On Terminator: Salvation

Continuing from The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Terminator: Rise of the Machines is Terminator: Salvation, which features Christian Bale (Velvet Goldmine, The Dark Knight trilogy), Sam Worthington (Clash of the Titans remake and it’s sequel, Wrath of the Titans), Bryce Dallas Howard (Spider-Man 3), Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, Smallville, X-Men: First Class, Desperate HousewivesTop Gun), Helena Bonham Carter (Corpse Bride), and directed by McG (Supernatural). According to the Deep Focus Review:

The fourth film in the series, Terminator: Salvation is exactly what you’d expect from a blockbuster franchise desperate to revalidate itself. Whereas the previous entries were R-rated, this sequel cuts down on gore and swears to make the PG-13 cut, thus expanding its demographic and reaching that crucial teen market. Fresh talent makes up the cast and newfangled special effects render the futuristic action. Every necessary step was taken by the programmed logic of the Hollywood Machine, which spared no expense to make this the biggest and loudest Terminator yet. Charlie’s Angels director McG—yes, just McG, short for McGinty, his middle name—takes the helm and follows Hollywood’s current Franchise Reinvention Formula, complete with a darker atmosphere, gravitas-laden storytelling, and Christian Bale. Word is they even brought in The Dark Knight scribe Jonathan Nolan to give an uncredited script consultation. But everyone involved has taken James Cameron’s original scenario, wherein good humans battle evil robots from the future, for granted. None of that expert minimalism exists in the new film.

The story begins in 2003, just before death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is executed by lethal injection; he signs his body over to science for Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) of Cyberdyne Systems. Suddenly Marcus wakes up in 2018 completely unaware that Judgment Day has come, the machines have risen, and the human resistance is strong. No big shocker, Marcus is now a robot and doesn’t know it; they disclose as much in the trailer. Teenage survivalist Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, Chekov from the new Star Trek) catches him up on the events of the last fifteen years. Curious that Reese doesn’t ask how Marcus has survived so long without knowing about the machine apocalypse, but no matter. They make a trio along with a little mute girl named Star (Jadagrace), who gives Marcus puppy eyes and holds his hand when the movie needs an awww moment. When Reese and Star are kidnapped by the machines and held for some nefarious plot involving scores of harvested human specimens, Marcus sets off to rescue him, meeting stranded resistance fighter Blair (Moon Bloodgood), who promises to take Marcus to the prophesied Savor Of Humanity, John Connor (Bale). (Note: You might ask why the machines are harvesting people, but the movie doesn’t bother to explain, so your guess is as good as mine.)

The underground human resistance takes orders from the military-minded General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), safe in his submarine headquarters. Command has developed a new way of defeating the machines with a high-pitch frequency, and Ashdown intends to rush the San Francisco base of the evil computer Skynet using this device. Except, doing so will kill the hundreds of human captives the Terminators have collected, among them Reese. Meanwhile, Connor runs his own Maquis cell and conducts a pseudo-fireside chat on the radio each night to inspire hope in survivors. When he realizes that harvested humans will die in Ashdown’s plan, including his future father from the past (see The Terminator), Connor asks everyone to stand down from their attack and embarks on a personal mission to destroy Skynet.

The derivations are endless. A shortage of fuel spawns an impressive desert vehicle battle inspired by The Road Warrior, which becomes something else entirely when puny humans fight off massive robots straight out of Transformers. Drawing influence from every dystopian sci-fi story imaginable, Blade Runner was the most obvious source for writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also worked together on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Skynet’s machine city is the spitting image of Philip K. Dick’s vision of Los Angeles, complete with fiery spires preceding futurist architecture. Or, consider how Marcus doesn’t know he’s a new brand of Terminator, constructed with a human heart no less. When he finds out, these classic science-fiction themes are reduced to sappy “humanity is in the heart” remarks. Worthington makes an affable leading man, but his cyborg character has a muted personality, probably to keep us guessing as to which side of his persona he’ll embrace, human or machine. Not that his eventual choice comes as a surprise…

Bale’s (notorious) severity makes for a believable John Connor bent on saving humankind, but the story doesn’t allow the character to be anything more than walking, talking hatred of machines. John barely shares a loving moment with his pregnant wife, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), and her evident pregnancy is simply assumed by the viewer—never a “how’s your back, Honey” or “gee, I sure love you” moment. The plot is oblivious to her pregnancy, so we must wonder what purpose it serves to the story. The answer: None. Connor is more concerned with saving himself, and thus the future, which is sort of noble, but also self-serving and unsympathetic. What exactly does John do in the future that’s so special? Can no one else do what he does? Since 1984, everyone’s been talking about John Connor’s greatness, but we have yet to see what makes him this Grand Messiah. Will we ever?

