It has been 25 years since a certain James Cameron introduced the film-going public to the post-apocalyptic world of Judgement Day. While he’s never really fully shown the war-torn future ruled by the machines in the the two films he directed in the Terminator franchise he does show glimpses of it. It’s these glimpses of desperate humans fighting to survive against Skynet and its machine hunter-killing robots which have always intrigued and made its fans salivate at the thought of seeing it realized. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003 tried to show how it all truly began, but again it just hinted at the future battlefield and not the full-blown war. It is now 2009 and the most unlikely filmmaker has finally shown what the future of Judgement Day looks like. McG’s Terminator Salvation succeeds and fails in equal amounts yet has laid the groundwork for the future of the franchise as a war series instead of of its past as installments of what really is one huge chase film.
There are many things which work in Terminator Salvation and one of them happen to be its director McG. A director who is much-maligned for his too campy Charlie’s Angels set of films would’ve been the last name to look to for a restart to the stalled franchise. His direction of this fourth entry in the series was actually very well-done. There’s none of the cartoony and way over-the-top action set-pieces of his Charlie’s Angels past. Instead he moves the film along in a brisk and energetic pace with very little downtime for much introspection. It is this pacing which makes this a good and, at times, an above-average action-film but also serves to make any of the scenes questioning what it is to be human (once again) and machine seem tacked on. The first three films in the series have delved into this theme and question too many times for a fourth attempt make it seem any more relevant than the previous times.
McG went out to make a war entry to the series and to an extent that’s what he did. While there are chases to be had it doesn’t necessarily mean its all about John Connor once again (though the film does make it a point of targeting him again in its own fashion). Terminator Salvation has finally shown what the world looks like after the events of the third film and what had been hinted and teased at in the first two. The world is a desolate place with ruins of landmarks to give the audience a reference point. We see Los Angeles a tumbling and crumbling wreck which looked eerily like something out of the recent Fallout 3 scifi-rpg game. Even San Francisco makes a post-apocalyptic appearance as a major Skynet headquarters. McG achieves this post-apocalyptic look by bleaching out the film’s color palette to the point that browns and greys dominate. He actually achieves to add grittiness to this film which his past films had never shown him having the ability to do. While this film won’t sway people to admiring his skill as a filmmaker it does show some growth. Then again he does have a hold of a film series which is nothing but B-movies elevated through bigger budgets and access to the latest in film FX. If I have any gripe to point out about the action in the film it’s that there’s not enough of it to truly convey a “War Against the Machine” scenario. We get these tantalizing hints, but not something on par of what a fuure war should look.
The budget could be seen on the screen as the film uses a combination of CGI and practical effects to pull off a much more complex robotic army for Skynet. It’s the robots and machines which keeps bringing the audience back each and every time the series releases a new entry. We don’t just have the Human Resistance fighting the typical T-800 or even the more advanced T-1000 or T-X. We get the earlier versions of these human hunting and killing machines. From a brutish and zombie-like T-600 we see in the LA-scenes to newer and bigger specialized Skynet soldiers like the anime-inspired mech Harvester which towers several stories high and literally harvests humans it finds to take back to SKynet’s R&D bases. When the original Terminator does make an appearance it’s both a welcome and a surprise as McG’s technical wizards find a way to bring back the original exactly the way it’s supposed to look. I’m sure the Governator of California would want to have that physique and youth back.
As an action-film Terminator Salvation works well enough when the action appears on the screen. Now as a film that tries to delve into the philosophical trappings of the series it doesn’t so much as fail and sink the film, but almost does which would’ve been a shame. While not the worst in the series in terms of storytelling it does come across as very scattershot in what story it wants to tell. The film actually has three ideas which could’ve been used to make it’s own film. Is the film a story of John Connor and his rise to his prophesized leadership of the Resistance (he’s a leader of a branch of fighters, but not yet of the whole group in this film)? Or is this film about the search and attempt to make sure the person who will be Connor’s father stays alive to allow what transpired in the past to happen (time-travel can be a tricky and confusing thing to comprehend)? Or is Terminator Salvation the story of the new character Marcus Wright and his quest to find out just who, or what he is exactly? It’s all three of those and all three weren’t explored enough to make one care too much for the story being told. There’s great ideas in all three but trying to combine them into one coherent storyline mostly falls flat and uninsipiring for a film trying to be the war movie in the series. For what are war movies mostly but attempts to show inspiration in the face of desperation. There’s very little of that in this film. If the writers had been given a chance to further streamline the story into one major arc then this film would have benefitted greatly in the long run.
With acting very tightly tied-in with the story being told it’s only logical that the performances by the cast rarely go beyond acceptable. Christian Bale’s John Connor is always dour and brooding. He’s almost becoming a typecast for any role that requires for him to be the down man in any party. He does this ably, but he doesn’t bring anything to the role which hasn’t already been explored in past entries. His performance does show hints of mental instability as the weight of being the savior and prophet of the human race may be starting to get to him. The other two pivotal roles in the film have more meat to play around with. Anton Yelchin as the teenage Resistance fighter destined to become John Connor’s father in the past shines in the scenes he’s in as he elevates a bland script with some youthful energy and hints of the adult Kyle Reese fans of the series know so well. Then we arrive on the newest character in the series: Marcus Wright.
Little-known Australian actor Sam Worthington was recommended by James Cameron for the role of Marcus Wright. Like Anton Yelchin’s performance, Worthington’s work in the role of Wright saves the film from mediocrity. While it is not a start-turning performance by any means Worthington does make it difficult not to pay attention to him throughout the film. The man has presence and every scene he is in shows why Cameron himself has faith in being the latest to carry the Terminator torch. The rest of the cast is quite a throwaway in that we never really get to know any of them and invest anything in their well-being.
Terminator Salvation is a very frustrating film in that there’s so much great ideas to mine. The series has always tried to explore such themes as fate, predetermination and human free will. While the third film in the series was quite lacking in memorable action sequences this fourth entry makes a mess of trying to explore these themes. Again, it seems as if the film’s script was rushed into production with very little doctoring and as the production continued forward no one bothered to point out just how average and bland the storyline does sound despite being the most overly complex of the series.
One thing I am sure of is that the one person people thought would be the weakest link in this film instead happens to be its strongest. McG and some inspired acting from two newcomers keep the film from becoming a total failure. Terminator Salvation is an able and, for most of it’s running time, a very good action film with brisk pacing and energy in its action sequences. Enough of these elements keeps the film’s fractured and scattershot of a storyline from sinking the film into total failure. As a summer tentpole action film it delivers on some of what it promises, but it could’ve been more and better. Some would settle on calling this entry in the franchise a failure, but I am always an optimist and a fan of action thus I’ll land on calling this film a successful failure.