Terminator: Salvation (United States, 2009)May 19, 2009
Note: This review contains "casting-related spoilers."
Terminator: Salvation does not seem like a Terminator movie, at least when compared to what we have experienced from filmmakers James Cameron (The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). This fourth Terminator is a different breed with a divergent feel, almost as if director McG (née Joseph McGinty Nichol) had decided to fuse Cormac McCarthy's The Road with Transformers. Gone (at least mostly) are the time travel paradoxes and the concept of a single, indestructible villain. In their place is a futuristic war movie. With its idea of an insurgency striking against an implacable evil empire, there's more than a little Star Wars in Terminator: Savlation, although not even at its Empire Strikes Back bleakest was Lucas' series this dark.
For the first occasion in four movies, Terminator: Salvation does not move back and forth in time. Excepting a prologue in 2003, it stays rooted in 2018. This is a period not explored in previous installments of the cinematic series. Of course, after all of the muddying of the past that transpired in the second and third Terminator films, it's no longer clear how much of the "established" future remains valid. As in Star Trek, we're dealing with an alternate universe, so all bets are off. Will John Connor really become the legendary leader of a human resistance that overcomes the machines (as indicated in The Terminator)? Will he be killed by a T-800 that is subsequently re-programmed by his wife (as established in T3)? One of the problems with introducing time travel is that standard rules no longer apply. Filmmakers can do anything they want.
The screenplay for Terminator: Salvation went through a significant number of re-writes. It is credited to John Brancato & Michael Ferris, but was polished by the likes of Jonathan Nolan (who buffed it after Christian Bale came on board) and Paul Haggis. The result shows the effects of many fingerprints (too many subplots with too few payoffs), but it is more ambitious than the storyline for T3, which followed the basic "Cameron formula" established in the first two entries. Unfortunately, despite several rousing action sequences (involving cars, trucks, motorcycles, giant Transformers-like robots, and flying hunter-killers), the first two-thirds of Terminator: Salvation are rambling and disjointed. The final 30 minutes (or so) compensate for the deficiencies of what comes before. The climax is great - non-stop, kick-ass action and a surprise or two.
In 2018, John Connor (Christian Bale) is not yet the worldwide head of the human resistance. He is, however, one of many local leaders and the voice of the resistance on the radio. His superiors, led by the uncompromising General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), believe they have created a weapon that can shut down the machines if it's brought to bear at a close enough range. Connor volunteers to test it. While doing this, he has a secondary objective: locate a younger version of his father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who has been targeted by the machines for termination. Reese is skulking around the ruins of Los Angeles when he joins forces with a mysterious stranger named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who is headed for San Francisco, the heart of the machine empire. Reese's partnership with Marcus doesn't last long - the machines capture the teenager, leaving Marcus with the job of finding John Connor to mount a rescue operation.
The weakness of the film results from the lack of a central villain. Random T-600 Terminators pop up from time-to-time, only to be dispatched rather quickly (although not necessarily easily - they are tough to destroy). There is conflict between Connor and Marcus, but neither is a bad guy; in fact, their goals align. Action movies need strong antagonists. The engine that drove the three previous Terminator movies was the threat represented by the time-traveling killers. With that missing, Terminator: Salvation has trouble locking onto a target. When does it snap into focus? When the T-800 makes its first, dramatic appearance. Suddenly, there's a recognizable villain and a clear goal. All is right with the world.
McG, knowing his audience and being a fan, tosses out Easter Eggs. Composer Danny Elfman employs Brad Fiedel's signature score at several key points. The first words uttered by Kyle Reese are: "Come with me if you want to live." Later, Connor deadpans, "I'll be back." Linda Hamilton provides vocal work for when her son listens to the taped journals she recorded for him back in the 1980s. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, after a fashion, in the role that catapulted him to the action megastar stratosphere. When his character, who exists here as the result of digital mapping and effective editing, stepped onto the screen, the audience erupted. There's no doubt this is the high point of Terminator: Salvation. It argues that if Schwarzenegger wants to return to the franchise after he leaves political office, the fans will welcome him back. In fact, one could argue that the actor's absence is a hole McG can't plug. The action sequences are pulse-pounding, the special effects are top-notch, and the post-apocalyptic atmosphere is palpable, but we're kept waiting until the end for the real Terminator to show up.
Bale is suitably intense as Connor. This is a solid portrait of obsession and Bale dominates the screen. He's more of a force here than in his Batman movies, but that's to be expected since there's no cowl and cape involved. Sam Worthington, a relatively new face to North American audiences, is an effective foil for Bale, although his American accent could use a little work. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Anton Yelchin. Although I wasn't impressed by Yelchin's version of Chekov in Star Trek, he nails Kyle Reese. It's as if someone de-aged Michael Biehn 35 years and put him to work. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over for Claire Danes as Connor's love interest, although she has little more to do than stand in the background holding her pregnant belly. Moon Bloodgood, as one of Connor's underlings, has the "action female" role, although she's no Linda Hamilton when it comes to physicality.
By radically destaturating color, sometimes to the point where scenes are almost black-and-white, McG develops a strong post-apocalyptic aesthetic. It's a lot like the (recent) TV series Battlestar Galactica, where everything was dark and grimy, and bright colors rarely made appearances. One could argue that McG overdoes it a little, but he's clearly not averse to traveling down potentially unappealing roads. The faux note of hope injected at the film's end does little to dispel the fact that, if the humans win the war, the price is going to be astronomical.
Perhaps the ultimate problem with making more Terminator movies is that the entire story was told by Cameron in the first two movies and the subsequent sequels, including this one, have been struggling to explore corners where the time travel contrivance allows for flexibility and interpretation. Terminator: Salvation, like its immediate predecessor, is enjoyable and contains some top-notch action sequences, but it seems extraneous. This is everything a good summer movie should be and, while it does not dishonor the Cameron chapters of the saga, neither does it prove to be an indispensable adjunct to them.
Terminator: Salvation (United States, 2009)
Cast: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Jane Alexander, Michael Ironside
Screenplay: John Brancato & Michael Ferris
Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers