April 2024

Terminator: Salvation (2009)



Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood, Common, Michael Ironside, Jane Alexander, Helena Bonham Carter


Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in the ‘just when you thought it was over’ Terminator series, returns to the bleaker, grittier feel of the earlier installments, but like its immediate predecessor, lacks the depth of the first and second films despite working on the most epic canvas of any of them. McG’s Terminator is not an insult to James Cameron’s, but, like the third, neither is it an indispensable addition to the series.

Apart from a prologue in 2003 showing death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) about to receive a lethal injection, the film takes place in 2018, entirely within the post-apocalyptic future only glimpsed previously in the series. The war between Skynet-controlled machines and the scattered human resistance is raging. John Connor (Christian Bale), the prophesized savior of mankind, is not yet the undisputed leader of the resistance, but a local commander who makes radio broadcasts attempting to reach other survivors and butts heads with his superiors, led by General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), over tactics and priorities. Meanwhile, Marcus emerges into the devastated ruins of Los Angeles, where he falls in with a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), and later with resistance fighter Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood). Hearing John’s radio broadcasts, Reese resolves to find the significantly older man he doesn’t know is, bizarrely, his son, but when he, among others, are captured by machines and taken to Skynet headquarters, Marcus sets out to save them. This will lead to a confrontation between Marcus and Connor, battles against machines new and familiar, and a shocking revelation about Marcus.

We’ve so far had three versions of John Connor in the Terminator series. The bright but rebellious youth played by Edward Furlong, the haunted loner played by Nick Stahl, and the strong resistance commander often spoken of, played in a glimpse by Michael Edwards in Terminator 2 , and finally a major character here. Christian Bale matches up with what we’ve been led to expect about the resistance leader John Connor, imbuing John with a suitably intense and forceful presence, but he doesn’t get much to do.  Originally, the script centered even more on Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright, with Connor basically a cameo appearance.  Reportedly, Bale only agreed to sign on after his role was significantly bumped up, but it comes across as exactly what it is; John Connor being shoehorned into what is really Marcus’ story, leaving Bale with padded out screentime consisting mostly of sitting around headquarters until finally fully getting into the action in the climax.  Sam Worthington, an Australian actor in the first role likely to bring him to the attention of American audiences (he’s also the lead in the upcoming James Cameron sci-fi film Avatar, and replacing Harry Hamlin as hero Perseus in the Clash of the Titans remake), is a worthy co-star as essentially the movie’s real central character, although his accent wanders inconsistently back and forth between Australian and American (as usual, British Christian Bale maintains an unwavering American accent). Anton Yelchin, making his second appearance this summer in a popular sci-fi franchise as the younger version of an established character (after his young Chekov in Star Trek ), holds his own alongside his older co-stars, doing a pretty accurate imitation of Michael Biehn’s vocal inflections while bringing spunk and likability to his own Reese as a fledgling resistance fighter learning the tricks of survival. Aside from Bale, Worthington, and Yelchin, no one has much to do; Bryce Dallas Howard is little more than window dressing as John’s wife Kate, and veteran actress Jane Alexander is even more underused. Moon Bloodgood provides a little female toughness, although nowhere near what we got from Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. Helena Bonham Carter has a cameo in the prologue as a bald, cancer-ridden doctor who visits Marcus, and makes a reappearance toward the end as the face of Skynet. Common (as one of Connor’s subordinates) and Michael Ironside provide adequate support.

Of course, Terminator Salvation differs from the previous three installments in that all were set in the present day, while Salvation focuses on the future war only glimpsed so far, making Salvation more of an outright war movie, but McG doesn’t go far enough.  The human resistance seems awfully undisturbed, even boasting military bases and helicopters, compared to the glimpses of them living like rats in the ruins we saw in the first two installments.  There’s all kinds of other machines to deal with though, including eel-like swimming attackers, driverless motorcycles, flying ‘hunter killers’ (along with the Terminators, the only ones we’ve seen before), and massive ‘harvester’ ships that collect human prisoners. The movie throws in a few nods to its predecessors: John Connor utters the iconic Terminator line, ‘I’ll be back’ (although, while Christian Bale may be a far better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger, it just doesn’t have the same effect coming from him), Kyle Reese tells Marcus ‘come with me if you want to live’, Linda Hamilton’s voice is heard when John plays back her recordings (we also see the picture of her from the first film), and John blasts the Guns N’ Roses song ‘You Could Be Mine’, which his adolescent self played in Terminator 2, to lure a Terminator. The film even shows how John got the facial scars we see in the glimpse of his older self in the second movie. Of course, the biggest nod to the past is the appearance (sort of) by Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was achieved by digitally mapping Schwarzenegger’s face from the 1984 Terminator onto a body provided by fellow Austrian bodybuilder Roland Klickinger (who actually played a young Schwarzenegger in a made-for-TV biopic). The CGI rendering of Schwarzenegger is almost (not quite, but almost) indistinguishable from the real deal, and the filmmakers don’t push their luck; Schwarzenegger’s likeness is onscreen for a couple of minutes, with only two close shots, before his outer flesh is burned off and we get the extended mano-a-mano between the Terminator and John, and the Terminator and Marcus (which, by the way, echoes the climactic fight in Terminator 2, taking place inside an industrial factory and including molten steel and robots getting frozen stiff). In my review of Terminator 3 , I wrote that there can be no Terminator without Arnold Schwarzenegger. Terminator Salvation partially proves that statement wrong, but the appearance, however brief, of Schwarzenegger’s likeness is the high point of the movie, and the climactic fight between the humans and a singular Terminator makes the climax more energetic and better-focused than the somewhat rambling preceding two-thirds, in which the humans wandered around encountering a myriad of different machines but without a singular adversary.

Along the way, there are battles and car chases, and McG brings a suitably gritty feel to the bleak landscape. The standout action sequence besides the one-on-one fight with the Terminator involves Marcus and Reese’s clever way of attacking a massive harvester machine, and evolves into a car chase pitting them against Skynet-controlled motorcycles. The brisk pace doesn’t give us time for as much of the character development that was a strength of Terminator 2, but there’s an underlying theme about what truly makes us human. Another weakness of Salvation is that, of all the Terminator installments, it’s the one that can least stand on its own as a film. Familiarity with all three previous installments is necessary to understanding this one, and McG ends things in such a way that it feels like the middle section of an ongoing series. The denouement is a little rushed and abrupt, and ends the movie on a somewhat ho-hum note.

Taken as a piece with the other Terminator films, Terminator Salvation is an interesting chapter that does something different from what we’ve been used to and centers on a time period we’ve only glimpsed so far. It’s not as good as the first or second installment, but is arguably better than the third.