Devin Faraci: It took twenty years, but fans finally get what they wanted: the war between man and machine that was only hinted at in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Or at least the earliest skirmishes. Terminator Salvation isn’t filled with advancing armies of endoskeletons walking over mountains of skulls, but it does seem to show the pivotal moment in Resistance history when humans went from being on the defensive to kicking some ass. We’re still a ways from time travel and pulse weapons, but Terminator Salvation gives you the post-apocalyptic wham bam you’ve been waiting for since 1984 (!).
Don’t get too excited. While T4 is good – more than passable, I’d say, and completely enjoyable on its own lunkheaded terms – and walks all over the horrible Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – it’s still not the classic few had hoped for. But it’s way better than the disaster that many had expected, especially considering that the movie is directed by the much-maligned McG. And for my money the direction might be the film’s strong point; McG manages to create truly thrilling adventure set pieces filled with an old-fashioned sort of thrills. There are scenes that feel like they have derring-do, and a buckle or two comes close to being swashed. He doesn’t just settle for relentless chases (although there are chases) or endless shoot outs (although there are shoot outs), and he makes the scenes feel varied and distinct from one another. Maybe we’re finally seeing the POSITIVE influence of video game level design on movies; all too many action films have samey-feeling set pieces, while Terminator Salvation‘s action never feels stale. And it’s the kind of stuff that would have made me go nuts when I was 13, with not just different kinds of action but different kinds of enemies; who would have imagined this movie would have felt like a throwback to 80s adventure films?
Of course it’s not as fun as 80s adventure films; being after the apocalypse and all, Terminator Salvation feels the need to be unrelentingly dour. Thankfully, even with the professional gloom merchant Christian Bale at the center of his film, McG doesn’t really know how to do dour. Instead the movie ends up like that one sort of sad song by a pop group that they play at high school kids’ funerals. Which sounds like a slam, I realize, but is actually, in my eyes, a plus. I’ve done grim and gritty and a movie that doesn’t really know how to be grim and gritty is charming to me.
Russ Fischer: I was surprised by McG’s direction and stylization, in that he’s made a movie that doesn’t look like what we’ve come to expect from his films. Essentially, he’s turned in a decent imitation of a James Cameron film and that works for this series. He has a fine control of action, has fun with a few digitally assisted one-shot sequences, and makes the film’s world feel oppressive and as real as it needs to be. In theory, explicitly tapping the holocaust for imagery to resonate in your summer blockbuster is like begging to be torpedoed, but here the cattle cars and concentration camp pens work.
But for his directorial success in aping Cameron’s style, I was continually reminded that recreating Cameron may have been the goal (this movie even has its own Newt) and that Salvation is very much a sequel in the modern style. Somehow, Terminator has become like a James Bond movie. Winks and references are frequently thrown at the audience: catchphrases (“Come with me if you want to live,” “I’ll be back”) and other nods to the first two films (Alongside several nods to non-related classics like Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now). Just dropping in “You Could Be Mine” by Guns n’ Roses would have been fine — it’s a more geeky nod to serious fans — but all the other stuff pulled me out of the movie every time. Does that mean the movie never had much of a hold on me at all?
Micah Robinson: The amount of “hold” the movie will have for anyone will largely depend on what they came to the theater for. If you came for setpieces to match the Arnie/Terminatrix fire truck chase from T3 or the T-1000/helicopter/assault team/lobby beatdown from T2, McG doesn’t disappoint. While chase scenes remain the foundation of most of the action here, Salvation ups the ante as you imagine a teenager who just came out of opening day of T2 would dream of (“What if there were giant Terminators that shot out smaller vehicular Terminators, and they could call in air support from dogfighting Terminator jets?!? Holy….”). Plus, seeing an actual Terminator on the business end of one of these chases with humans in pursuit flips the script nicely.
