07/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Terminating the Darkness: Hope Floats, but Anxiety Abides

Terminator Salvation is a dark fable of the future, a much better war movie than science fiction film.

Is the era of the dark comic book movie fable coming to an end? Or is it more a matter of a spate of seemingly underperforming dark would-be blockbusters?

Terminator Salvation, the blockbuster reboot of the Terminator franchise, is, as they say in Hollywood, underperforming. That means it's not making as much money as expected.

This comes on the heels of Watchmen, the heavily anticipated comic book classic which proved too dark and geeky, and Wolverine, the origin tale of the most popular of the X-Men characters that is actually quite popular but falls short of the last two X-Men pictures.

Both movies grossed over $100 million in domestic box office -- with Wolverine over $170 million -- and Terminator Salvation will, too. For most movies, this would be a massive triumph. But not for very expensive pictures such as these, meant to be tent poles for their studios into the future. (Which Wolverine probably manages to continue, though the film is not well-regarded.)

Are the dark fables done for? Probably not, because the darkness is still to be seen in every direction. And the theme of unease with human/machine convergence certainly isn't going away. That will only intensify as technology is more intrusive and integrated into our lives and as artificial intelligence at last becomes a reality.

In the Terminator films, humanity becomes so dependent on technology that it is nearly destroyed by it. Watchmen's most powerful superhero, Dr. Manhattan, originally to have been played many years ago by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a physicist given such extraordinary powers over space and time by a nuclear accident that he becomes dangerously detached from humanity. In the X-Men series, the powerful mutant Wolverine becomes near invincible with extraordinary body modifications. All quite relevant themes.

T2 3-D, at $60 million in 1996 the most expensive mini-sequel in history, was produced for the Universal Studios amusement parks.

Still, this doesn't seem the right moment for the grim flicks. It is the moment for the rebooted Star Trek, that optimistic thrill ride in which people master the tech and work as a team, which is now the most popular movie of the year in America, just a few years after the franchise dating back to the 1960s seemed dead in the water. More about the Starship Lens Flare and the Great Rambaldi Artifact Adventure another time.

There's a row of movie posters at my local theater. On the far left, a poster for Terminator Salvation, proclaiming "The End Begins." On the far right, a poster for Star Trek, proclaiming "The Future Begins."

The Obama era is about hope, as the Trekkie-in-chief has managed to mention on more than a few occasions, and hope is what people are looking for in rugged times.

Terminator Salvation has a great look, with convincing action sequences, but seems on the choppy side, with missing scenes of needed motivation and depth. Nevertheless, it is actually good at what it really is, which is a war movie. It's a better war movie than science fiction movie.

Christian Bale is effective as John Connor, the prophesied leader of the human resistance against the machines, first targeted, then repeatedly saved by Schwarzenegger's iconic killer robot. He doesn't bring the flash and charm of Bruce Wayne to this role, which leavens the darkness of the rebooted Batman franchise. But then, there aren't many parties or Lamborghinis in this blasted-out dystopia that the Skynet artificial intelligence has made of the world.

"I'll be back."

The first three Terminator films all have two things the fourth film lacks: A strong narrative throughline and a central iconic figure (Schwarzenegger). The new film -- set in the future war the earlier films hinted at -- would seem to be setting up the prophesied human resistance leader John Connor as that central icon. (Schwarzenegger being essentially unavailable due to his little day job as governor of California.) With Bale, hot off The Dark Knight in the role, that's the audience's expectation.

Which makes sense, as the first three films turn on the struggle to stop terminators sent from the future into the present day from preventing John Connor's existence into that future. But the film introduces another character played by Sam Worthington as a dual lead.

Worthington, who stars in original Terminator director James Cameron's forthcoming scific extravaganza Avatar, is Australian, befitting Hollywood's frequent practice of picking a guy from the land down under when more testosterone than generally found in the LA actor corps is needed for a more masculine leading role. He delivers, though the accent slips a bit here and there.

But Worthington's character isn't really explained. And the big reveal of his character -- that he is a cyborg who believes he is human -- in one of those, ah, fascinating marketing decisions, is given away in trailers for the movie, robbing the picture of suspense.

Marcus is a more sophisticated cyborg than what we've seen, being a human/machine hybrid who believes he's human. But how has he come to exist at a point in the saga at which Schwarzenegger's iconic and less sophisticated T-800 is still in prototype mode?

