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Terminator X’ed.

“This is John Connor. We’ve been fighting a long time. We are outnumbered by….zzzz” Well, I’ve been doing my darnedest this year to skip the Big Summery Movies that are pretty obviously subpar. (Hence, no Wolverine or Angels & Demons reviews here — Not after X3 and The Da Vinci Code.) But, in a moment of weakness, I did happen to catch McG’s Terminator: Salvation a week or so ago. And…well…if you figure this is a fourth movie in a twenty-five-year-old franchise about time-traveling killer robots, and it was made by a grown man who calls himself “McG,” it’s mostly harmless, I guess. (And let’s face it: The zinger ending notwithstanding, Terminator 3 wasn’t much to write home about either.) Still, if barely passable as a mindless, incoherent, two-hour explosion-fest, T:S gets considerably more disappointing when held against the Cameron Terminators. And, particularly coming as it does after Star Trek, T:S feels at best like a blown opportunity, and at worse just a blatant, Transformers-style cash grab. As a younger John Connor was once wont to say, “Easy money.”

The year is 2018 — yes, only nine years from now — and, as foreordained since the very first Terminator back in 1984, John Connor (Christian Bale) and the scattered remnants of Humankind are battling for survival against the mechanized minions of Skynet. (And, with an air force and nuclear subs at their disposal, the humans are actually doing quite a bit better than we all ever expected.) But, wait…first, it’s 2003, and death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington, soon of Cameron’s Avatar) is being given the hard sell by a cancer-ridden doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) to donate his body to science…namely, good old Cyberdyne Systems. (And with Worthington forced to deliver groaners like “Now I know what death tastes like” after a farewell kiss, Dead Man Walking this isn’t.)

Anyway, Marcus signs the dotted line, which undercuts a good bit of the drama when he awakens fifteen years later, after Judgment Day, and has no idea what’s going on. (Ok, all the trailers had already blown that particular spoiler wide open anyway.) In any event, Marcus soon falls in with a resourceful teenager, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), and his — I kid you not — mute child companion (Jadagrace). As this unlikely trio venture through Southern California avoiding androids — they mostly come out at night, mostly — John Connor and his crack military team attempt to find his future father, figure out why Skynet is now taking so many human prisoners, and deploy a possible game-changing sonar device that seems to work as a universal Off switch. Will it work, and cripple Skynet for good? Well, considering we still have eleven more years before the (future) events of the first film, it’s safe to say there’s probably gonna be a few snags…

Even if you’re not all that cognizant of the Terminator backstory, it won’t take long to realize that the story we were expecting to see — John Connor sends his father, Kyle Reese, on a doomed mission into the past — is not being told here. In that sense, Terminator: Salvation plays a lot like another unnecessary-feeling sci-fi prequel to the prequel, The Phantom Menace. (That goes double once you start thinking of Marcus, Connor, and Reese as the Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Anakin of this outfit respectively.) And, like Menace, the stakes here feel surprisingly low, mainly because we know a lot of these characters have a future (or, in Reese’s case, past) date with destiny, and that it isn’t being covered here mainly so that the powers-that-be can make some extra coin at some point in the future.

The problem is, after a movie this poorly written, who’s going to bother showing up? I know it’s useless to continue railing about the same sad old thing, but, really — how does a script this shoddily written ever get off the ground? Isn’t there any sort of quality control that goes into making a $100 million+ flick? I already mentioned one of the many horrible lines scattered throughout this movie, but that’s just that the tip of the iceberg. Every character in this movie is a one-note affair, from the Big Three down to folks like Bryce Dallas Howard (the supportive hug-giver), Common (the GI with a dead brother), and Michael Ironside (the skeptical higher-up). The leaps of logic required throughout this film make time travel seem eminently plausible. (Why isn’t Skynet’s “asset” activated sooner? How did Bale get on that sub? How are the robots missing that not-so-secret army base? Does that gimongous Transformer people-grabber thing have a stealth mode or something?) At one point, to get it across that Marcus is a stand-up guy, we actually have an interlude involving a gang of rapists out of Deliverance — I mean, how lazy can you get? And the climax — in which all the main characters run around Skynet HQ without much purpose — just makes no sense at all. (Nor does the ending, or, for that matter, the original ultra-dark ending, which for all its bravura would’ve screwed up the timeline something fierce.) And I did mention the mute kid, right? Hoo boy.

So, what’s good? Well, despite the pitiful writing, the three main characters are all pretty watchable, even if Bale spends the entire movie in raspy monotone mode. (I like Bale as an actor quite a bit, but those folks who say he’s “slumming” it by making this movie clearly never sat through Reign of Fire or Equilibrium. The man, power to him, has never been above slapdash genre outings.) Sam Worthington isn’t given much to do but act pained and stoic, but he has presence, and I could see him being a A-lister if given the right material. And Anton Yelchin’s star continues to rise after Star Trek — he’s easily the most appealing figure in the movie, and comes across as a more feral and dangerous version of Elijah Wood. (Dare I say, he’s Bilboesque? Well, maybe.) Finally, there’s a surprise cameo of sorts in the latter third that’s good for a solid fifteen seconds of real movie thrills, before it too degenerates into badly-thought-out nonsense. But in the grim post-Judgement Day future, I guess you take your movie moments where you can find them.

