Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 23, 2009)
After 25 years, the Terminator franchise keeps chugging, but I donít know if we can say itís going strong. Actually, the series has been more active over the last few years than ever, as itís not like they cranked out one Terminator effort after another. We got the original flick in 1984, its first sequel in 1991, and its third chapter in 2003. Three movies over 20 years isnít a very active pace.
Things heated up in 2007 when Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles hit the air. Not long after that, we learned that a fourth Terminator feature film would arrive in 2009.
Though this would seem to mark a golden age for Terminator fans, the situation didnít play out to as much popular success as many wouldíve liked. Chronicles got canceled after its second season, and 2009ís big screen Terminator Salvation wasnít a huge hit. Sure, its gross of $125 million in the US meant it wasnít a flop, but with a budget of $200 million, clearly the studio hoped itíd do better. Seriously, who thought Paul Blart Mall Cop would earn more than a Terminator flick?
So it remains to be seen if any further Terminator adventures will emerge. Iíd guess they will, though it may take a while to let the dust settle and go for a ďrebootĒ ala the 2009 Star Trek movie.
In the first two flicks, folks fought to prevent Judgment Day. They did the same in the TV series and the third movie as well, but T3 indicated that Judgment Dayís gonna happen no matter what.
Which leads us to Salvation, the only Terminator film to focus on the events after Judgment Day. Mostly, at least, as it starts with a sequence set in pre-apocalypse 2003. Condemned prisoner Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) grudgingly agrees to donate his body to science to help the research of cancer-ridden Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter).
From there the movie gives us a text explanation of Judgment Day and the war against the machines, all of which folks who saw the earlier movies will know. The flick leaps ahead to 2018 and introduces us to John Connor (Christian Bale), one of the leaders of the human resistance against Skynet and all its mechanical operatives.
A mission to rescue human prisoners doesnít work out well, and only one survivor emerges: Marcus Wright, though he doesnít know who he is or how he got there. (And neither do we at this point.) As he wanders the wasteland, he meets and befriends Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the man fans know will someday become Connorís father.
And Connor knows this as well, so he reacts accordingly when he learns that Skynet has targeted teenage Kyle. Connor also volunteers to take on a mission to test a method that might just pull the plug on Skynet; this will allow him the chance to save Reese and thus himself. Much action and various revelations emerge along the way.
Wow, thatís a complicated synopsis, isnít it? Iíve seen the film twice and still donít feel certain that I really covered the story very well. Not that I suspect it really matters, as plot nuances and character issues arenít really the filmís emphasis.
Instead, action comes to the fore, as well it should in a Terminator movie. After three prior flicks and two seasons of a TV series, I must admit I find it more and more difficult to care about the various participants and their quest to save mankind. I think once T3 told us that apocalypse was inevitable, the quest lost some of its urgency.
In fact, I think that setting the film post-Judgment Day gives viewers even less hope of actual resolution. When we saw Terminator and T2, we thought that the participants mightíve prevented the apocalypse. In T3, we actually saw Judgment Day, but that offered its own strange form of conclusion; hey, at least it meant we wouldnít have to watch various Connors attempt to stop it anymore.
On the other hand, Salvation finds us in a different place. I donít think itís a spoiler to reveal that John and his partners donít end the war with the machines here. Perhaps someday the franchiseís producers will decide that enough is enough and theyíll allow John to finish things once and for all, but I doubt it. Even if that does occur, the tangled time travel web the series weaves always means something could happen to alter apparently decisive events.
In any case, Salvation lacks the sense of conclusion that we found with the first three movies. Even if we suspected that those flicks would generate more adventures, they wouldíve worked as finales. Salvation doesnít succeed in that way. It comes across like a chapter in a much bigger book, not something that stands on its own particularly well.
That sense of transition makes it more difficult to invest in the characters. I suppose we hope that John and Marcus will save Kyle because of the characterís fate as an adult, but that area opens a big old can of worms that has always been the seriesí biggest logic weakness. In the first film, John sends Kyle back to 1984 to save Sarah. Kyle and Sarah get it on, and the resulting pregnancy creates John.
Which always left open the big question: how did 1984 Future John Ė the one who told Kyle to go back in time and protect his mama Ė come into existence in the first place? In some timelineís 1984, someone other than Kyle had to knock up Sarah to create 1984 Future John or else he couldnít tell T1 Kyle to travel in time.
