Terminator Salvation (2009)

terminator salvation

“This is John Connor. If you are listening to this, you are the resistance.”

The Scoop: PG-13 2009, directed by McG and starring Christian Bale and Sam Worthington

Tagline: The End Begins

Summary Capsule: John Connor fights the Future War while a death row inmate from 2003 tries to figure out how he wound up in 2018.

Justin’s rating: The battle fizzles out.

Justin’s review: In the first three Terminator films, the sequences that always captured my imagination were the “future war” scenes.  You know the ones, where HKs and Terminators stomped through the black night, over the rubble and skeletons of humanity, hunting down the remaining few people who scrambled to fight back.  It was the perfect reminder of what was at stake in the “present” – a struggle to avoid this horrible holocaust, or at best, give humanity the best chance it could get.

And then we get to Terminator Salvation, a movie set entirely in the “future war”, and it’s as if the badness has been downgraded somewhat, like from a Category 4 hurricane to a tropical depression.  The world no longer looks nuked and burned out, just a bit weary.  Humanity isn’t welding plasma rifles onto pickup trucks out of desperation – they have submarines and helicopters and airplanes and WCON radio (all John Connor, all the time).

Speaking of Mr. Conner in his fourth incarnation as Christian Bale, he’s not so much the leader of the resistance as a mid-level officer who looks pinched and annoyed, but not terribly charismatic for the savior of humanity.

Something’s a bit askew here, and I can certainly understand why people gave this movie the violent thumbs-down.  It’s not that it’s a terrible film in its own right, it’s just that Terminator Salvation feels nothing like the Terminators we’ve known.  It’s the first movie without time travel, the first one set entirely in the post-Judgment Day world, and the first one with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As Connor aids the Resistance, a mysterious former Death Row convict called Marcus teams up with a very young Kyle Reese (you know – the dude who went back in time in the first movie to hook up with Sarah Connor and donate his genetic material to a son) and a mute child in an attempt to escape L.A.  Reese is captured by Skynet, Marcus captured by the Resistance, and a formulaic rescue plan is slammed into place.

Other than not retaining much of the Terminator feel, even with Terminators all willy-nilly across the landscape, TS’s big problem is a lack of a solid plot.  It’s very weak and watery, like a soup that’s more broth than anything else.  Stuff happens through the first half of the movie, but none of it is terribly important and our protagonists aren’t motivated to work toward any end.  It’s never explained why the Terminators keep kidnapping humans instead of killing all of them, or the whole backstory with John’s pregnant wife (I mean, I’m just assuming “wife” here), or if the cancer lady at the beginning was evil or just misguided.  It’s only by the second half that something resembling an idea takes form, which is an absolute shame considering the opportunity present here.

Shouldering disappointment, at least I had some fun eye candy to chew on – the different machines are pretty inventive and almost a bit retro-tech from what we saw in the previous Terminators.  Being PG-13, none of the action is too savage, which takes some of the bite away from the machines.  But stuff goes ka-blooey, and we get more man vs. machine action than Short Circuit 2.  Tom Servo, R2D2, and Tony Stark’s fire extinguisher robot arm are next up for execution.

Al’s rating: Me and you, McG?  We’re done, professionally.

Al’s review: Have any of you ever read fanfic?  I’ll bet a lot of you have.  For anyone who doesn’t know, fanfics (fan fiction) are stories written by the fans of a particular series for no other reason than they love the characters and think it would be cool if they fought/teamed up/had sex with Buffy/Data/the cast of Dragonball Z.  It’s like when you were five and you mixed your X-men action figures with your G.I. Joes.

A lot of fanfic is atrocious, as you’d expect, but some of it is surprisingly good.  The major problem with most of it, though, is that, no matter how earth-shattering the events of the story seem to be, you know nothing will ever truly change because the writers cannot violate the established canon of the franchise.  In other words, no serious Star Wars fanfic is going to kill off Han Solo unless they plan on bringing him back by the last chapter.  The author simply doesn’t have the authority to do something like that.

Terminator Salvation struck me as fanfic almost immediately.  All of the important characters are there, like John Connor, Kate Brewster and Kyle Reese.  The badass machines we glimpsed in Terminator, Terminator 2, and Terminator 3 get extended action sequences where we see them in all their computer-generated glory.  We even get a mysterious, laconic protagonist who conveniently needs the whole situation exposited to him for our benefit.

But, like any fanfic, what happens in Terminator Salvation simply doesn’t matter.  Will John’s bold plan to wipe out the machines and end the war work?  Not a chance.  Will Kyle Reese be killed by the machines who have targeted him for termination?  Get real.  It’s just the director playing with action figures that have to go back in the box when he’s done.

The dialogue is a step down from Judgment Day and Rise of the Machines, taking itself so seriously that I was afraid the characters might break if they were ever allowed to crack a smile.  The plot sabotages itself by taking a promising idea and saddling it with a narrative structure that eliminates any ambiguity or suspense (not to mention a trailer that spoils the whole thing).  Even the action, for all it’s wham-bam CGI glory, is boring beyond description, featuring the same giant robot monsters, daring escapes, and massive property damage that summer action movies have been required to showcase for about fifteen years.

To try and express myself a little better, I sat down and did some math in the course of writing this review.  The original Terminator features a flashback/forward of The Future War that lasts exactly three minutes, forty seconds.  Kyle Reese and a fellow soldier avoid a hunter-killer gunship, we get the nickel tour of humanity’s squalid living conditions, and the scene fades out as a terminator infiltrates the barracks and opens fire.

