Christian Bale’s career is experiencing a strange trend: He’s a leading man who never leads. He’s a star who gets up-staged by his supporting cast. In short: What is the damn point of Christian Bale being in movies?
This trend started with The Dark Knight, where aside from the obvious raw impact of Heath Ledger’s incredible turn as the Joker, Bale had to contend with nuanced and measured performances from other great actors, namely Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart. In a film that literally was all about Batman, Bale didn’t feel like he mattered at all in the execution of plot and the telling of story; perhaps that can be attributed at least somewhat to the script (and perhaps the same is true of Terminator Salvation). Regardless of where the blame can be placed, Bale practically felt like a non-factor in what really was supposed to be his film, and in the wake of the film’s behemoth-levels of success he simply was overlooked in favor of the supporting performances of the rest of the cast.
And this summer, the trend continues with the ludicrously named Terminator Salvation, a film that would have been 75% unchanged if Bale’s scenes had all been cut from it. In a manner of speaking, this film takes the trend to the next level; whereas Bale at least had some palpable impact on The Dark Knight‘s story, here he only truly matters in the film’s climax. And once again, his supporting cast is simply more engaging than he is.
The bad news is that really isn’t saying much, as the supporting cast for the most part isn’t given much to do that’s actually interesting. Largely this is thanks to the film’s tendency to swap perspectives, which it does at nearly break-neck speed, switching from Connor to Marcus to Connor to Marcus and so on without giving so much as a minute to breath. Because of the perpetually shifting focus, the characters barely have any time to develop. Indeed, Bryce Dallas-Howard and Common are utterly wasted as Kate Connor and veteran soldier Barnes, respectively; the former stays on the periphery of the film, remaining a background character with no impact on the plot or story, and the latter is saddled with the worst dialog in the film. (“The signal works! It’s beautiful.”)
And while Worthington’s mysterious Marcus is allotted the most material, he’s still practically skeletal as a character by the movie’s climax. Marcus’ best interactions are with a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, having the time of his life successfully playing in someone else’s shoes for the second time this summer), and this is entirely because their relationship is fleshed out the most– which, again, isn’t saying much. Regardless, the roles are good for both– Worthington proves himself to be a very capable action star (seriously, his look screams “build a franchise around me”), and Yelchin is easily one of 2009’s breakout male actors. Script aside the duo make for one of the film’s saving graces. Both actors portray the eventual bond between their characters admirably, but they have woefully little material to work with. (And it probably speaks to their credit that they managed to make the relationship feel palpable despite being underwritten.)
But of course, this is a summer movie, and we go to see summer movies for the action. Who wants to read about relationships in a review of a Terminator movie?! So on a positive note, Terminator Salvation delivers in the stuff-blowing-up department; in a time when action set pieces often feel repetitive, derivative, or a smug combination of both, Salvation manages to keep each action sequence feel wholly unique and set apart from the others, moving from aerial combat to grounded fist-fights between Marcus and post-apocalyptic thieves. The effects and action both have the potential to err on the Transformers side of things, and while it occasionally feels like some Bay got into McG’s gargantuan, human-harvesting Terminators, the film never delves into bona-fide design and action theft.
But as good as the action is, and as good as the effects are (they say that the best effects are the ones you don’t recognize as being effects; this is true of Salvation, which is obviously CGI-laden but so polished that I never considered that what I was watching was computer animated) brings me right back to the primary problem with the movie. Everything surrounding the excellent action is lifeless, and while these sequences don’t feel shoehorned in, the movie certainly doesn’t go out of it’s way to earn them. And really, if I can’t care about the action in any abstract sense beyond how well-done it is, and how cool it looks, it should follow that I don’t care about the moments leading up to the action.
Terminator had the potential to be the big movie of the summer; in terms of history, it only had real competition in Star Trek and the latest Harry Potter film. Unfortunately, Terminator has fallen flat on it’s face in every regard, and the conversation surrounding it will always be based on one question– what went wrong? Between massive script re-writing (Fun Fact: Bale was originally supposed to play Marcus, but diva that he is he had the script re-written to beef up Connor’s role. Not that the original script was free of problems, but it’s pretty plain that the rewrites added many of their own problems to the film), reports of on-set drama, and advertising, you can take your pick.
Perhaps what we’ll take away from Terminator is that the people audiences buy tickets to see should actually have an impact on the movie they’re starring in. Sounds logical enough, don’t you think?