “I’ll be back.” Here’s hoping he doesn’t mean it.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language.

The violence in the film isn’t gory. Terminator Salvation has the tone of an R-rated film, but the content of a PG-13. There’s very little blood - mostly just explosions and shots of machines getting ripped apart. However, if your children haven’t seen the first two Terminator movies, they probably won’t understand this one, but if they have seen them, they’ve already seen and heard things far worse than this film has to offer. It’s almost like one of the time travel paradoxes from the Terminator movies ...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Star Trek

Not since Star Trek: The Next Generation aired on television (1987-1994) has the Star Trek franchise been so accessible and enjoyable. J.J. Abrams’ latest film will be appreciated by the mainstream, while still delivering substance for the fans. Star Trek now joins the ranks of other once-tired franchises that have been successfully revived, most recently James Bond and Batman. Most Trekkies will love it, but even if you’ve never enjoyed the franchise before, don’t let that stop you. Through a potent blend of style and solid character development, the new Star Trek boldly goes ... well, where no Star Trek has gone for a good while.

The film features the original slate of characters, most notably a young James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Having grown into a rowdy degenerate in Iowa, Kirk follows the advice of a military officer and enlists in Starfleet. Spock, a half-human, half-Vulcan, sees Kirk as immature and incapable of leadership. Once Kirk and Spock find themselves working aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise together, the two slowly learn to respect one another, despite their opposite sensibilities. The full cast of characters from Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) stands alongside Kirk and Spock in the battle to defeat Nero (Eric Bana), a dangerous Romulan who has journeyed from the future.

Character development serves as this installment’s primary success. After years of mediocrity, the Star Trek universe needed a revival, and putting characters first was the best way to rebuild momentum. The writers give us classic characters that we know already, but then expand them through generous backstory and well-crafted dialogue. As is often the case with films featuring already-iconic characters, the casting director is the unsung hero. The stellar cast, composed largely of semi-stars and unknowns, makes a wonderful ensemble that could easily carry this franchise into two or three more films.

The plot doesn’t make much sense, but in this unique situation, it doesn’t really matter. The story involves time travel and essentially serves as a gimmick to establish an alternate timeline of events. Because Nero travels back in time and changes the past, a reality is established that doesn’t have to match the continuity of the other films. I wondered if this film would keep with Star Trek continuity or if it would disregard the originals and simply start over the way Batman Begins or Casino Royale did, but it ultimately keeps a foot in each camp, which should please the fans. It honors the originals without being constrained by them.

Having run for over 40 years, the vastness of the Star Trek universe poses a problem for outsiders. This film walks the same sort of line that The Lord of the Rings successfully walked: faithful and thick enough for fans, yet still approachable for those who don’t know the lore. Average Joe doesn’t speak Klingon, and the writers did a fine job recognizing that and striking the appropriate tone. Most great science fiction has more to do with relatable characters than with innovative science, and the characters usually make the difference between popularity and nerdy obscurity. Popularity isn’t always the mark of solid sci-fi, but it did accompany the original Star Trek series/films, and I predict that this latest will find similar success.

A few moments feel out of place, most of which feature unnecessary spectacle. When a monster chases Kirk through the snow, it feels like a cheap thrill, well below the standard set by the rest of the film. These moments are fortunately few, as most of the action not only advances the story and/or character development, but also boasts a grittier, less-polished quality. The action isn’t more realistic, but it does carry an intensity and an edge that the shiny originals never achieved. The heightened action increases the peril, making us care even more about the characters. The formula sounds simple, but this well-tuned machine was assembled by first-rate storytellers.

The powerful opening scene may bring fans to tears, and that’s a real triumph. The writers achieve some emotional depth, but not so much that the timbre of Star Trek gets lost. They fixed only what was broken, leaving many other aspects (such as ship design and costumes) largely untouched. Star Trek hasn’t been cool for a long time, but I’m thrilled to see this new franchise starting off so solidly. May it live long and prosper.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content.

The action gets pretty intense, though as you might expect, there’s no gore to be found. The brief sexual content is indeed brief, featuring Kirk and two female roommates in their underwear (Kirk and his lover are interrupted by the other roommate, and the scene is played for laughs more than anything). I’d say it’s appropriate for teens, and the only big concern with younger kids is that they might be frightened. If your child usually enjoys action movies, he/she will probably enjoy this one.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine answers many questions raised by the first three X-Men films. How old is Wolverine? How did he get his metallic skeleton? What happened to make him so bitter? As you might expect, some of the answers are more compelling than others. While the X-Men trilogy boasted complex characters and explored relevant social and political issues, Wolverine never achieves such depth. It’s a typical summer movie: a good-looking vehicle for big action scenes and cutting-edge special effects. As an X-Men fan, I was hoping for more.

Still, the action thoroughly entertains, and picks up immediately. The film opens in 1845 as a young James Howlett (who later becomes Logan/Wolverine) runs away from home with his brother, Victor. Both are mutants who possess heightened senses, superhuman strength, and accelerated healing/slow aging. The brothers choose to embrace their mutant natures and become fierce outcasts, and the opening credits follow them through nearly 130 years worth of warfare, culminating in their participation in the Vietnam War. When a mysterious government agent, William Stryker (Danny Houston) appears and offers them the chance to join a top secret team, the brothers embark on a journey that will change them both forever and ultimately pit them against each other.

Everything described above happens in the first fifteen minutes, and that’s part of what bothered me about the film. The pace was so accelerated that I didn’t have time to soak in the characters and the story, which was not true of the other X-Men movies. The mythology of X-Men has always concerned itself with its characters’ psychological profiles and the political relevance of the setting, but Wolverine never lets up on the action. I would have enjoyed spending more time in the past, seeing how the beginnings of the mutant phenomenon shaped World events. As the credits raced over a century of American history, I felt ripped off. If Wolverine fought in the Civil War, ravaged the trenches of World War I, and stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II, I want to see it. 

The action scenes kept me engaged, and Hugh Jackman plays the character so well that it’s hard not to have a good time. Strangely enough, for a film so watered down, it isn’t very accessible for newcomers. The film takes for granted that you already know about the lore, the characters, and the events to come (X-Men 1-3). If you don’t, prepare to find yourself confused. Still, the action scenes take center stage. Casual viewers seeking a summer movie thrill won’t be disappointed, but the fans of the franchise probably will. It’s fun to see some cameos from favorite characters like Emma Frost and Gambit, though they don’t do very much. I hope that if filmmakers produce more Origins stories (I’d love to see X-Men Origins: Magneto), they get back to the roots of what drew us in to begin with. This time around, the heart and soul just aren’t there.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity.

The violence is comic book violence, meaning there’s next to no blood, but plenty of intense shootings, slashings, explosions, etc. The partial nudity is completely asexual, as Wolverine runs naked out of the facility where his metal claws are surgically installed.