While “Terminator Salvation” may want to come down on the side of humanity, it’s as soulless as its robotic antagonists and puts all of energies into its thrilling set pieces and puts as little attention as possible towards its characters. While director McG has shown himself as skilled director when it comes to designing his action sequences, he still has a lot to learn about what makes a film compelling and his film remains ambivalent in trying to forge its own direction while still remaining faithful to James Cameron’s first two films in the series.
The film opens in 2003 where death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signs his body away to a dying scientist (Helena Bonham Carter) and her research for Cyberdyne Industries. Oddly, even without WB’s over-zealous marketing attempts (which gave away just about everything there was to give), the film spoils what would have been a remarkable reveal: that Marcus Wright comes back in 2018 as a Terminator, or, a hybrid but definitely not 100%-human. It would take time to set up Marcus’ motivations and keep his secret secret (not skipping him like a stone across a river during a set piece would help). There’s no time for that in “Terminator Salvation”.
Once in 2018 we meet up with John Connor (Christian Bale) who is not the leader of the resistance but definitely one of its higher-ups as he sends out radio messages to the masses from his secret bunker (which oddly can’t be picked up by the machines but they can zero in on rock music in about five seconds) but we’re told (via prologue titles) that some see him as humanity’s salvation while others view him as a false prophet. We never get to see that division. We also never get to see if Connor, a man who’s been at war before he was even born, has doubts, frustrations, passions, or anything outside of being a soldier. He hugs his wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) from time to time. The film needed to make John Connor into a fully-realized character rather than further typecast Bale as “grim, unsmiling gentleman who occasionally screams at someone so you know he has a pulse.” But there’s no time for that in “Terminator Salvation”.
There’s no time for any character moments and it’s up to the actors to work with what they have to the best of their ability. Only Worthington and Anton Yelchin, who plays a young Kyle Reese (the role played by Michael Biehn in the first film), leave any kind of lasting impact. The supporting cast of Howard, Moon Bloodgood (whose character has some kind of romantic affection towards Marcus because he’s hot and she’s hot and that’s good enough), and Common aren’t poor actors. The film just doesn’t have any time for them.
What “Terminator Salvation” has more than enough time for is ACTION. Big explosions, intense chase scenes, shoot-outs, traps, drag-out fights, helicopter crashes, and it all works. As spectacle, “Terminator Salvation” is a success but without characters to cheer for, it’s a hollow success. McG wisely keeps cuts to a minimum and lets you feel the intensity of the action but there’s nothing substantial holding it all in place. There’s a vague outline of a story where Marcus and Reese are trying to find John Connor and Connor is trying to find Reese (Connor knowing that Reese is his father but not vice-versa). Of course, there’s the question in the back of your mind that if this timeline is playing out, then Reese must be safe by virtue of Connor and this timeline’s very existence. “Terminator Salvation” doesn’t get bogged down in headache-inducing time travel nonsense. They can save that for another film.
But it is a film caught in the past. McG and Stan Winston Studios have done a great job at reverse engineering the T-800 (the Schwarzenegger model exoskeleton) and applying the look to a whole range of Terminators that came before. The only one that doesn’t really work is the weird Eel-terminator that has an insect-look more from “The Matrix” movies than from “Terminator”. The film also includes Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor via voice recordings to John. [Skip the to the final paragraph if you don't know about a major spoiler involving the T-800 or my complaints about the ending]
And then comes Arnie and it’s a cameo that’s not bad but wholly unnecessary. Near the end of the film, the T-800 makes itself known and wouldn’t you know it, it’s got young Arnold Schwarzenegger skin. The effect didn’t look as bad as I expected but the camera makes sure to try to keep the actor’s digital face in darkness and away from close-ups. But there’s one point where Arnold is bearing down on John Connor and this should be a moment where conflict spreads across Connor’s face. This is a machine he developed a close relationship with in “T2″ as it serves as a surrogate father. Even “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was smart enough to use that idea. But here, Bale and McG give us nothing. It’s just the boss battle. One more action scene in the pile.
Finally, there’s the ending and it’s not the original ending. The original ending is in two parts. The first part is fantastic: John Connor dies. They then take Connor’s skin or something and put it on Marcus. Now, with the exception of a few people, humanity thinks that John Connor lives but the savior of humanity is actually a Terminator which is the strongest callback to “T2″ I can imagine. It also would add dramatic heft to a sequel as Marcus wrestles with fulfilling a legacy that was never meant for him. The second part of the abandoned ending is completely stupid. After Terminator-Marcus-with-Connor-Skin wakes up, he grabs a gun and kills everyone in the room because he’s a Terminator, I guess. It doesn’t make a lot of sense because one of the people he kills is Kyle Reese and that would negate the entire timeline. It’s shocking and dark for the sake of being shocking and dark.
But fans, half-correctly and half-incorrectly, rebelled against this ending. I think fans should have championed Terminator-John-Connor and rebelled against him killing everyone for no reason. Instead, the ending is just Marcus giving John a heart transplant and then John goes to fight Skynet somewhere else. Whoopie. It’s a bland act of redemption for Marcus and one should leave audiences feeling indifferent about a sequel.
I want to believe (and it’s been hinted) that all the character stuff which will make “Terminator Salvation” an altogether richer experience is sitting on the cutting room floor. That everything that would make us care about this movie is waiting in the “Deleted Scenes” section of the DVD. But those scenes aren’t in the movie I saw and the movie I saw would make Skynet and its army of Terminators proud. It is cold, efficient, visually-memorable, and completely heartless.