Creator of the original Terminator design, effects guru Stan Winston died last summer and his absence here is painfully clear. In place of Winston’s metallic skeleton demonstrating the coldness of the machines, we have actors in bulky robot suits who move like, well, actors in bulky robot suits. Winston must be rolling in his grave at the lack of ingenuity. Terminators not made of bad costuming are rendered by computer effects. Take the “appearance” by Arnold Schwarzenegger, reprising his role as the original Terminator, which is not Schwarzenegger at all, but rather CGI animators putting his face on a much, much younger actor’s body. Notice how the Schwarzenegger-thing is never completely lit, speaks no lines (not even “I’ll be back,” which Bale utters in a moment of cheesiness), and can only be seen in quick cuts. Undoubtedly, the “Governator” gave the filmmakers the okay to re-animate his likeness, because he couldn’t commit time to an actual performance. The effect is laughably bad.

Watching Terminator: Salvation becomes a waiting game: Waiting for some semblance of emotional attachment to the characters; waiting for it to feel like a Terminator movie; waiting for that wowing effect that the other films achieve. Beyond appreciating the top-dollar production value, we keep waiting and remain unfulfilled. Stricken by plot holes and characters we’re indifferent to, the viewer is left aloof and uninvolved, zoning mindlessly into the action. But if there’s one thing the Terminator franchise is good for, it’s mindless entertainment value. However, shouldn’t a movie about the last human survivors of a machine-ruled world contain all the human drama necessary to elicit a stark contrast between man and machine? Instead, this rather cold exercise contains a synthesized quality and feels like it was executed on autopilot.

Additionally, according to the Collider article, “Terminator Salvation Revisited: “You Cannot Save John Connor”“:

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines showed that a Terminator universe without James Cameron was its own kind of wasteland. Schwarzenegger wasn’t enough, and retreading the same premise as T2—T-800 comes back in time to protect John Connor from a more advanced Terminator—made the third installment mostly pointless. The only part of that movie that significantly moved anything forward was the ending, and we already knew where that ending would take us.

Terminator Salvation wasn’t so much a salvation for the franchise, but a salvage operation. Director McG went for the reality that the first three movies had tried to avoid, and while Salvation removes all hope from the previous installments, it also theoretically could have carved its own path. It’s set in the future; it doesn’t have Arnold Schwarzenegger (the crummy body double and digital masking doesn’t count); and it introduces us to the larger world of Skynet. Conceptually, it’s a very strong movie.

In execution, it’s a chore. The script development for Terminator Salvation is more interesting than the movie, but the key take away from that article is that while the original script was no great shakes, the killer blow was shoehorning in John Connor (Christian Bale) at the expense of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) so that neither character makes much of a difference. It’s a dry action movie where a lot of set pieces happen and the characters are mostly ineffective and insignificant.

The movie fumbles from the start where we know more about Marcus than he does about himself, so we’re waiting for him to learn he’s a terminator. All the prologue really tells us is that Marcus did something bad and he’s signing his body over to science. When he emerges from the crater left by the machines (who I guess were precise enough in their detonation to avoid hitting the terminator they needed), we know he’s not human. The particulars may be unclear, and I suppose there’s the mystery of “Why does he not know he’s a Terminator,” but it’s a slog to get to that point, and that’s because John Connor is in the way.

That’s an odd problem for a movie to have: “How do we get our movie star and main character to organically fit into the plot?” and it’s a problem the film never really solves. Although the first three movies have more than their fair share of action, there are moments to pause and consider what role saviors have in this upcoming war. Salvation doesn’t take much time to consider anything. Even though Connor listens to his mother’s tapes and the opening titles tell us that some consider him to be a “false prophet”, Connor now fully believes he’s humanity’s savior, but that doesn’t really come with any extra, psychological baggage.