Also, the lighting? So not professional.

Rosen: Stop me before I blog again!

“How absurd is that? Let us count the ways. First, even when the most establishment ‘journalists’ such as Rosen get caught engaging in patently irresponsible behavior, they still find a way to blame blogs rather than themselves (I thought I was just blogging, and reckless gossip is what bloggers do.) It wasn’t blogs that “reported” Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of scary aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons or that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks; it wasn’t blogs that glorified Jessica Lynch’s nonexistent heroic firefight with Iraqi goons; it wasn’t blogs that turned John Edwards into The Breck Girl and John Kerry into a “French-looking” weakling; and it wasn’t blogs that presented retired military generals who were participating in a Pentagon propaganda program and saddled with countless undisclosed conflicts as ‘independent analysts.’

Call it the State of Play fallacy: After TNR’s Jeffrey Rosen blames “blogging” for the obviously poor quality of his recent Sotomayor hit piece — and vows never to blog again — Salon‘s inimitable Glenn Greenwald sets the record straight about what can and can’t be pinned on bloggers. “Despite his efforts to blame ‘blogging’ for what he did, Rosen didn’t use journalistically reckless methods to smear Sotomayor’s intellect because of some inherent attribute of the medium. Instead, he did that because…that’s how the establishment media typically functions: ‘background reporting from people with various axes to grind, i.e. standard Washington reporting.’” (And, for what it’s worth, Rosen’s original article was hardly what you’d call blogging anyway — it was just a lengthy piece that ran online.)

A Snowy Christmas.

Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon! Steven Spielberg (and Peter Jackson)’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn gets a release date — December 23, 2011. “Starring Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as Tintin, the intrepid young reporter whose relentless pursuit of a good story thrusts him into a world of high adventure, and Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace) as the nefarious Red Rackham, the international cast also includes Andy Serkis, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Gad Elmaleh, Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook.

The Bonnie Lass o’Tardis.

“We saw some amazing actresses for this part, but when Karen came through the door the game was up. Funny, and clever, and gorgeous, and sexy. Or Scottish, which is the quick way of saying it. A generation of little girls will want to be her. And a generation of little boys will want them to be her too.” Newcomer Karen Gillan is cast as the next companion for Steven Moffat’s first season as Doctor Who showrunner. (She joins Matt Smith as the titular timelord.) As with Smith, Moffatt is skewing younger with the cast than I’d probably prefer…but, let’s see what he’s got planned.

Consigned to the Waves.

“‘Having gone through that disaster she was given extra years and an extra dose of vitality,’ said Haas, who recalled escorting Dean to a Titanic society gala a few years ago.” Millvina Dean, last known survivor of the Titanic, 1912-2009. “Dean’s death fell on May 31, exactly 98 years after the Titanic was launched.

Thrill of the Chase…Letter.

Score one for eBay: After three-score years lost to the winds, a long-missing Lincoln letter is returned to the National Archives by the Arizona collector who ended up with it. “Federal officials, who have not ruled out its possible theft from a government collection, discovered it two years ago during routine monitoring of online auctions.

Ground Control to Major Kong.

“In Huntsville, Ala., there is an unusual grave site where, instead of flowers, people sometimes leave bananas. The gravestone reads: ‘Miss Baker, squirrel monkey, first U.S. animal to fly in space and return alive. May 28, 1959.‘” On the fiftieth anniversary of their history-making flight, NPR remembers NASA’s pioneering space monkeys, Able and Baker. “More than 300 people attended Baker’s funeral service when she died of kidney failure in 1984, Buckbee says. And, he says, often at her grave at the entrance to the rocket center, ‘you’ll see a banana or two laying there.’

42 Doin’ Work.

“If there is part of him that secretly covets Obama’s job, he is burying it inside. ‘I like my life now,’ he said. ‘I loved being president and it’s a good thing we had a constitutional limit or I’d have made the people take me out in a pine box, probably. But we had a constitutional limit and I knew that in the beginning. And so when I left, I had to go out and create another life. And I did it, and I love doing it.’

In a wide-ranging piece in the NYT Magazine, Peter Baker checks in on the post-presidency of William Jefferson Clinton. Among the topics discussed: Election 2008 fallout — Obama is forgiven, Kennedy and Richardson are not — and Clinton’s retrospective view of his own administration’s economic policy in light of the “Great Recession.” “He added: ‘If you ask me to write the indictment, I’d say: “I wish Bill Clinton had said more about derivatives. The Republicans probably would have stopped him from doing it, but at least he should have sounded the alarm bell.”‘

The Politics of Yecccch.

“Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.” The NYT’s Nicholas Kristof examines the hardwired psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. “The larger point is that liberals and conservatives often form judgments through flash intuitions that aren’t a result of a deliberative process. The crucial part of the brain for these judgments is the medial prefrontal cortex, which has more to do with moralizing than with rationality …For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust.

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