It’s been a roller coaster ride revisiting the science fiction films Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), and I thank everyone who followed along with me this week. As we found out, the franchise that James Cameron began 25 years ago weathered a lot of changes through the years (from $6.5 million thriller to $200 million action pic, from Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s first “I’ll be back” to “Talk to the hand”) but what kept fans hooked from picture to picture were the core themes of the Terminator universe: humanity attempting to save itself, the strength of familial bonds, and the idea that we’re all in control of our own fates — even if the future seems rather bleak.
Today I turn my gaze upon Terminator Salvation, the third sequel in the Terminator saga. In it, we catch up with Resistance fighter John Connor (Christian Bale) in the year 2018; Judgment Day (as seen in T3: Rise of the Machines) has come and gone, leaving pockets of human rebels scattered across the globe, while the forces of SkyNet send new machines to harvest and kill. (Coincidentally — or perhaps, on purpose — SkyNet is based in San Francisco, the very same place where Starfleet Command calls home in the universe of Terminator Salvation‘s summer blockbuster rival, Star Trek.)
But John Connor isn’t really the main character of Terminator Salvation, a film that, like Terminator 2 before it, shifts its focus to a new protagonist: Marcus (Sam Worthington), a death row inmate who is executed in 2003 only to wake up in the present-day “future.” The lean, lethal Marcus teams up with a teenage wannabe Resistance fighter (Anton Yelchin), who also happens to be the same person that John Connor has been seeking out for a very special mission: Kyle Reese.
That’s the basic plot, anyway, and for the sake of your own experience of discovery I’ll omit details. Overall, Terminator Salvation is a watchable Terminator sequel, but not necessarily a great one. It features great performances, but also underwritten characters. It has a story that will satisfy and intrigue most Terminator fans, but it’s almost over-plotted. The post-apocalyptic world that director McG envisioned is perfectly dirty, dangerous, and harrowing — a well-crafted extension of the flash forwards to the future glimpsed in Terminator, T2, and T3 — but some scenes are strangely, distractingly, set bound.
That said, McG knows how to shoot a set piece. Take the gas station scene shown in Terminator Salvation‘s trailer, as Kyle, Marcus, and Kyle’s deaf-mute sidekick, Star, escape/battle a giant “Harvester” Terminator along with two feisty “Moto-Terminators” that detach from its legs; these bots are ruthless and agile, and not too far removed from another kind of other summer robot (in disguise). Yet this new take on the chase sequence — a staple of every Terminator movie — is absolutely thrilling and fresh.
Set pieces aside, Terminator Salvation has a bit of an editing problem. It’s rather obvious that the final cut was snipped at considerably from all angles, presumably for a shorter run time and (in one glaring scene-to-scene jump) to omit Moon Bloodgood‘s nude scene and hit the PG-13 mark. As a result, some characters seem one-dimensional; we’d like to see even supporting players cultivate their characters a bit longer. Then again, maybe it’s a scripting issue, since there are at least two or three superfluous supporting cast members (Common, Bryce Dallas Howard, and four-time Oscar nominee Jane Alexander, for starters) practically begging for more screen time on the periphery of the story.
Speaking of the cast, Sam Worthington (previously seen in the Australian flick Somersault) makes a great impression in the role that will likely introduce him to most American audiences. His brooding Marcus is alternately tough and self-loathing, a loner compelled to help others who is fantastically handy in a fight and pretty dreamy to boot. Worthington and Michael Ironside, as a Resistance General at odds with John Connor, are the only two cast members who really hold their own with Bale on screen; everyone else looks terrified just to be sharing the frame with him. (Even then, Ironside’s scene with Bale is on the phone — they’re not even in the same room.) Look forward to seeing Worthington in the upcoming Avatar (from James Cameron) and as Perseus in Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans remake.
Bale, unsurprisingly, delivers a solid rendering of the battle-hardened John Connor, although he’s so cold and single-minded (Must. Destroy. SkyNet.) that it’s hard to believe this is the same person who once played Missile Command in the Sherman Oaks Galleria and high-fived a T800. Yelchin, underused as Chekov in Star Trek, shows nervy strength as the dedicated young Reese.
The Terminator films have always remembered where they came from (whether you consider it the past or the future, or both), so fans get a fair amount of references. Thankfully, they’re integrated seamlessly into the plot and for the most part avoid forced comic moments, as seen in T3. Many are quite subtle, explaining how certain skills or things we’ve already seen in previous films originally came to be; one familiar line in particular is delivered with such perfect timing, the scene ends before it has time to turn campy.
Ultimately, I was superficially entertained but disappointed with this attempt at making a Terminator sequel; it feels appropriately bleak and gritty, but is unable to pull itself together as tightly as the first two films. And although Terminator Salvation is shaping up to be the worst-reviewed film in the Terminator franchise (get the latest reviews here), I actually think it’s a step up from the better-reviewed Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; it’s not only about humans battling their heartless pursuers, but about keeping faith in your fellow man. Now let’s just wait for the inevitable Director’s Cut to see McG’s best vision of the film, because there’s a better movie hidden somewhere inside Terminator Salvation.
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