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Is ‘Terminator Salvation’ the ‘Iron Man’ of 2009?

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When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, there are different types of directors. The two most common are the Gen. Patton types who act like they are leading a military campaign and the P.T. Barnum personalities who hype everything and care far more about selling popcorn than creating lasting pop culture. Less common are the stately, professorial filmmakers (they are usually British, like Christopher Nolan) and, rarer still, are tortured-poet, art-house auteurs who somehow crossed over into CGI territory.

There is at least one other category, and it’s my personal favorite, at least when to comes to interviews: the true evangelists. They are consumed by their movie and eager to spread the word. And right now McG, the man bringing the ‘Terminator’ franchise back to the screen, is the most stirring evangelist director in town.

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We won’t see how the public embraces ‘Terminator Salvation’ until May but if the movie doesn’t connect no one can blame its director, McG, who is a man on a mission. Yesterday I went to a somewhat dizzying presentation at the Directors Guild over on Sunset Boulevard where McG showed footage from ‘Terminator Salvation.’ And, wow, the guy is just enthusiasm uncorked, a bottle of Red Bull in bluejeans. He is also, to his credit, reaching out to fans, the media and peers with both candor and proud passion when it comes to this franchise revival that very few people were clamoring for.

He said some interesting things, but first, a bit about that footage....

The special effects are a work in progress, but the movie about humanity’s darkest days in the not-so-distant future already has an appropriately disturbing look to it, all drab gun-metal and the sort of chemical shine -- think of factory ditch water in a desert of ash and you get a sense of the grim canvas here. McG mentioned that Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel ‘The Road’ was a touchstone influence and that he and his team also meticulously researched what a fallout world would smell, look and taste like, and the acrid final result is certainly an evocative one.

As far as action, there was a lot of intense chase work, terribly efficient murder machines and pure desperation up on the screen, all of which bodes very well for a movie that, as McG says, is looking ‘to honor and respect the mythology of ‘Terminator’ and bring credibility back to the franchise.’ As for the story, the year is 2018 and John Connor is now an adult (played by the glowering Christian Bale) and struggling to live up to (and live through) the prophecies of the past. There are plenty of spoilers floating around the Internet from the screener here and an earlier one in Manhattan, but I’ll just leave it at this: The future is not the one Connor expected and, as so often happens with people in his family, he’s trying to persuade people that he is not crazy. He meets a guy played by outstanding Aussie actor Sam Worthington who Connor suspects is a new model of Terminator. Is he right? The footage suggests that he is but McG, with Cheshire cat grin, says that nothing is quite as tidy as it looks. ‘Can he trust the machine at the riverside?’ McG said of one particularly riveting scene.

I really like the look of this film and its early trajectory reminds me of ‘Iron Man,’ which won over the masses with a smart and extended dialogue with fans, great casting and a top-notch mix of practical effects and computer-generated flourishes and framing. McG appears to be making great decisions and has from Day One. Bale balked at the idea of being in the film and wouldn’t agree to be the star until ‘it was on paper,’ McG recounted, and insisted on a story that was so good that naked actors on a bare stage could hold the attention of an audience for two hours with just the words and plot. (I know several women who would watch Bale onstage naked all day if he was reading the phone book but, well, I don’t think that was the point being conveyed....) The fact that Bale, a notorious perfectionist, is in the movie at all speaks to the depth of the piece.

There’s a lot of attention to tradition and detail here. Early on McG sought out the blessing of Cameron (‘I went,’ he said, ‘and kissed the ring’) and has plans to show the film to a certain California politician with a vested interest in the fate of the franchise (that elected official wasn’t especially impressed by a very early sizzle reel so that screening may be especially key to the filmmaker). There are lines and moments in the new film that link up to the past films and pay homage to them. That doesn’t mean McG is going for pure crowd-pleasing, though. He said the ending of the film is ‘going to piss some people off’ because it resists the pat Hollywood notions of resolution.

The story of this film and McG’s career trajectory will be fascinating to watch this year. If I were to bet, I’d say this will be one of the biggest hit films of the year. No matter what, though, I know he’s already got my attention. The evangelist is preaching to the choir with me....

-- Geoff Boucher

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