Terminator Salvation (2009) Movie Review
As summer event films go, “Terminator Salvation” blows’em up real good. Lots and lots of times. Heck, sometimes the blowing up goes on for so long and is so excessive that it borders on the absurd. Alas, the film is missing heart, which is ironic since the human heart plays a very pivotal role in this movie about man versus machine, and exactly what constitutes the difference between the two. (Aside from the fact that we bury our dead, I mean.) It gets doubly worse when you realize that this was the writers’ intention all along – this is exactly what they were heading toward from Day 1, even if the final minutes or so seems to have been altered when the film’s originally planned ending was leaked onto the Internet and caused a major fan revolt. To be perfectly honest with you, I think I might have preferred that other ending, if just to put a finer point on this observation: in the canon of the “Terminator” films, “Salvation” falls somewhere between the much-derided “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and the Asylum’s copycat film, “Terminators”.
“Terminator Salvation” starts off on the wrong foot from the very first scene, which takes place in 2003 and features death row inmate Marcus Wright (Aussie Sam Worthington, currently attached to star in every big sci-fi/fantasy film in existence, or so it seems). Marcus is a bit of a nasty fellow, which is not surprising considering he didn’t get to be where he is because of some injustice. Yes, he deserves to be here, the murdering bastard. But as Marcus prepares to die, we move forward in time, to the year 2018, where we find a grizzled John Connor (Christian Bale) leading a small army of human Resistance fighters against a Skynet base. Judgment Day has come and gone, and what’s left of humanity lives a scattered existence, fighting a losing battle against the machines. Connor’s attack goes well – until, that is, the base blows up, leaving Connor the sole survivor. But before that, Connor had uncovered a secret Skynet program that could very well tip the scales in the favor of the humans in this never-ending, bloody battle between man and machine.
But wait, what’s this? Marcus Wright is still alive, emerging out of the rubble left behind by that blown up Skynet base. Unfortunately, Marcus doesn’t remember how he got to 2018, and as he walks the wastelands of Los Angeles, he comes into contact with a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, in his second sci-fi blockbuster this month), the future father of John Connor, and mute kid Star (Jadagrace). Marcus also meets and saves human Resistance pilot Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) from some wandering hillbillies intent on raping her. Yes, taking the time out to gang rape a woman is still a perfectly viable motive in this near-future where what’s left of mankind struggles to survive against killer machines. But I digress. Eventually, Marcus comes face to face with John Connor himself, and the results are shocking for everyone involved. Marcus, it is revealed, is a machine. Or at least, half of him. But what is his purpose, if any? And how can John Connor trust a machine, even if it does say it knows the whereabouts of Connor’s father, who is #1 on the machine’s kill list?
If you think dedicating an entire paragraph and a half to chronicling the adventures of Marcus Wright in this review was overdoing it, you’d be wrong. There’s a reason “Terminator Salvation” opens with Marcus Wright – it’s very obvious now that he was always the film’s intended hero. It was rumored very early on in the developmental stages that the main hero of the new trilogy of “Terminator” films would be the Marcus character, and that John Connor would be a supporting character. It shows, especially early on, where director McG seems confused about how to handle the dual heroes script that was handed to him as a result of Christian Bale signing on to play Connor. A signing that, industry news have it, caused the Connor role to be beefed up. After all, you don’t hire Batman and give him a supporting turn. As a result, the first hour of the film simply intercuts between John Connor and Marcus Wright, as if unsure of who it should be concentrating on.
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a movie that fields two main players. That is, unless your movie has the word “Terminator” in its title. Unfortunately for McG and his writers, they fail to understand that when you introduce an adult John Connor, you better go full-bore or do what the previous three films did and keep him in the background – to be spoken of, whispered about, and seen only in flashes. You can’t have both, because Connor is such a mythical character you better give him his dues or steer the fuck clear. By not heeding this very basic understanding of the Terminator mythos, writers John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (with heavy assist from Jonathan Nolan, according to McG) have knocked John Connor down from his pedestal. Heck, Connor never does anything all that heroic in the movie; and if anything, seems to keep surviving his clashes with the Terminators because of dumb luck. Marcus, meanwhile, gets to take down hulking Transformer-like Terminators and attack Hunter Killers with an axe. And I’m just supposed to fight and die for Connor because the script tells me so? Screw that.
