The Terminator franchise has always left me feeling out of phase with everyone else.
I was 8 years old when T2, which seems to be the touch-stone for the ‘cannon’ of Terminator, hit theaters. While many my age and the young teenagers in the grades above somehow got to see it, my parents wisely decided it was not for my eyes. When I finally got to see it for myself several years later the industry had caught up to T2’s incredible special effects, and to this day I still don’t see much difference between it and the rest of Arnie’s back catalogue.
As for the other Terminator movies, watching T1 gives me the same sense of deja vu as Ridley Scott’s Alien; you already know what’s going to happen not because the film is distilled from a formula, but because it’s the original formula which enough unoriginal filmmakers have since lazily bastardized into mere templates for their own work. As for T3 ? Well… lets just let that sleeping dog lie.
Now along comes Terminator Salvation, which is suffering under the critical eye and the disappointment of fans, and again I seem to have missed the boat because, frankly, I quite enjoyed it.
One of the things I love about movies nowadays are the viral marketing campaigns. I first started seeing online advertisements for Skynet Research Labs a few months ago. I thought it was a pretty neat idea to bring more of a sense of realism to the movie by bringing some of the movie to reality. They even thought to float example videos of Skynet services on Youtube:
I have previously been impressed by studios with enough savvy to run well matched viral campaigns alongside their movies, and I raised my expectations of the film accordingly. However, I think I was quite lucky that before I got to the theater a friend warned me to lower them again, “The film isn’t as good as Star Trek,but it’s better than Wolverine“. If you’re in the mood for a no-thought action film, it delivers. It’s not a movie that bothers to explain why things are happening, just where the characters are going to blow things up next.
Christian “Franchise Savior” Bale is quite adequate as man with a mission who does a lot of yelling. Maybe there just hasn’t ever been a definitive portrayal of John Connor for Bale to work from, but his performance did little to distinguish him from any other generic, post-apocalyptic military leader. He shoots things, he worries about his men, he carries the burden of being the prophesied saviour of humanity… but he couldn’t quite make me care. He did, however, make me burst out laughing at the end of the film with his Lleyton Hewitt impression.
Relative newcomer Sam Worthington is much more relatable, enough to actually make the major plot points work, even if they’re skimmed over pretty quickly (or more often left to your own imagination). He’s like a Thomas Jane you can take seriously and even begin to feel for. His portrayal of Marcus Wright brings what little poise and gravitas the movie are able to sustain and I found myself wishing we’d spent more time examining his character’s own particular conundrum, as it’s the clearest window the film gives us to view the question of what it means to be human, why it matters that the machines shouldn’t win.
Anton Yelchin surfaces for the second time this summer, having been previously introduced to mainstream audiences as the loveable Pavel Checkov in the Star Trek reboot. Yelchin does a fantastic job as a teenage Kyle Reese, who will eventually be sent back in time to protect Connor’s mother and to also unwittingly sire young John. Yelchin masterfully puts his own spin on Reese while still keeping the core of the character recognisable; it really was like watching a young Michael Beihn. This kid has really impressed me.
Other casting surprises are almost not worth mentioning: Bryce Dallas Howard turns up as Connor’s doe-eyed medic wife and her performance is pretty much interchangeable with any other young Hollywood starlet; I’m thinking she was probably cast for her vague resemblance to Claire Danes. Helena Bonham Carter overacts the small role she’s delegated, distracting more than helping the movie along.
It’s been reported that the movie suffered enormous rewrites all the way through production, and it shows in the jarring, flow-breaking cuts back and forth between the Marcus Wright/ Kyle Reese story line and John Connor’s own little mission. Apparently Bale was originally approached to play Marcus Wright in a movie that followed his relationship with Kyle Reese much more closely; John Connor wasn’t billed to show up until nearly the end of the film. Instead Bale seized on the Connor role and despite the fact that Hollywood heavyweight Jonathan Nolan was responsible for many of the rewrites, the movie still feels uneven somehow. (Nolan somehow escaped a writing credit, and is perhaps better-off for it.)