Unfortunately, if you came for fresh insight on how John Connor came to be motherfucking John Connor, the leader of the resistance, prepare to be disappointed. As this franchise drags on, it seems the answer to that question is a logic-defying loop where he becomes that person only because he is told he will become that person by time travelers who bestow upon him the knowledge to do so…even though anyone possessing that knowledge would similarly rise to the top of the Resistance ranks. When Christian Bale signed on for this flick, he brought in an uncredited Jonathan Nolan to supposedly “beef up” the John Connor role, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a few scraps of loose meat as Connor is largely irrelevant to the events here. It’s first and foremost the story of Marcus Wright and, despite the ample charm and badass-ery brought to the role by Sam Worthington, his journey of defining what it means to be a “man” isn’t much to hang this film on. Fans of the late Fox TV Terminator show will likely compare it unfavorably to the arc of the John Henry character there. It would be kind, actually, to put it on par with Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And speaking of that show…Terminator Salvation makes the spectacularly dumb mistake made previously in Star Trek: First Contact of taking a relentless, terrifying, and largely faceless foe (e.g. The Borg, Skynet) and putting an individual human face on it so it can deliver monologues. Where Trek’s Borg Queen mostly slinked around, Skynet’s grand debut exists merely to spew way too much eye-rolling exposition. If Bale was going to sic Nolan on any part of the rickety script courtesy of Catwoman’s John Brancato and Michael Ferris, it should have been stuff like this.
Nick Nunziata: The film is definitely a scattershot mess, but for the first hour it really works as a relentless and interesting action/adventure. I have to admit that John Conner as a character has never held any interest to me, whether portrayed by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, or that guy who played him in the flash-forward sequences in the second film. He’s a hero of opportunity and though I have no qualms about the ‘grim and gritty’ mode Christian Bale has made his own, nothing here makes me feel any better about John Conner as some iconic cinematic archetype. He’s bland, and it’s fine because the star of these films is chrome berserkers with an agenda, despite what Linda Hamilton’s agent wants you to believe. The thing that irks me is the Marcus character. I found Worthington to be passable and also deeply embedded in Blandness Boulevard, but the whole conceit of the character is simply dumb. It’s no mystery why he exists and what his purpose is and it only makes all the characters around him look dumb for letting him do what he does. It also makes the Skynet Master Control Program look dumb because the logic behind the plot isn’t, well… logical.
The Terminator franchise is and always has been a seriously polished B-Movie franchise, so it’s fine to forgive them for making their bones with uninspired plotlines and tired time-travel concepts, as long as the spectacle and designs are executed well. And they are.
Though it’s too soon in the future to expect Mechs and intelligent computer motorcycles to be prevalent, the film really works as a bleached out apocalyptic actioner for a long stretch of its running time. The best moments all happen in the first half, but they are really solid moments and maybe it’s my youth filled with substandard sci-fi stuff but I totally can fall in line with scorched earth road battles and the concept of a submarine with Michael Ironside at the helm serving as Good Guy HQ.
But there’s still a lot of dumb shit to wade through.
Devin: Yeah, I agree that Bale and Worthington don’t do much for me. But I found lots of solace in the secondary characters. I loved Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese, and in the few scenes he has we see him beginning to turn into someone who can hold his own. It’s interesting to see that he has more of an arc than Marcus or John Connor. In fact, if the movie had just given him one more scene in the third act where he could do something, this would be his movie.
The other character who fascinated me was Blair, played by Moon Bloodgood. I think Bloodgood is an interesting actress – for one thing she’s a grown up, with all of the confidence and sexuality that denotes – and while her biggest moments got left on the cutting room floor (this film was at least partially gutted in editing), her character arc intrigues. She’s willing to betray her own people for… love? Justice? The movie never quite comes down on an answer, which is a problem, but she’s the character whose next steps I’m most interested in following.
