I’m going to plant a flag and say that the fourth film in the “Terminator” series is not science fiction. Furthermore, that’s exactly its problem.
Arguing about whether something is science fiction is probably self-defeating – but that didn’t stop us from trying to do it for seven years, once a month, two hours a shot, during which time I attended the venerable Bloomington, Indiana Science Fiction Discussion Group. And if you think a political or religious argument can get heated, just put a dozen hard-core science fiction fans in a circle and ask them to define their passion. In fact, maybe SF IS a religion.
Then again: nobody in the science fiction field itself has ever proposed a definition of the genre that didn’t get shrugged off or burned to the ground. When we start splitting hairs, things get slippery, and more and more works can be filed in numerous places. Hence, terms are coined, such as “hard SF” (the science is rigorous) and “soft SF” (like the so-called “soft sciences”, perhaps social issues or psychology are inventive, but at the expense of cutting edge physics).
But again: there is no room in SF for “Terminator: Salvation”. That’s because SF is primarily a field of ideas; and “Salvation” doesn’t have any – not about science, not about fiction – other than “let’s keep things moving”.
At least one facet of the “Terminator” series hasn’t gone straight downhill: the special effects. The first film was down-and-dirty (though the night photography was nice, and makeup by Stan Winston, turning Arnold’s face into half robot, worked well). The second film did its part to push the movies into the computer graphics age. The third “Terminator” we can skip.
And now this new one, with effects by ILM, is cutting edge again (if, last year, you thought “Transformers” was cutting edge). But like all technology, computer graphics are dated the instant you pay for them. Take a dispassionate second look at “T2″ some time. The morphing metal man now looks quaint. Not so when he freezes and shatters, done via a model (Stan Winston again).
But in terms of ideas, the series seems to be on a fatal slide. The first “Terminator” delighted in the intricacies of its time travel plot (maybe a bit too much; SF writer Harlan Ellison sued, successfully proving that the film ripped off an earlier story by him). “T2″, while it layered excitement upon excitement like cheese upon bacon upon salt upon oil upon French fries, was awfully short on real feeling. The third “Terminator” we can skip. But you knew that.
The new chapter works for a while, coasting on Christian Bale‘s murderous focus. If this is your first “T” film, that performance will seem bizarre. But consider that Bale is playing John Connor, who grew up an orphan, thinking his mother was psychotic, telling him Armageddon was coming in a year or two and human-looking killer robots would stalk him without end. Bale’s choice, to bring all his intensity to the surface was one way to make sense of the character, but it’s overkill and a waste of his energy. As much watched on YouTube, it also caused him to explode on set, revealing what a toll it takes on him for this to be his method of choice. Time to broaden out.
So “T4″ works best in its opening and middle acts, when there’s very little dialog (“…better to close your mouth and be thought an idiot than to open it and remove all doubt”). If it had stayed lean to the end, maybe we would have given the film the benefit of the doubt. But in the third act, it all funnels down to a traditional climax smothered in nostalgia; and when “Terminator – Salvation” opens its mouth to tell you what it’s about, its lack of ideas reveals it as so much less than the sum of its parts.