Review: Terminator Salvation

I’ve written before about the Curse of the Sequel, and when you’re doing a fourth installment of what we modern film people call a “franchise”, it’s doubly difficult to have a film that’s interesting, engaging, and consistent with the mythos of the earlier movies. It can be done: the new Star Trek movie is an example of a great addition to a huge franchise. It can also be messed up, as was the case in the lackluster X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

terminator salvation onesheetHaving just seen one-name director McG’s Terminator Salvation, I have to say that it falls into the category of a sequel that does not do justice to the franchise storyline and characters.
If you never saw the original Terminator film, you’ve missed out on a great sci-fi action film. It’s set in contemporary times, with a cyborg that was sent from the future to kill main character Sarah Connor before she gave birth to her future son John Connor. John would otherwise grow up to lead the anti-machine resistance.
What made it such a good film was that it stuck to what Alfred Hitchcock always talked about: the ability of the audience to identify with a character in the film.  Without that, we watch movies dispassionately, not particularly caring if they live or die. I think it’s a universal truth of cinema: No engagement leads to an uninteresting cinematic experience.
That’s the problem with the new Terminator Salvation. I just didn’t care much about the characters or the main plotline of humans versus the all-knowing Skynet network and its roaming cyborg “terminators”.
In the movie, John Connor is played by Christian Bale, with his love interest wife Kate Connor played by Bryce Howard. True story, the relationship is so poorly developed that it wasn’t until I was doing research for this review that I realized the two of them were married in the story. She’s yet another example of the far too common dutiful sci-fi wife who doesn’t contribute a heck of a lot to the storyline.
The more problematic character for me, however, was Marcus Wright, played by Sam Worthington…

Worthington is a good enough actor for this kind of film, but his character just made no sense, and time and again there were voiceovers or other Big Points Made that were completely at odds with how Marcus Wright behaved and his motivations.

[[ spoiler alert: skip the following paragraph if you’d prefer ]]  One of the Big Surprises in Terminator Salvation was ostensibly that Marcus, who we see put to death for murdering his brother, was – surprise – a half-man, half-machine cyborg, an “Infiltrator” unit created by Skynet to worm his way into the Resistance and kill John Connor (remember the plot of the first film?  That’s kind of the one-trick pony of the entire franchise). It was obvious that he was a cyborg from the very first scene, though: how could he have been killed in 2003 and then resuscitated in 2017 without some sort of deus ex machina (pardon the pun)?
I know, I know, I need to suspend my disbelief when I see this kind of film, but I just couldn’t help wondering why they couldn’t have set Terminator Salvation in contemporary times, as they did with the first, and then have us easily identify with John Connor and his friends as the unstoppable Infiltrator cyborg stalks him?  I imagine a Skynet iPhone app, for example, that proves to be how Connor is tracked.
A key element of the franchise story line is time travel, and there’s not even a subtle nod to time travel in this entire movie, something that I think was a significant missed opportunity. Indeed, as one of my friends pointed out, the technology that the Resistance has available in this particular future ensures that they’d never be able to figure out how to travel in time.

There are a couple of other issues I want to raise, then I promise I’ll find something positive to say. (really, I love movies and I really liked Star Trek, for example, so it’s not that I’m just a cranky critic!)

The first issue is that the film explains how Skynet has infrared devices on its patrol ships. If that’s the case, just about every time we see a human hide behind a brick wall, duck into a building, or otherwise freeze to avoid detection, they should be found anyway. Your body heat stays and is readable even as you move away from a spot.

Also, the cyborg has a human heart, but we see in various scenes that he has a completely metallic chest cavity under his skin. If that’s the case, why bother with a human heart, something that would be far harder to engineer than a completely cybernetic organism. Come on, Skynet, you could do better than that…

One more thing that surprised me: at one point a 25-foot Skynet robot shows up and destroys a gas station (the abandoned gas station in the desert is a nice homage to the original film) and I sure felt like I had suddenly switched to watching Michael Bay’s Transformers film.

Okay, so. I liked the sets and the mood of Terminator Salvation. It felt dark, was a scary future, and in particular the exteriors of a completely destroyed Los Angeles are terrific. Keep an eye out for the mangled Hollywood sign too. Very subtly played, most people in the audience probably didn’t even catch this visual reference.

There’s a well-publicized scene where a digitally remapped actor “playing” Schwarzenegger appears and I have to say, it’s pretty amazingly well done. He really does look like Arnie, the T-1000 in the original film, rippling muscles, facial expressions and all. The ability to do that opens up huge possibilities for taking stars of older films and having them show up in newer films as completely believable, fully realized parts of the story. I’m eager to see what directors do with this new capability.

So is Terminator Salvation worth seeing in the theater for $10?  If you’re a fan of big, loud actioners, if you liked The Dark Knight, then I think you’ll enjoy this film. If you’re a fan of the franchise, however, you might want to catch this as a Redbox rental so you don’t complain too much about what they’ve done to the storyline.  And if you’re just looking for a fun, exciting film to watch, try Star Trek or Night at the Museum II.

One comment on “Review: Terminator Salvation

  1. I was SOOOO excited to see this film… and my bf and i went opening night and… HATED it.. we were so bored. First of all, i absolutely despise Christian Bale and his turtle mouth, I just can’t look at him. I found the entire story and character development to be poor as hell, but I actually enjoyed the Marcus story… that was the only thing ALMOST worth the price of the ticket, and 2hours of my time…

    ANNNND… i agree with you, they pretty much killed the franchise @ 3… lol. Oh, and the “return” of Arnie was great. I was so excited to see how they did that. My bf hated the CGI on it, I hate CGI in general- but i thought it looked great at ONLY that part…. I’m a huge CGI hater… no ‘Transformers’ for me.

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