The biggest problem with the movie, for me, is the last thirty or forty minutes, as Nick mentions. The film hums along nicely until the third act begins and suddenly you can see where the script starts shitting itself. The last few scenes – John Connor’s personal plea to the Resistance, the ‘assault’ on Skynet City, the final moments that feel like they were slapped on at the very last minute (and they probably were, as a result of Aint It Cool News and CHUD revealing the original (and in hindsight, far superior) ending) – feel like sketches of ideas instead of fully formed concepts. Part of this comes from the fact that Connor is obviously welded onto the existing story (McG wanted Bale for Marcus, and Bale fixated on the Connor role, which is why it got clumsily beefed up from second supporting to lead); Connor’s plea never carries any weight because we don’t know why John Connor is so special (except, as noted by my colleagues, everybody from the future says he’s special).
That original ending would have been great simply because it would have let us know that this isn’t the Terminator prequel we all expected (oh, time travel movies. The films that take place in the future are the ones that are the prequels!). After T2, the future was changed. While this is alluded to in the advertising for Salvation, it plays no real role in the movie. Think about it: without the delay of Judgment Day, Marcus would never exist. That alone should be the jumping off point for something really interesting, and while the movie dabbles its toes in that water (as well as Battlestar Galactican water of what it means to be a human being anyway), it never has the confidence to jump in fully.
Russ: Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese is the movie’s greatest missed opportunity. The first hour gives him some excellent scenes and moments of character. Yelchin runs with it, even as he’s saddled with this movie’s version of Newt. He’s so much like Michael Biehn that it’s scary, but he begins to put his own stamp on the character. By the midway point he appears primed to be the breakout hero of the movie.
And then Salvation puts him in a fucking box for the rest of the story. This is galling enough on it’s own, but take into account the fact that T3 did the same thing to the Claire Danes character. She had a lot less promise, but having that happen to two characters, two films in a row? We’ve truly learned nothing from the past. Kyle Reese spends the film’s latter half rotting away offscreen. In the runup to that he’s still given good beats, and looks like the genuine hero and hope for humanity that the movie needs.
Kyle Reese’s disappearance is the wrong one. John Connor should be the phantom, the voice that is heard rather than seen. Connor is Terminator’s MacGuffin. His story is only interesting when it drives other characters to action and evolution. Appropriately, Bale’s performance is perfunctory. (I thought of his Batman, yes, but also of the Gumbys from Monty Python.) As the film focuses more on Connor, it loses its hold on me. The anguished, earnest hero? Yawn. Marcus leaps off the screen because he’s got genuine conflict, and he has little screenwriting baggage to shoulder. Kyle Reese and Moon Bloodgood’s Blair also have genuine hooks. The lame ending (call it this franchise’s version of Brazil‘s ‘love conquers all’) is a massive copout in several respects, but at the very least it undermines the work done to establish three genuine characters in favor of preserving the franchise’s safe, obvious figurehead.
Micah: Frankly, it’s a miracle anybody comes off well individually given what is there on the page. This is the worst of the four Terminator scripts, by far, and yet the combined efforts of McG, Worthington, Bloodgood, and especially Yelchin do a lot to redeem it. On paper, it shouldn’t work at all – even the action sequences – but it’s hard not to be charmed by Yelchin’s yearning to be a “real” warrior or Bloodgood’s pragmatic fighter jock (she actually tries to reason her way out of an attempted rape before kicking ass) or Worthington’s epic battle…with his Aussie accent. Rounding it all up is McG, who keeps the pacing crisp and the whiz bang coming quick enough so that you don’t have too much time to think about the inanities of the story.
Of course, in that aforementioned third act, it all comes apart as we careen toward a finale that’s the polar opposite of T3 in terms of both quality and finality. This is an increasingly common malady among big budget genre blockbusters these days (e.g. Batman Begins, Watchmen), and that’s a shame. But if Salvation fails as a complete story or even a worthwhile entry to the mythology, it succeeded for me as a mostly thrilling theatrical experience and an above average action movie. I expected it to fail on all counts, so you might attribute my leniency to lowered expectations. That’s really all this franchise – artificially kept alive and forced to compete past its prime – deserves anyway.
Nick: Agreed about Yelchin and Bloodgood (great name for an acoustic coffee shop duo). Yelchin irritated me at first with his boyish looks and residual Chekov memories, but he started to really feel like a young extension of Michael Biehn’s character as the thing moved on. It’d have been nice if the mute girl got iced in the first scene to really drive his vengeance but I’m a sick old man. Bloodgood’s character is typically the centerpiece of a Luc Besson film but here is extraneous and the filmmaker doesn’t know whether to let her be eye candy or an actual function of the story. Then again, this is the fourth film in a gassed-out franchise and I wonder if the studio notes were more about coherence and genre respect or moments they could sell with a trailer and iPhone app.
Thing is, there’s a lot of effort and energy here. This isn’t one of those cash grab sequels, but rather something at least superficially trying to reinvent or jumpstart a tired old beast (though I enjoy T3 for stretches and certainly has tolerate it). It’s a big, heavily marketed flick and the salvation in the title seems economic as well as pivotal to the onscreen events.
Me, I don’t care if it all ties together with the previous films perfectly. I don’t care if they have a cameo by folks from previous films. All I care about is amazingly imagined machines (and the endoskeleton is one of filmdom’s class acts) squaring off against puny humans. I don’t care if there’s a new version of the Terminator that ups the ante as in previous efforts. I don’t even care if John Conner is involved. The film would have worked just as well if John Conner was a disembodied voice on the airwaves the film’s protagonists followed. In fact, this would have been a true salvation if Bale was playing some new character driven by John Conner’s directives and someone a franchise could follow through the war without the stupid time travel stuff.
But McG has done a fantastic job of losing his trappings as an action director and delivering meaty, large-scale combat in the first half of the film and they’re almost enough to give the film a pass for me. Even with the silly Helena Bonham Carter prologue. Even with the lame ending. Even with the characters serving as nearly empty vessels to move the film along.
Giant robots smashing gas stations and ejecting sentient bikes works for me. Endoskeletons never learning to stay dead works for me. So much of these ideas work for me that I wonder if the problem is that there’s a belief that these films need to be good, exciting, and SMART or that this was the best we could have gotten on the release date the studio chose. Oftentimes the date is the word of God and everything else pales in comparison to making that date.
Devin: Well, making a date didn’t help the film, and neither did the strike.
It really is worth mentioning the robots. One of the things that really won me over to Terminator Salvation was that the movie isn’t just our heroes versus variations on the T-800. I like the diversity of baddies. I like the Bernie Wrightson-esque T-600s. I like the snakey hydrobots. I loved the giant harvesting robot, who seems to be steam powered and who makes a great honking noise, and who folds up into the back of a big spaceship-like flying robot. And despite initial misgivings, I loved the MotoTerminators who eject from the shins of the giant robot. These things really appeal to the kid in me, and I could see myself begging for a giant robot with shin-ejecting bikes for Christmas.
I have to admit that I’m shocked seeing the negative responses online. I guess a lot of people take this franchise, even after T3, a lot more seriously than I do. To me this reinvention of the franchise – younger skewing, adventure oriented, more mission based than chase based – is the right move. I didn’t want to see John Connor getting stalked again, I didn’t want to see another robot savior from the future and I didn’t want to see a lot of hand-wringing about what is to come next. Two out of three ain’t that bad. But as far as relaunching this franchise (and realize that is 100% what this is – the start of an all-new Terminator franchise that can live in PG-13 exile from the first three), I think it works well. The best comparison is probably Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but McG and his bevy of screenwriters (credited and otherwise) kept the kiddie factor lower than Mel Gibson’s final outing as Max Rockatansky. And while Beyond Thunderdome probably isn’t anyone’s favorite entry in that particular series, it didn’t ruin Mad Max and The Road Warrior and it didn’t ruin anybody’s lives (except maybe poor Paul Larsson’s).
