Okay guys, I’ll be upfront with you about this one guys. I kind of like this movie. I always have. It’s a total departure from the rest of the franchise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, sure it’s not a great movie but it’s entertaining enough and kind of a breath of fresh air after seeing so many other sequels/reboots just trying to ride too close to the wake left by what came before.
Released in 2009, Terminator Salvation is the 4th major entry in The Terminator franchise. Directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol; known professionally as McG and starring Christian Bale and Sam Worthington. As well as a bunch of other names, this movie has a surprisingly packed cast to be honest.
This early part of the post, this would be where I’d normally go off on one about the franchise continuously flipping back and forth about how it wants to treat its time travel continuity. But Salvation is the sole movie in the franchise with no mention of time travel in it whatsoever. The closest thing we get it Worthington’s character Marcus being executed in 2003 and waking up in a war-torn 2018.
But that’s all thanks to a SOMA-esque piece of transhumanism rather than any time travel shenanigans. And this fact, coupled with so many others makes me hesitate to even call this a Terminator movie at all. I mean it is one of course. But in terms of its reoccurring themes, its setting and even the structure of the story this movie is nothing like any of the three movies that came before or even the ones that would follow.
This is a post-apocalyptic, science fiction war movie. One that approaches the franchise with a grim brutality that robs the franchise of the elements of fun it had in the previous two entries, replacing them with the horror elements found in the first movie. Although lacking in the familiarity of the modern day (at the time of release) setting and putting us into a barren, hard to recognise world.
I’ll put my hands up and admit, this isn’t a “fun” movie. Set in the grimdark future, the human resistance a fighting a seemingly futile war against Skynet and the machines. Which gels with the glimpses of the future we’ve seen in previous movies. Christian Bale plays a John Connor who on the verge of taking over leadership of the Resistance, doing his best Christian Bale impression and just barking at anyone and everyone around him. He shares the spotlight with Sam Worthington, who plays Marcus Wright; a human from before Judgement Day who was executed, but I now finds himself alive and well.
Marcus is the crux of the movie; a mysterious man with a mysterious past. As we don’t really learn much about him. He’s the kind of guy who goes around telling people he’s a bad person because he’s done some stuff in his past, but then jumps at the very snifter of helping someone who might be in trouble. This was right at the peak of the big push to make him the next big movie star, it was an effort that never really came of anything in the end. I’ve got nothing against Worthington, but he’s not exactly the most emotive actor.
That’s ultimately one of the biggest weaknesses of Terminator Salvation, between him and Bale, the cast of this movie has zero charm to it. The two leads are both meat headed, square jawed men of action and little else. Coupled with the fact that the enemies they’re fighting are literal, unemotional machines, the entire movie is left to it’s action and spectacle to carry it. Both of which are good enough to leave an impression on the viewer, especially if they get a kick out of this morbid, dystopian world of robot skeletons like I do.
Between Connor and Marcus is a young Kyle Reese, played by the late Anton Yelchin. Anton does a good Michael Biehn, he’s certainly a better portrayal of the character than Jai Courtney’s was in the last movie I talked about. He’s got that same look of having seen some shit about him, it gives some much needed humanity to the movie where everyone else are just gung ho soldiers Oorahing their way from fight to fight. While he’s a bright presence in the early movie, he becomes little more than a plot device by the second half.
As he gets captured by the machines and a rescue attempt forces Connor and Marcus to team up, the later of which has been revealed to be a cyborg prototype designed to infiltrate the resistance. Although most of his Terminator look comes from computer generated effects. Which is a lot of this movie, but not all of it. Because it still does make some use of practical effects, and that’s actually where the movie shines the brightest: in it’s visuals and deign work.
Salvation’s realisation of Skynet and its army of murder machines is genuinely unsettling. The hulking metal skeletons with haphazard chunks of human flesh clung to their frame, red eyes glowing in the darkness makes for an effectively unnerving sight. Coupled with the harsh, incomprehensible machine noises they make, the movie does a good job of making these machines scary again. I’m not a CG vs. practical effect purist by any means, but there’s something about the physical, poor first attempts at making machines that resemble humans and seeing them march around is amongst the most visually interesting aspects of the whole movie.
All of this, culminating in the reveal of the CGI Arnie as the first production T-800 as the final confrontation between Skynet and the main characters. Seeing this machine relentlessly marching towards John Conner, not slowing down despite the many attempts on John’s part is a nice throwback to the original movie. But nice throwbacks are ultimately all this movie really has to tie it into the rest of the franchise.
Themes and reoccurring beats are important to franchisees to keep them feeling like they exist within the same continuity. The problem with them being that it can be easy to start using them as a crutch, which is where you fall into the trap of sequelitis. Salvation goes so far out of its way to do something different that when it calls back to the original movies, they constant feel like this jarring distraction away from the world of the movie I’m watching at this moment. It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of problem really. Honestly though, I appreciate this movie for being something different and something separate from the rest of the franchise.
Had Bale or Worthington has an ounce of charm of charisma to their performances in this movie, I most likely feel I’d have a much higher estimation of it. Or if it had a constant threat of a villain, like in every other Terminator movie. But what we got was a pretty explosive action flick all the same. I don’t think time has done the movie any favours given the MCU style direction our blockbuster movies went since overly gritty action movie days of 2009. A year that gave us movies like District 9 and 2012. But it’s not a terrible movie. I guess the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s utterly unmemorable, It lacks identity, one that comes from a presence like Arnie or an actual antagonist brings.
The most interesting thing to come out of it was a highly quotable rant from Christian Bale on set that found its way onto YouTube.