Oy, that paradox makes my head hurt! And it always will, as the series will never adequately resolve it. Since the series plays so fast and loose with logic, this means we find ourselves less invested in the charactersí fates. Even if Salvationís circa 2018 Kyle gets iced, whoís to say other time travelers wonít hop to another era to protect him and alter the events of 2018?
We also feel pretty sure that John wonít die. Not only is he the lead and Bale the movieís biggest star, but John has to live another 10 years so he can send Kyle back to 1984 to knock up his mama. (Ugh Ė my headís hurting again.) The movie toys with Johnís mortality, but we never really feel a threat against him for these reasons.
Because of this, only Salvation-exclusive characters allow us to feel any emotional investment. This mainly means Marcus as well as Johnís wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Marcusís gal pal Blair (Moon Bloodgood). Honestly, we donít really care what happens to the two women. Kate receives so little exposition that sheís there as nothing more than a prop. Blair gets better development, but we sort of expect her to die, so in a perverse way, it doesnít matter if she does. Sheís kind of like a red shirt in Star Trek; she feels like cannon fodder.
This leaves Marcus as the movieís emotional heart, and he works surprisingly well in that capacity. (Alert: potential spoilers ahead!) As we learn about halfway through the movie, Marcus is an unwitting double agent of the machines; heís an infiltration terminator who doesnít even realize this is his lot in life. (You may already know this from the trailers, as they revealed too much and eliminated the surprise from the movieís big reveal of Marcus as terminator.)
Marcus displays the most emotional range in the movie as he attempts to cope with his half-man, half-machine status. Heís the first terminator to show actual feelings, and heís also the one who most actively combats his status as a killing machine. Oh, others showed some self-awareness, but their human sides resulted from programming, whereas Marcusís humanity comes from his source as an actual person.
I guess. As Iíve already noted, the Terminator series has never been very good about logic and continuity, and Salvation doesnít give us a solid understanding of Marcusís creation. Iíve seen the flick twice, and I must admit I still donít really understand how the executed prisoner from 2003 turned into the man-machine of 2018. Maybe Iím just slow, but I donít think the movie does much to explain this, and it also makes little sense that in an era during which Skynet is just starting to make T800s Ė ie, the Arnold Terminator Ė they can produce such a sophisticated hybrid man-machine. I realize heís a prototype, but he still seems like a big leap ahead in terminator technology.
Despite all these question marks, Marcus at least gives the movie a sense of real emotion and heart. He takes us on a journey that the others canít accomplish, and he also offers the only major character whose fate seems up in the air. Worthington does a good job in the role and allows us to really care about the character.
Bale is less effective, though I donít fault the actor much. Though heís the nominal lead, Salvation remains much more invested in the Marcus story, and it doesnít seem to worry much about Connor. John often feels like a supporting role, and the movie seems to forget about him for long stretches. In reality, I think he gets a fair amount of screentime, but it just doesnít feel that way. Connorís a reasonably active participant but heís not as major a factor as Iíd expect.
That said, as a fan of the franchise, I think itís fun to learn more about the various participants and see the nuts and bolts of the Future War as depicted in Salvation. Every other Terminator effort just gives us hints and tidbits of the post-Judgment Day world, so Salvation is the only one that really engulfs us in its reality.
I also like the ďfull circleĒ feel to the tale. As I mentioned earlier, the film shows the timelineís introduction of the T800, so we get the impression that weíve come back close to the era of the first flick. Thatís not really true - T1ís John and Kyle are a good decade older than Salvationís characters Ė but I like the feeling of progression and development.
Director McG doesnít have much skill in terms of story and character development, but he knows his way around an action scene, so that side of Salvation succeeds reasonably well. The film integrates its many CG creations into the real environments in an effective manner and it gives us more than a few exciting set pieces.
And still, I find myself somewhat disenchanted with Salvation due to the lack of character investment. When I saw it theatrically, the action scenes worked well enough to carry the day, but on second viewing, the filmís shortcomings become more apparent. Salvation has enough good action to make it reasonably enjoyable, but the lack of strong character drama means that it leaves a hollow feeling.