Russ: I’m glad Devin reminded me of the sound design, because there is some wonderful work done in that department. There are sounds and/or audio textures in this movie that strive to put me in this ugly, washed out world. They often succeed beautifully. I’ll also throw in a thumbs-up for the robots. I don’t put much stock in nonsense like the McG / Bay ‘feud’ over giant summer robots, but I did break out of the film’s first act long enough to think ‘yeah, this is what I really would have liked to see from Transformers.’ There are several new machinery designs here, and each one is very quickly given a unique purpose and personality.
Until the far too brightly lit digital Arnie showed up, I was wholly taken with the movie’s machines. That CGI Governator: just bring the light on his face down, hint at it more, and it would look fine. And why doesn’t Connor have a more visible reaction to the appearance of a thing that hunted him in adolescence? [EDIT: That should be ‘helped’, not hunted. And aren’t the T-800s invented too early now? Oh, right, different timeline. Yawn.]
But picking this movie apart is going to yield no more fruit that would a dissection of Star Trek. I enjoyed that and Salvation on the same level. When it works it is fine vapid entertainment, with some noteworthy technical craft and a few performances worth applauding. Star Trek has a lot more personality, and is a lot more fun in the final tally. Until McG & Co. fully give the story over to the morose John Connor I was willing to swallow all the grit and machine oil this episode wanted to throw my way.
Micah: John Connor is the corner they’re painting themselves into with this unofficial relaunch. By casting Christian Bale, you basically lock yourself into keeping him as a central figure in any future franchise movies even though the character is about as interesting as a local personal injury lawyer TV commercial. But I thought much the same when the late TV series started, and they found some nifty workarounds that really elevated the show and the mythology juuuuuust in time to get cancelled. So with that in mind, I’d like to recommend some handy steps to make any future McG-helmed Terminator movies the best they can be.
Step 1: Fuck John Connor like it’s 1992 and he’s LAPD. Seriously. Bale is welcome to shoot as many scenes of him Bat-voicing orders into a walkie-talkie or headset as he cares to. That’s where Connor belongs now. He’s set the events in motion, and now it’d be great to sit back and watch Kyle Reese wield his newly acquired stripes as a badass field agent or see where Moon Bloodgood’s character finds her way in this resistance with the distrust she’s sown. Maybe McG can catch up with some normal types like the kindly old lady who briefly gives refuge to Reese and Marcus. Introduce a new resistance fighter or two. Whatever. Just keep Bale to the margins of the story even if he gets a lot of screentime.
Step 2: Take the scope even further. While budget considerations may or may not come into play with this, we still haven’t seen full-on battle scenes with a ragtag human military versus a Skynet one as hinted at in the Cameron films. There’s no way a script for the next film should be commissioned without this setpiece as a requisite. Write Bale a William Wallace speech, and let slip the dogs of war, McG.
Step 3: Up the personal stakes. As I mentioned, John Connor has done everything he needed to, so he and everyone else except Kyle Reese should be fair game for biting the big one in the next film. Time for Skynet and the Terminators to get their heat back as deadly villains, and the death of a notable character or two would help.
Nick: I liked Terminator Salvation. I didn’t care much for the characters, but I enjoyed the effort. McG isn’t the problem, the robots aren’t the problem, and Christian Bale isn’t the problem. The problem is that there are so few big sci-fi movies [thankfully there’s always stuff like Moon and Primer] and even fewer franchises with any real merit, you want this to live up to the ‘event film’ billing. There’s no reason these shouldn’t all be given the time and creative energy they deserve. Even the new Transformers movie looks like it had an insane amount of attention and though the set pieces are quite good (aside from the last one, which gave me a more Matrix-y vibe than I wanted) it doesn’t feel like a flagship.
But it’s definitely worth seeing and if you aren’t expecting the same kind of transcendence that the first two games delivered, there’ll be plenty to enjoy. It’s just really not tightly conceived and with a first half this engaging it’s hard not to get a little ornery.