Let’s face it. There are very very few people who don’t like the Terminator franchise. And when I say Terminator franchise, I mean Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Rise of the Machines was a Terminator film only in name. Otherwise it was a dreadfully misjudged film that should be cast into oblivion and forgotten about. However, it did prove that the series still had some pulling power. And thus, six years later, we have Terminator Salvation. The McG film takes place after Judgement Day and chronicles the struggles of John Connor and his band of merry resistance fighters as they attempt to overpower Skynet and gain control of the planet once again.
As mentioned, Judgement Day has been and gone. The world is very different. Humans are an endangered species and struggle to survive and fight back against the machines. John Connor is the man fated to lead humanity back from the brink. But something has changed. Connor sees his present as different to the future he was told about by his mother. The appearance of Marcus Wright further complicates things. And when Connor discovers that his father, a teenage Kyle Reese has been targeted and captured by Skynet, he must learn to trust Marcus Wright, defy his superiors and infiltrate Skynet in order to free Reese. All this while the humans are planning to mount their largest attack on Skynet.
Terminator Salvation is a difficult film to nail down. It has some great moments. The first 50 minutes are really enjoyable. And it’s even got Michael Ironside in it, for Christ sake. But for some reason... some three-lettered reason, the film fails. Let’s start with the good. The first 50 minutes. In this section, we see the lengths the resistance are going to in order to fight Skynet. We saw briefly in flash... backs... or is it flash-forwards, in the previous films what the post-Judgement Day world looked like. We saw the fight against the machines. Terminator Salvation expands on this, and shows us John Connor leading a raid on a Skynet R’n’D facility. Now, unfortunately, while the entire film is set in this world, we don’t see enough of what you’d expect from the post-Judgement Day world. A glaring problem is that the lines are too clearly drawn. Skynet stays on their side, the resistance stays on theirs. Occasionally, each side will venture into their enemy’s territory, but this is not what we were expecting from this world. It just feels... wrong.
Sam Worthington is brilliant as Marcus Wright. He is, but a long-shot, the best thing about the film. If you’ve seen the trailers for the film, you know the big ‘surprise.’ If you haven’t, skip this paragraph, as it’s about to give a part of the film away. Wright is a tortured soul. In the opening few minutes of the film, set in 2003, Wright is executed for the murder of his brother and two cops. His body is donated to Cyberdyne Systems. He wakes up fifteen years later and is pretty confused. He hooks up with Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin doing a pretty nifty imitation of Michael Biehn’s Terminator performance) and when Reese is taken, he does all in his power to get him back. When he is revealed as a terminator, Worthington is pretty damn convincing. He’s torn apart by the crime he committed but also by being a monster. This is his film, not John Connor’s. It’s Marcus Wright’s redemption and he carries the film very well.
They are the strong points, but they’re not without problems. And this film has many problems. Primarily the biggest problem is the sense of urgency. There is none. Terminator and it’s sequel kept you on the edge of your seat. They were incredibly tense films with a real sense that if the heroes fail, we’re all doomed. While they’re films that deal with a small story (despite the huge ramifications if things go wrong) they never let you feel like things were easy. The huge problem with Salvation is, you just find yourself thinking ‘so what?’ You’re left feeling that if things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world. And this isn’t just a problem with McG’s direction. It’s also down to the fact that in a world that’s close to being overrun by Skynet, there is very little Skynet presence. The T-600s (the precursors to the iconic T-800s) seem to wander about in single figures, making them very easy to deal with. You get the sense that Skynet really isn’t trying to wipe the humans out. Once Skynet reveals it’s evil plan, it becomes very clear that the AI really isn’t very smart. And where they had countless opportunities to win the war, they just didn’t bother because it that way wouldn’t be elaborate enough. Skynet is like a clichéd Bond villain that won’t just shoot Bond in the head. It insists on a long, drawn-out, elaborate execution plan that does little but provide the heroes with an easy way to escape. It’s bad, lazy, and sloppy writing.
Speaking of bad and sloppy, the editing in the film is terrible. Editing itself is an art form. The audience has watched countless films. It has developed a keen sense of timing. And therefore, bad editing, bad camera-work, bad direction stand out. Even if some members of the audience cannot explain why. It’s just something we’ve become accustomed to. And Terminator Salvation is full of these problems. Scenes are jarringly cut, you feel like sections have been left on the editing room floor, screwing with the logical progression of an idea or sequence and some scenes even feel like they’re thrown in for no reason while some ideas aren’t developed enough. I know there were script problems with the film (a problem that doesn’t seem to have been resolved). And the film definitely feels like it has been cut to make it a PG-13 film. But to castrate a film just for the sake of money is a really sad reflection of the state of the industry. I’m not saying the film would have been better had there been more “fucks”, a tit or two and some splatter effects. But if you are going to cut parts of the film out, it would help things greatly if scenes were tidied up a lot more.
Another glaringly obvious indication that the script and direction are all over the place is Christian Bale’s performance. In one spectacularly badly edited sequence, Connor is imploring the resistance around the world not to attack Skynet until he gives the order. He spreads his message over the radio. At one moment, he speaks with gravitas, utilising the Dark Knight growl. In the next cut, Connor seems to be panic-stricken almost screaming his words through the radio. It’s a small example of the sloppy nature of the entire film. I like Bale. I think he’s a great actor. But he has very little to do in the film other than being pissed off with the whole situation. It’s a very one-dimensional performance and is eclipsed by a far better Sam Worthington.
There are a whole laundry list of problems with Terminator Salvation. At times you feel like McG just made a list of really cool shots and moments from films such as Blade Runner, Lord of the Rings, Black Hawk Down, Apocalypse Now, the previous Terminator films, Minority Report, The Matrix, and a whole load of other films, wrote a Terminator story to tie them all together and then shot a film. It’s a really derivative and poorly-executed film. Like I said, there are some cool moments. And the first 50 minutes work pretty well. But they worked pretty well in other films before this one.
Terrible direction and sloppy editing (surprisingly, from the editor of Terminator 2) and a distinct lack of urgency let Terminator Salvation badly down. It’s more of a Terminator film than Rise of the Machines, that’s for sure. But it is leagues away from James Cameron’s films.