But if you thought John Connor was badly mishandled by the writers and McG, the women, huge lynchpins of Cameron’s movies, don’t fare any better. There are two major characters – Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate Connor (originally played by Claire Danes in “T3”), who is now pregnant with Connor’s child. Though curiously, not a whole lot is actually made of her pregnancy, which makes you wonder why the filmmakers introduced it in the first place. It’s as if to say, “Hey, look, Kate’s pregnant! Now move on, nothing to see here…” Likewise with Moon Bloodgood’s Blair character. She was more interesting when we didn’t know she was a girl and was just dogfighting with Skynet in the skies. Once the helmet comes off, all reasoning behind Bloodgood’s Blair also disappears. Apparently in-between the 24 hours it took to walk from her crashed plane back to the Resistance base, Blair fell madly in love with total stranger Marcus, because later she pretty much jettisons an entire life fighting and hating the machines to save him. As if to rub in the film’s lack of respectable female characters, Sarah Connor herself (Linda Hamilton) has a cameo from beyond the grave via recordings she left for John.
The amazing thing about “Terminator Salvation” is just how badly the entire concept was handled from the very start. The idea to make Marcus Wright more important than Connor, or at the very least, of equal importance to the overall mythology of the Terminator world is simply wrong-headed. The best and most reasoned approach, in deference to the previous three films (but especially James Cameron’s first two) would have been to maintain Connor’s messiah-like aura, an easy enough thing to do by keeping him in the background. Putting Connor forward and then undercutting him with a completely new character simply weakens the foundation put forth by Cameron many years ago. Why would you do that unless you thought you could one-up Cameron? McG and his writers should know by now, you don’t mess around with James Cameron’s creation and then go around telling people he approved of your messing with his creations.
Don’t get me wrong, “Terminator Salvation” is by no means a terrible film. As summer event films go, it’s a mildly entertaining mess, and there are one or two scenes where the film actually manages to shine. There’s a great moment toward the end when John Connor comes into contact with an old friend, and gets the tar kicked out of him as a reward. The parts with the young Kyle Reese is also handled very well, and Anton Yelchin actually makes you believe this young skinny kid, who is high on resources but low on experience, may very well grow up to be the diehard soldier named Kyle Reese we’ve all come to know, as embodied by Michael Biehn in the first movie. He’s not quite there yet, but you can see it in his eyes that he has the makings of a great soldier. Fortunately for Kyle, these new Terminators, as inventive and “Transformer-y” as they have become, seem to have lost their edge, and come across as little more than big, dumb metal things to be shot at. Over and over again. And over and over again…
Cameron’s two “Terminator” films proved that sci-fi movies didn’t need to avoid the spectacular action in order to be a smart movie. It could be both. The third one had its moments, but it was more of a retread, a placeholder for what’s to come next. “Terminator Salvation” is not the film we’ve been waiting for. Although it’s hard to be bored when everything is blowing up onscreen, heavy explosions and zooming moto-Terminators can’t completely distract from a script that is often incoherent, heavily illogical at certain points, and most importantly, is very detrimental to the overall mythology of the Terminator world as created by James Cameron. John Connor may have been the savior of mankind, but in McG’s hands, he’s just another dude with a gun running around shooting machines and blowing stuff up.
McG (director) / John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris (screenplay)
CAST: Christian Bale … John Connor
Sam Worthington … Marcus Wright
Moon Bloodgood … Blair Williams
Helena Bonham Carter … Dr. Serena Kogan
Anton Yelchin … Kyle Reese
Jadagrace … Star
Bryce Dallas Howard … Kate Connor
Common … Barnes