Status: In theaters (opened 5/21/09)
Directed By: McG
Written By: John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris
Cinematographer: Shane Hurlbut
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was one of the great defining films of the 1990s. (I feel like I could write a book about the films of the 90s… and in fact, I intend to do so some day.) Not only was it an enthralling, thoroughly unique story, masterfully directed by James Cameron, with a strong, intricate screenplay that featured one of the great female leading roles there’s ever been (Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor), but it also was a landmark in the development of computer-generated special effects and one of the films that served to both mark the arrival of and legitimize the era of CGI. It showcased career-defining roles for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick, while telling a compelling, timely and foreboding story.
Terminator Salvation is none of these things. It’s an unneeded and unnecessary addition to a franchise that has now gone twice as long as it ever should have. Salvation‘s primary goal seems to be to capitalize on the cachet it inherits from Terminator 2, and not much else. There are shoehorned-in callbacks to the defining film of the series sprinkled throughout, from forced dialogue (“I’ll be back”) to music cues (the Guns N’ Roses song “You Could Be Mine” and a timely revisiting of the primary T2 theme by the great Danny Elfman). There’s also a climax that features a computer-rendered likeness of Arnold, a culminating battle in a factory, and a tacked-on concluding voiceover that reiterates T2‘s theme that “there is no fate but what we make.”
Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who also wrote the uneven Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) should listen to this advice. There’s only so much mileage that a sequel can get out of revisiting themes and beats from its predecessor before it actually has to pony up and do something unique on its own, and Terminator Salvation goes well beyond that point. There are no surprises here, no revelations, no insights into the well-known story of the previous movies. Put another way, if I wanted to see all of the cool things from Terminator 2, I’d just watch Terminator 2, where they were done better the first time. This new film’s fate should be in its own hands, but it chooses instead to defer to the movie it wishes it was and bring not much of its own to the table. (This article, which is a really insightful look into the development and production of Terminator Salvation, reveals that I’m probably being a bit unfair by laying the blame on the screenwriters here. In truth, at least with Terminator 3 they did put a new spin on the lore of the series, and it seems that was their intention here as well, but the director and star would have it otherwise.)
The real stars of this movie are Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin, though its marketing would have you believe otherwise. Christian Bale, as John Connor, doesn’t have much to do but yell and grunt and generally overact in his typical style. Worthington plays Marcus Wright, a human/robot cyborg with an overly symbolic human heart, who initially doesn’t know that he’s a machine. (I would normally consider revealing this information to be a major spoiler, but the film’s trailers were happy to ruin the surprise of this plot point already.) Marcus teams up with Kyle Reese (Yelchin), who we know from the first film (played there by Michael Biehn) as the father of John Connor. Here he’s a 17-year-old boy with a mute sidekick (Jadagrace), who only hopes to become a member of the Resistance some day. There’s also Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), who is a member of the Resistance army that’s fighting against the all-present machines, led by Michael Ironside.
This all takes place in the post-apocalyptic future that we’d seen hinted at several times in the previous films. Everything is gray and black and bleak—the world here resembles what I imagined while reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In fact, Terminator Salvation‘s production designers build sets like I design websites: pick a single bland color and run with it.
When it is revealed to Marcus that he’s really a machine, he decides to just go on as if he were a human, for reasons that aren’t made clear and don’t make much sense to begin with. Blair, because she’s a woman and thus dumb, falls for him anyway—I suppose you have to forcibly inject a potential love story into every movie for it to be considered commercially viable during these contentious summer months. Or maybe it’s just because they needed an excuse to have everybody chasing and/or running from someone or something, because that’s what the majority of the movie consists of. There isn’t really an antagonist to speak of, save for the nameless, faceless machines that frankly just aren’t that scary when they come by the dozens and have already destroyed much of the world anyway.
It is hard to deny, though, the fanciful sets and impressive special effects on display, and there is a decent amount of excitement that’s derived from the various chases and battles and explosions—they had a big budget for this production, and they used it. There’s a significant movie-going population that just wants to see shit get blown up, and they’ll be satisfied by this movie. (They’re also presumably the same group of people who are willing to take a guy who calls himself “McG” seriously.) If you’re capable of shutting off your brain and just enjoying a ride (perhaps even literally), Terminator Salvation could be kind of fun. If you want a story that makes sense and is somewhat compelling, though, not so much.