For Terminator Salvation, being John Connor means being a really good soldier and being the only person in a worldwide resistance who gives fireside chats. While I understand and almost admire that Connor no longer struggles with his destiny, the plot doesn’t do much to delve into his acceptance. Instead, we’re stuck with The Exciting Adventures of John Connor Testing out Software.

Even with Connor’s attention to detail, he stumbles ass backwards into saving humanity by trying to save himself. When we learn that the signal is a trap, the only reason people survive is because John Connor told them not to attack. And he didn’t issue this command because he figured out that the signal was a ruse; he did it because he wanted to make sure his future/past dad, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), didn’t die. John Connor isn’t a brilliant strategist; he just lucked out that his personal preservation also meant humanity’s. Instead of showing how John Connor is special, Salvation doubles down on the first three movies’ promises of “He just is.”

On the other side, you have Marcus, who would be the true protagonist (and was originally intended to be) if not for John Connor futzing about. Perhaps a more charismatic actor could have done more with the role than Worthington, but he would still be stuck on an odyssey to meet other, more interesting characters like Reese. Marcus functions more as an action figure—he moves along as an audience surrogate and then participates in the many set pieces even though, as the reincarnation of a death row inmate, he’s remarkably adept at combat survival situations.

This ultimately leads to the revelation that he’s an “infiltration” unit, and that’s where a plot that was already cracked falls apart completely. Skynet really can’t get over its John Connor fixation, and so their plan is as follows:

  • Make Terminator who doesn’t know he’s a Terminator from a guilt-ridden death row inmate.
  • Hope terminator infiltration unit survives the many explosions he encounters.
  • Capture Kyle Reese, but make sure infiltration unit gets away.
  • Have infiltration unit find, but not kill John Connor.
  • Hope that John Connor and John Connor’s men don’t kill infiltration unit.
  • Get infiltration unit—a cyborg that represents Connor’s hatred for the machines—to convince Connor to come to the Skynet facility and put every other attack on hold.
  • Have another Terminator kill John Connor when John Connor gets to the facility.
  • Win war. Party down.

If Skynet knows John Connor is important, then it also has to know that Kyle Reese is important. If so, wouldn’t an easier plan be:

  • Make Terminator who doesn’t know he’s a Terminator from a guilt-ridden death row inmate.
  • If Terminator meets up with Kyle Reese before John Connor, kill Kyle Reese.
  • Win war. Party down.

If you kill Kyle Reese, you kill the man who was going to go back in time to protect Sarah Connor and father John Connor. It’s the shortest distance between two points.

That yawning chasm comes from a script that clearly went through the wringer to go from “bad” to “bad in a different way”, which is a shame because the core concepts are sound. I’m no fan of McG, but I like that he tried to flesh out the post-apocalypse that had been talked about for three movies. Sadly, most of it’s fairly generic, but reverse-engineering different Terminator types was neat even if the eel-looking one looks like a reject from The Matrix. Pair that with the future setting and having a self-aware Terminator as the protagonist, and somewhere buried beneath Salvation there’s a good movie that would be worth seeing, especially if it had been ballsy enough to go with the ending that John Connor is really Marcus Wright (that wouldn’t work in the final film, but at some draft along the way, I like the concept that the guy saving humanity is the one who wasn’t “destined” to do so; if you negate avoiding Judgment Day, you may as well do away this destiny stuff and go with the concept that humanity’s salvation is a cyborg).

Instead, Terminator Salvation shrugged itself away into nothingness. It really could have been a fresh start for the franchise and taken some bold chances along the way. Instead, a movie that’s a constant reminder of missed opportunities. After the movie restores the status quo (absolutely nothing in the world has changed except Marcus’ death helped humanity through valuable organ donation), it tries to end on a promise and our good will towards the earlier movies by having John Connor say, “There is no fate, but what we make.” Terminator Salvation made nothing.




One thought on “On Terminator: Salvation

  1. Pingback: On Planet of the Apes | The Progressive Democrat

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