Working with a much larger budget, our vision of The Future War in Terminator 2 is naturally much more epic:  There are giant explosions, a sky full of H-K gunships, and a half-dozen skeletal terminators walking over a field of human skulls.  It’s ineffably cool.  It’s also only two minutes and twenty-eight seconds.  In fact, if I stretch the definition and include the ‘burning playground’ opening credits and Sarah’s nuclear bomb nightmare, the total Future War screen time for Terminator 2 (Special Edition) clocks in at six minutes, two seconds.

Two movies, adding up to nearly four-and-a-half hours of film, show us The Future War for a total of nine minutes and forty-two seconds.  In under ten minutes, James Cameron gave us a vision of Judgment Day that was both fascinating and terrifying.  Nine minutes and forty-two seconds that have been burned into the minds of every Terminator fan for twenty years.

Terminator Salvation, on the other hand, spends it’s entire 115 minutes exploring The Future War.  We’re taken across blasted-out battlefields, through ruined cities, and into terminator construction centers—literally from the highest skies to the deepest seas of Earth, circa 2018.  Yet, in nearly two hours, the film failed to produce a single image with the power of the playgrounds burning or of scattered bones being crushed underfoot.  Nothing even close.

Terminator Salvation is a pretender sequel that has none of the drama, none of the action, and none of the style that befits a true Terminator movie.  It’s mediocre fan fiction that somehow made it up on the big screen.  But, who knows, maybe in the next one we’ll get to see John Connor team up with John Shaft!  That’s what all the kids are writing about on the internet, right?

Toothpaste is a luxury on the battlefield, making this conversation even more uncomfortable than it looks.

Intermission!

  • Michael Ironside in the underwater sub?  I like that.
  • So… there’s a machine that looks and acts exactly like a motorcycle?  Uh, okay.
  • No Derek Reese?
  • Guns and Roses survived Judgment Day?
  • Marcus’s Great Escape-style bike jump?
  • The eel bots?  “Now John Connor did not get eaten by the eels at this time…”
  • The machines’ plan for Marcus is pretty hopelessly convoluted, no?
  • The machines don’t kill Kyle Reese even though they have him captured and identified and he’s number one on their kill list?  Lame.
  • The T-800 just seems to throw John Connor around a lot instead of, oh, I don’t know, terminating him?
  • How John gets his facial scar?
  • John recovers surprisingly well from a stab wound in the heart?
  • The rumored original ending of the film had John Connor killed off and his skin grafted onto Marcus’s cybernetic body “to keep his image alive.”  It was reportedly changed after the ending leaked onto the internet.  Some sources, however, dispute that an alternate ending ever existed.

Groovy Quotes

Kyle Reese: Come with me if you want to live.

Marcus Wright: What day is it? What year?
Kyle Reese: 2018.
Marcus Wright: What happened here?
Kyle Reese: Judgment Day happened.

John Connor: This is John Connor. If you are listening to this, you are the resistance.

Kate Connor: What should I tell your men when they find out you’re gone?
John Connor: I’ll be back.

Marcus Wright: If you’re going to point a gun, you’d better be ready to pull the trigger.

Kyle Reese: You want to know the difference between us and machines? We bury our dead.  But no one is coming to bury you.

Marcus Wright:  The idea is to stay alive.  I’m driving.

John Connor: You and me, we’ve been at war since before either of us even existed. You tried killing my mother, Sarah Connor. You killed my father, Kyle Reese. You will not kill me!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • The Road Warrior
  • Resident Evil: Extinction

4 comments

  1. I remember thinking when it came out that TS would’ve made an interesting animated short in a set (like Animatrix or Batman Gotham Knight). It would’ve been 10-30 minutes long, and it wouldn’t have mattered that it added nothing to the Terminator story and focused on a character that had never been introduced before.

    Personally I was disappointed because I thought this was going to be either about Kyle Reese, or the movie where we finally saw John Connor become a leader. *sigh*

  2. The Terminator franchise seems hard to work with from an outsider’s perspective. To the average moviegoer, each movie has to expand upon the established mythology to reach the goal hinted at in the previous films, right? Kyle Reese states that John Connor was the head of the resistance therefore, in later films, he MUST become the head of the resistance. The future scenes depict waves of HKs wiping out humanity therefore, in later films, the future war MUST contain vast armies of pissed off terminator drones and so forth.

    Is that how it should pan out?

    No!

    This entire series is grounded firmly in the concept of paradoxes. Is the John Connor who sent Kyle Reese into the past at the beginning of Terminator the same John Connor from Terminator 2? Hell no. Kyle Reese instigated a paradox by fathering a child who would be, incidentally, named John Connor via the information he gave to pre-paradox Sarah Connor. Also, the information Reese gave out about the future tainted The upbringing and info John would otherwise have received being raised by a ditzy barmaid.

    It only stands to reason that each sequel would feature a more unpredictable and unexpected future than its preceding film’s future. T2 has a harsher future with more advanced Terminator (T1000) units due to Cyberdyne Systems getting their hands on bits of the Terminator from Terminator. When everything is destroyed by John, Sarah, and the Terminator; all goes back to roughly square one, except with Skynet being set back from awakening a few years. T3 features a Skynet that has access to government files, accessing such to track down the origins of the future resistance members in order to assassinate them. John and his future wife survive the latest attempt on their lives and, by the time of TS, John has been relegated to the role of everyday survivor against a much weaker Skynet, albeit with some sort of foresight of what may (or may not) happen in the future.

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