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Friday, June 12, 2009

'Terminator Salvation'/'Almaz Black Box'

Two manhunts are on, but only one succeeds

"Terminator Salvation," the fourth installment in the sci-fi franchise that began way back in 1984, has just about everything you'd expect from a "Terminator" film: gleaming metal robot exoskeletons that implacably pursue their human prey, human-looking robots sent to infiltrate mankind's domain. . . . Hell, it's even got the line "I'll be back" and a computer-generated Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Terminator Salvation Rating: (3 out of 5)
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Terminator Salvation
Enter the hero: Christian Bale in "Terminator Salvation"

Director: McG
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 13, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The year is 2018, and the long-prophesied war between man and machine has ravaged the planet. Skynet, an artificially intelligent military supercomputer has become self-aware, and — just like H.A.L. in "2001" — paranoid. Viewing humanity as a threat to its existence, Skynet launched a nuclear first strike against humanity (see the finale of "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"), followed up by genocidal attacks by robotic weapons systems.

Leading the human survivors amid this devastated landscape is one John Connor (Christian Bale), who survived assassination attempts by three Terminator-class robots sent back in time to whack him while he was still a youth. Now a grizzled veteran, he leads resistance raids against robot-held outposts while looking for a man known as Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), for Kyle will grow up to go back in time and protect John's mother, Sara, from a Terminator, and in the process become John's father. (See the first "Terminator.")

Bale brings his deep and breathy "Batman" voice to the role, as well as his pumped-up physique, but not much else; Sam Worthington, taking over where Schwarzenegger left off before pursuing a career in politics, plays the Terminator with a heart, a cyborg who's torn between his programming and his desire to protect his friends. There's nobody who can play a killer robot like Arnold, though, and Worthington is not nearly as iconic in the role. Nor do the scriptwriters provide him with any of those killer one-liners like "Hasta la vista, baby."

"Terminator Salvation" is a modest improvement on the rather predictable third installment of the series, and its special effects are exciting at times, but nothing is as jaw-droppingly astounding as the liquid, morphing T-1000 Terminator from James Cameron's "T2," and the moral complexity of that film has also been tossed.

Director McG ("Charlie's Angels") conjures up a washed-out industrial palette for the future — all harsh bleached sunlight, and grainy grays and blacks — but the former commercials director proves once again he's great at look, but hopeless when it comes to characterization.

S cience-fiction is almost exclusively the preserve of those with huge budgets to pour into special effects, so it's always intriguing to see someone take a lo-fi approach. One can point to some absolute classics like "Dark Star" (1974) or "Liquid Sky" (1982) as films that poured a double-shot of imagination into their glass of limited means. As Terry Gilliam once put it, "If it's going to be expensive, it's got to be mindless; and if it's going to be thought-provoking, it's got to be cheap."

Almaz Black Box Rating: (1 out of 5)
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Almaz Black Box
The scream: Things can get very scary on space stations. © 2007 INTEGRATED INFORMATION INTERNATIONAL, LLC.

Director: Christian Johnston
Running time: 89 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (June 12, 2009)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"Almaz Black Box" is certainly cheap — with no stars, no special effects and only a cramped Soviet space station as its set — but the only thought it provokes is: What were they thinking?

This film can be neatly summarized as "Blair Witch Project" meets "Event Horizon," a hoax documentary crossed with some kind of mysterious presence invading a spaceship.

"Almaz" does have a great concept: An orbiting Russian space station inhabited by three Russian astronauts is visited by two representatives from a Western corporation seeking to buy the module, and strange phenomena begin to occur. The entire film is posited as having been reconstructed from onboard monitor camera footage retrieved from the ship's black box after some sort of mysterious disaster.

The claustrophobic interiors and Cold War paranoia — is the Almaz actually harboring pulse-beam weaponry that the Russians are trying to disable? — make for a good premise, but the film runs out of steam surprisingly quickly. As deaths and unexplained phenomena increase, "Almaz" devolves into nothing more than a flurry of flickering monitor-cam jump cuts, vaguely ominous static and shards of electronic noise. What exactly is going on is utterly incomprehensible. As an industrial-style art-video project, where jittery, distressed video images are the point, "Almaz" could have been somewhat engrossing. Yet as cinema, aiming to be a suspenseful horror movie, it fails miserably — It's like "Alien" without the alien.

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