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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Despite complexities, summer heroes still find time to save the world

Whether it's Chris Pine's Jim Kirk or Christian Bale's John Connor, here they come to save the day.

July 05, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

"It's not my war," says Shia LaBeouf's Sam in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." "I fear it soon will be," replies the heavy-hearted towering steel of Optimus Prime. And we know, in that moment, that despite his wish to be just an ordinary guy, Sam will become the reluctant warrior. For us, sacrifices will be made. The world will be made safe. We will be saved.

And that is one reason why I love summer so. Sci-fi and super-charged heroes once again rule. Conjured up out of fantasy rather than the heightened reality of a Bourne or a Bond, they range widely and wildly through darkly imagined places saturated by menace, where treachery lurks in unexpected corners and even more unexpected shapes, and destruction rains down with a fire-and-brimstone force. All that is alien and strange nevertheless eerily echoes the everyday with a sort of video veracity that can induce chills.

Then magically, like Prozac with popcorn, the lights go up and I can shake the devil off my shoulders and walk away. The stories may disappear like vapor, but the images of the heroes linger for they are, after all, really what it's all about. Done right, the fuel-injected worlds they stalk and the battles they wage -- whether the enemy is an entirely different species or comes courtesy of our advancing technology -- make for satisfying cinema and not just for you Y-chromosome carriers. Inside all of that roaring testosterone there is much that is appealing, amusing and moving for the rest of us, as box-office numbers would suggest.

This summer's heroes may go boldly, but in every case, someone has gone many times before: three earlier "X-Men" and "Terminators"; one earlier Michael Bay "Transformers," a 1984 animated film and the pervasive TV series; and countless iterations of "Star Trek" on every size screen known to modern man.

It hasn't been easy to be the fresh prince this year.

Yet on they came in their own distinctive ways. For "Terminator's" Christian Bale and Sam Worthington, martyrdom drips like sweat from their brows. Others swagger with a cocky smile and an endearing arrogance, as Chris Pine does in director J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek." There is the tortured struggle with a darker animal nature, as is Hugh Jackman's fate in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," or, like LaBeouf's Sam, there is the boy David facing off whatever Goliath happens to be tearing up the town.

Most of us have long since gotten past the notion that superheroes and the comic books and graphic novels they're so often rooted in are merely kids' stuff, having intellectualized their political and social undercurrents to death in recent years. But it's always interesting to look at our current boys of summer to see who we're looking to save us these days, why certain actors carry the mantle so vividly and why others struggle.

Consider Bale. One of the most intensely interesting actors around, he must have seemed the perfect match for the gritty, deconstructed post-apocalyptic future director McG and screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris envisioned for "Terminator Salvation." But he isn't. The interior force field that works so well for him underneath the "Dark Knight's" mask is exactly what is working against him in "Salvation," a rebel-with-a-cause story that has Bale's John Connor leading an underground resistance.

Unfortunately for John Connor, to say nothing of the resistance, a leader of men Bale is not, or at least that's not a role he's been able to get his head around. His very essence seems to be solitary, which is why he was far better as Batman with that no-friends-are-required existence than as Connor, the man destined to save the human race from the "Terminator's" relentless killing machines, embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger before he went political on us.

Bale's appeal is the icy certainty of survival that you feel deep in your bones any time you see him. That steel is at the center of his pilot in Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn." You believed he could survive the impossibly harsh, torturous Laotian prison and an escape into an even more unforgiving jungle. Though others start the journey with him, he walks out of the jungle alone.

But cold never draws men close, and that is why it is Sam Worthington's man/machine hybrid Marcus who emerges as the one you want to follow in "Salvation." The accidental hero, charisma hanging easy on his broad shoulders like an old coat, Worthington claims every scene he is in. His is an empathy you can feel -- he did good not because it is right, which is Bale's motivation, but because he cares.

One of Worthington's strengths is that ability to make his vulnerability accessible, that sense of a shared humanity easy for the rest of us to embrace. Cut from the same action/fantasy cloth, his next films -- "Avatar" and "Clash of the Titans" -- feel filled with promise.

Breaking the mold

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