Just about every review of Terminator Salvation (including my own) said the exact same thing: super cool action scenes, but poor character development, pacing, acting, direction, etc. etc. etc.
The unanimous response to this film got me thinking… Because the truth is, I’m somewhat conflicted when it comes to a movie like Terminator Salvation and its subsequent treatment by critics and audiences.
On the one hand, I’m the biggest proponent of treating “blockbusters” and “popcorn flicks” as legitimate works of art. God’s honest truth (and I say this as a somewhat serious film scholar) is that I don’t see much of a distinction between Die Hard and Citizen Kane. In my eyes, John McLane’s battles say just as much about society and the human condition as Orson Welles ever did. A good movie is a good movie – genre shouldn’t get in the way. So, that being the case, I hold blockbusters to a higher standard. When I go to see a sci-fi/action/fantasy/sex comedy/western/whatever, I expect to see some deep stuff and be moved on one level or another.
But on the other hand… When did we start needing more from our action movies? It seems like nowadays even the most average of filmgoers expect deep philosophy and explorations of existential conundrums in movies about time traveling robots. (And obviously I’m including myself in that category.) The guys who made Terminator Salvation told us they were going to make a movie about robots who blow stuff up. And that’s exactly what they gave us. But for some reason this wasn’t enough.
There was a time (not all that long ago…) when cool special effects and exploding gas stations wrapped around a story of good vs. evil would have been enough for me. Case in point: 1997’s Air Force One. The Harrison-Ford-is-an-ass-kicking-president flick was my idea of a perfect movie when it came out. The premise was simple: Mr. Ford’s family is taken hostage, so he shoots up an airplane until he gets them back. I loved it! But ten years later, when they decided to make the exact same movie – 2006’s Firewall, where Ford’s family is taken hostage so he shoots up a room full of supercomputers until he gets them back – I kinda hated it. I was bored, I thought it was dumb, and I wondered why I was wasting my time when I could have been reading a book or doing a Sudoku or anything else that would make me seem like a cultured, intelligent member of society.
Now, there are several reasons why one might enjoy Air Force One more than Firewall (Gary Oldman is a way better villain than Paul Bettany, Wolfgang Petersen is a more talented director than Joe Forte, thriller movies are always better on a plane…), but I seriously think that our tastes in the popular have been warped by high concept genre movies like The Matrix, The Dark Knight, and The Bourne Ultimatum.
In other words, the times they are a changin’, and 90s rehash like the Terminator no longer holds sway over our collective imagination.
This probably all sounds completely negative, but it’s really just my roundabout way of saying that Terminator Salvation may be the last great action movie.
Seriously. Hear me out.
When the world’s major superpower is stuck in the middle of an ethically questionable war, and the rest of us are dealing with economic meltdown, and pigs are bringing about the apocalypse, we tend to lean towards stories about morally-complex antiheroes plunging headfirst into unwinnable conflicts and tragic last stands. So I guess we no longer have time for old fashioned stories where the good guys ride to victory as the bad guys retreat to their fortress to plot their revenge for the sequel. Which is precisely the kind of movie Terminator Salvation is. It’s an old school action flick of the kind they don’t make anymore. So while I was busy searching for answers to the deep questions of life, I fear I might have missed a wicked genre movie.
Are we a generation of intellectually-superior super-cynics, or have the kids who grew up with Terminator and Predator finally reached adulthood? I don’t know… But I will say this: I will never stop searching for the great mind-bending, life-altering action movie, but that’s no reason to ignore the McGs of the world. Sometimes a little escapism is a good thing.
In other words, I’ll be waiting for T5.