In fact, Terminator Salvation almost a movie with too many ideas; it just stubbornly refuses to engage any of them. We are told that Skynet is collecting humans rather than exterminating them outright, but we’re never told why. Skynet somehow knows that Kyle Reese is Connors’ father and begins hunting him, but how they know never explained.
However, I will give director McG credit for upping his game somewhat since Charlie’s Angels, which I thought was a monumental, steaming pile. I found myself drawn right into the post-apocalyptic landscapes and the new robots are fun, even if the all-important ‘why’ is missing. I’ve always enjoyed epic, long camera shots that follow characters through several minutes of action without a cut; they’re tremendously immersive and McG uses the technique several times to pull you right into the action.
PG ? I Think Not ! PG-13 Perhaps…
Before I complain about the violence, I would like to applaud whoever decided that the movie should be rated PG. I wanted big robots and explosions. I did not want to have watch Saving Private Ryan with cyborgs. I understand how war works. I don’t want to have severed limbs and exploding heads rubbed in my face; that’s why I walked out of Crank: High Voltage and demanded my money back.
So while I was quite happy that the film was rated PG, I found the movie sufficiently realistic that a PG-13 rating would have been more appropriate. After all, a man pulling open the back of his own head to remove a computer chip isn’t exactly what I’d like appropriate fare for a 10 year old to be able to rent by themselves; ratings are there to protect our children so use them properly, you useless bastards at the Ontario Film Review Board.
While the violence was less visceral and disturbing than it could have been, I still found myself thinking, “Now surely that should have killed them” far too often. While I appreciate that you can’t show grievous bodily harm in a PG movie, that doesn’t mean you can simply ignore the fact that people do get hurt when they’re blown 30 feet by an explosion, or thrown against smelting equipment by robots. It kills all the tension. And if the heroes just keep getting back up, how are they any different than the machines?
Where It All Falls Apart
I think people who are calling the movie a failure are somehow expecting to relive the joy of their first experience watching Terminator 2. As I never really understood the draw behind T2 in the first place, I’m equally mystified as to why this movie is receiving such bad press. Don’t get me wrong, there are flaws, such as:
- You cannot limp to the helicopter after you’ve had a metal rod pushed completely through your chest, no matter how many people hold your arms
- There sure are a lot of completely functional warplanes 14 years after the nuclear holocaust
- Soldiers do not tend listen to the voice on the radio which tells them to disobey direct orders, unless they’re given a much better reason to do so than “pretty please”
- You cannot perform a heart transplant from an untested donor, especially not on the battlefield in an open tent!
- Terminators are either heavy enough to a make 1-foot-deep crater after a 10 foot fall, or light enough to walk up unsupported steel stairs, not both
- If the leader of the resistance infiltrates your base totally unsupported, you do not send your troops at him one at a time, you send everyone you have at once
- Why don’t they just kill Kyle Reese when they catch him ? John Connor’s future father dead, BAM ! No John Connor. Skynet Wins. End of war.
While these flaws are certainly annoying, I found it more frustrating that so many opportunities for a better movie were completely passed over. Spending more time with Marcus and giving us more of his internal conflict would have provided a much better way to examine our humanity by contrasting it with the machines. Kyle Reese is relegated to a secondary role when spending more time with him could have given McG more time to ruminate on the nature of fate. And really, that’s the third Terminator movie to end with a fist-fight in a steel-mill. It was boring. It’s been done before. TWICE.
In the end, the best synopsis of this film I can give you is this: Terminator Salvation is a film which lurches around setting up things we already know about from previous films, tipping it’s hat to some neat ideas of it’s own without ever expanding on them, and then zooms off to find some explosions. Turn your brains off, and enjoy the explosions.
More On The Original Script
For those of you wanting a more in-depth, exhaustive look at why the hardcore Terminator fans are disappointed with this movie here is an extensive article on the Terminator Salvation that might have been:
- What went wrong with Terminator Salvation @ Chud.com