As Bale's John Connor told us in the trailers, "This isn't the future my mother told me about." In the film, he listens repeatedly to tapes left him by late mother, Sarah Connor, which gives Linda Hamilton, who starred in the first two films as a young waitress forced to retool herself as a guerilla fighter, the opportunity to appear again in voice-over. But though the question is posed repeatedly, it's never explained, at least not in the footage seen in the theatrical release.

So the audience is left with stuttering iconography and very incomplete science fiction.

But director McG delivers a lot of impressive hard-core action, in what is essentially a successful, if decidedly grim, war movie. And composer Danny Elfman delivers a fine score, though one not nearly so iconic as his classic Batman score of 20 years ago.

Is it possible that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a more musical conception for a Terminator film?

The Terminator films have always been dark, but in the past they've been leavened by humor, mostly provided by Schwarzenegger.

The whole concept is outrageous and amusing in its essentially lunatic premise; namely, that robots keep coming back from the future, and they look and sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger, who talks about how "the terminator loves his shades," is well aware of the undercurrent of amusing unreality.

When does a killer robot from the future care about looking cool in his sunglasses? When it's a movie star having fun while at the same time selling the hyper-realism with the voice and the impassive affect.

Schwarzenegger is in the movie in a brief but telling cameo. He caused a flicker of excitement among fanboys around the world in April when he told me that he'd decided to allow his image to be used in the film via CGI.

"They're really looking for where one of the leads runs into a room and he all of a sudden sees the future terminators, because it's kind of a prequel," he noted. "So it's like the future terminator. Then he runs, then he gets thrown around, and then he goes into another room, where there are some other terminator things."

The part of Schwarzenegger's T-800 prototype was performed in live-action filming by former Mister Austria Roland Kickinger, who played the bodybuilding era Schwarzenegger in the cable movie See Arnold Run. Through CGI, Industrial Light & Magic was able to place Schwarzenegger's 1984 Terminator image in the action.

The dark tales may be in eclipse for now, relatively speaking -- keeping in mind that Terminator Salvation is over $90 million in domestic box office, already one of the higher grosses of the year, after its second weekend -- but they're part of a rich mosaic of sagas. A mosaic that will only be added to as we become more and more dependent on technology, increasingly merging with it.

In 2001, the HAL 9000 supercomputer proves most troublesome.

Before the Terminator films of 1984, 1991, and 2003, there was 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a powerful computer becomes sentient and sabotages the crew it serves. 1970's Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which a supercomputer designed to run the country's nuclear arsenal decides to run the country as well. Then there was the original Battlestar Galactica TV series in 1978, in which "Cylon" robots warred with humanity. And before both, two Harlan Ellison-penned tales of time-traveling cyborgs and soldiers for The Outer Limits in the early '60s, which Cameron acknowledged as partial inspirations for The Terminator.

Increasingly today, we have more interaction with our computers than with other people, perhaps beginning to lose the full range of emotion as our experiences become increasingly mediated. It may well be that the the more mediated and technologized, we become, the more detached and inhuman we are.

Not that so-called "social media" like Twitter and Facebook and MySpace are yet creating a hive mind like that of the Borg, introduced by Star Trek in the late 1980s. Nor do we yet live in an utterly false reality like that in the Matrix series of films. And yet ...

The Borg were terrifying in their inhumanity and and arrogance, motivated by power in an ever-expanding and consuming quest to achieve "perfection" through the acquisition and integration of technology, overcoming the weakness of flesh.

That was clear, and chilling, in the last hit movie in the Star Trek franchise before the current reboot, Star Trek: First Contact.

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series explored these themes and others, including religion and the war on terror, in detail.

But then there are the humanoid machines that want to be more like people. Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The cylons in the recent Battlestar Galactica series, reimagined by Star Trek: First Contact co-author Ron Moore, and the forthcoming Caprica prequel series, who strive to become more like humans after nearly wiping out the race. Even some of the terminators, though not so much.

Ironically, the Terminator version seen for the past two seasons on the small screen, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, delivered a much more sophisticated rendition of artificial intelligence than the new movie, delving into the boundaries and mergings between human and machine in ways only hinted at in Terminator Salvation.

That show, recently canceled, also suffered from a dour atmosphere and, unlike the film, didn't have the budget to blow things up all that often. (Though it did have Summer Glau to deliver a rather different take on the protective terminator than Schwarzenegger, leading teenage John to become more dependent on machines at an earlier age.) Still, it was thought-provoking in ways that episodic television can be and feature films increasingly are not.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...