Terminator Salvation will go down as the loudest, dullest and least memorable film in the Terminator lexicon thus far. Its lapses in logic are taller than the 200-foot robots that can sneak up on people in complete silence or the bipedal Terminators whose strength varies wildly from scene to scene. Humans are not much better off, portrayed as one-dimensional and underdeveloped as the networked machines they are fighting against.
The first of a proposed new trilogy of Terminator films is set in the year 2018, more than a decade after Judgment Day but before Kyle Reese and a T-800 traveled back in time to protect or destroy Sarah Connor, respectively. Batman himself Christian Bale is John Connor, prophesied savior of mankind from annihilation by the ruthless machines of Skynet. He is not quite the Resistance’s leader but makes up for any lack of authoritative control by barking commands in that low gruff Batman monotone voice which is distracting to say the least.
Bumping heads with Connor is Marcus Wright who, as every trailer has revealed, is a Terminator. Unlike the fabricated T-800, Marcus awakes naked in a hole after being executed for a triple-murder decades before. Disoriented and confused, Marcus teams up with the last two humans alive in Los Angeles, one of whom is a young Kyle Reese, until the Resistance shows him who – or what – he really is.
Glimpses of the “future” in past Terminator films depict a nuclear-ravished wasteland where human survivors hide underground and live in constant fear of being infiltrated by Terminators. They are visibly scared, hungry to the point of starvation, and mired in desperation.
McG’s vision for the post-Judgment Day world is so focused on painting a unique canvas of monochromatic “Children of Men” action sequences that it forgoes human condition Cameron so beautifully integrated into the originals. John Connor, his presumed and visibly pregnant but never properly introduced wife (Bryce Dallas Howard), Resistance fighter Barnes (Common) and the Resistance “High Command” never smile, never emote and never say much of anything other than to yell at one another. It is hard to care about someone’s fate when you never get to know them as people or gain an understanding of their purported suffering. Aside from John Connor, Kyle Reese and Marcus Wright, any character could be removed entirely from Salvation and the story would stay firmly on the tracks.
Only non-human Marcus Wright offers any form of compassion and emotion, and to a lesser extent grossly underutilized Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese. During Marcus’ journey from rebirth to “salvation,” soon-to-be megastar Sam Worthington shows his range with subtle eye movements that say a thousand words to shrieks of pain, anguish and confliction. His character is by far the most developed and central to Salvation, but inconsequential and relatively pointless when viewing the series as a whole.
Without strong characters to latch onto or give a damn about, Terminator Salvation turns into a string of big action set-pieces designed for the sole intent of competing with the other summer tentpole films. Massive explosions, gunfire and multiple types of land, sea and air Terminators are par for the norm in 2018 and generally well done. Even as the impressive sound mix kicks into high gear as Raptor jets drop napalm bombs on a Terminator outpost, there is an empty feeling inside as if watching a tech demo reel without subtext.
Where Terminator Salvation succeeds draws strongly from the franchise’s roots. Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a brief pseudo-cameo, but the best action is the most intimate: a good old fashioned search and destroy between a T-800 Endo-Skeleton and John Connor. Its intensity and nods to James Cameron and the late Stan Winston’s model work on the T-800 almost forgives the ludicrousness of global Skynet putting all of its eggs into a Hollywood-favorite San Francisco base of operations.
McG has gone on record claiming 30-40 minutes of footage will be edited back into Terminator Salvation for the Blu-ray Disc and DVD home video release. Each and every one of those minutes will be needed to patch plot holes, build characters with sound dialogue and make us begin to care about the future. As it stands, McG’s gritty, grimy, disjointed and dispassionate vision could prove terminal to the franchise’s next steps.
– Dan Bradley