There are a few odds and ends I should get out of the way before I begin this review. First off you should know that the version of the film I am reviewing is the directors cut release. I did not see the original theatrical cut, and thus cannot really say a whole lot about the differences here and whatnot, so please forgive me in that regards. Also, after watching this I, as per my usual pre-review routine, read around to see what the general critical consensus was on this movie, and found that it was mostly very negative. I suppose it has a lot to do with expectations going in and the fact that it was a different cut of the movie that most of those people saw, but in any event, I am going to most emphatically break from the norm here and proclaim that Terminator Salvation on many numerous occasions brought great joy into the cockles of my heart. I wouldn’t say it is an all time classic or anything of the sort, but as an enjoyable piece of entertainment, it gets high marks from me.
First a little background info on the baggage I drug into this movie. I grew up on 80s and 90s action flicks, and other various pieces of popcorn cinema, and for me, there were very few more re-watchable movies than the first two entries in the Terminator franchise. Terminator 2 especially is probably among the short list of movies that I’ve seen more then ten times in my life, at least. I consider that movie to be the absolute pinnacle of achievement in terms of a blockbuster action movie that is appreciable on many more levels than the standard popcorn fare. I was even marginally entertained by Terminator 3 a few years back, but considered it to be far below the level of film of its two predecessors. It did however, advance the storyline created in the first two movies of the impending apocalypse brought on by the menace of machines that become self aware and decide that us pesky old humans have had our day, so to speak.
It is that backdrop that has colored the imaginations of movie watchers and driven the plotline of the series for over twenty years now since the release of the first movie way back in the year 1985. And now finally, the story of the war between man and machine is finally being put down on celluloid. This movie doesn’t show you exactly how it all went down, but it shows the war just a few years removed from its genesis. It begins with the story of a convicted and condemned man named Marcus, played here with great conflicted bad ass charisma by Sam Worthington, who makes a last minute deal to be a part of some unexplained program being carried out by Cyberdyne Systems during the final moments leading up to the machine driven, Judgment Day. Flash forward a few years later and we see this same Marcus wandering around the deserted shell of what used to be Los Angeles wondering just what in the hell kind of fate has befallen the world he once knew. Along the way he meets up with a young Kyle Reese, played here by Anton Yelchin, taking over the role made famous by Michael Biehn in the first movie, and the drop dead gorgeous resistance soldier Blair Williams played here by the vivacious Moon Bloodgood, who may in fact be the best looking Asian woman in the history of Asian women. And finally, of course, we have Christian Bale taking over the legendary role of John Connor, the prophesied leader of the resistance and the last best hope for all humanity against the Skynet machines.
Those are the main players in this story, and along the way they all have some bodacious battles against several awe inspiring pieces of CGI craftsmanship. The actor who plays Reese here was very well selected I thought, and his role is of course a pivotal one in this movie, as he is in a way, the MacGuffin of this movie (that being a person or object purely meant to drive the story forward), along with the secondary plotline of the Skynet signal that the resistance is just beginning to learn how to trace for their own usage. This movie moves along at quite the brisk pace, stopping only a small handful of times for a few scenes focusing on the internal processes of each major character, among which scenes we hear the voice of Linda Hamilton in pre-recorded tapes listened to with religious intent by her son John. All in all though, I didn’t find the film to be that unevenly paced for the most part, or too short or too long, and was summarily entertained by the action throughout. I was also entertained, although I could see some people perhaps being annoyed, by the constant insider winks and nods to the first two Terminator films. It is literally every other few minutes or so in this film that something happens that will make anyone even remotely familiar with the first two films either grin with delight or sigh in exasperation. Everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s CGI likeness (which was recreated quite masterfully here) to the “I’ll be back” catchphrase, to the motorcycle chase from T2, right down to the classic Guns N’ Roses soundtrack is played up at various points. I happened to smile at most of it, but, again, I could see how some could see it distracting a bit from the overall story.
I was also less than awed in general by this film’s depiction of the future wasteland of post apocalyptic Earth. That meaning, I’ve seen this scenario played out with much more captivating results than what I got here in other films. During the few brief glimpses we see of this future world in the first two films, the portrait is always a dark one, shot at night, of the slow and lumbering, but still very menacing Hunter Killer Terminators creeping along with their plasma guns, occasionally stepping on and crushing the occasional skull as they persist on their merry way. Here we get to see this world in its entirety and in full daylight, and maybe this is an unfair critique, but it just doesn’t really seem that much more interesting than any of the Mad Max movies were, and that’s even with all the extra special effects added in, and the great storyline laid out in the previous classic movies.
Don’t get me wrong, it all looked very satisfying and convincing on screen, but there just seemed to be something a bit off about the overall aura of the flick somewhere. The bottom line was though, is that I just never really got to a point where I felt I was made to sufficiently care for the overall fate of this world and its populace at large, which is mainly depicted in this movie as extras in concentration camps and/or depraved psychopaths. There were a few efforts to make some notable background characters, but all in all, this was an area I thought could’ve used a bit more retooling. I could have also used a little less Marcus, and a little more John Connor overall in this movie. Although I thought Marcus provided a more than adequate co-lead here, the story of any future Terminator movie needs to focus way more on Connor, as have had all previous movies up until this point.
I’m trying my best to avoid spoilers here, but I have a few more things to critique here that would of necessity spoil certain things, so if you haven’t seen the film you may want to cease reading here. I was quite underwhelmed by a certain scene in this movie, where the character of Marcus, who is later revealed to be a cyborg created by Skynet for a select mission, is given a debriefing/talking down to by the supposed voice of Skynet, who of course, can take on numerous faces and shapes but is projected primarily in the form of an authoritative female on a giant glass screen at Skynet’s main headquarters. What bugged me primarily about this whole thing was that it just seemed blatantly ripped out of the Matrix Trilogy, and seemed entirely out of place within the Terminator Universe. Up until now the Skynet machines have never felt the need to explain themselves to anybody or anything. They just performed their missions with the cold calculatory precision you would expect from good self aware computers. This kind of thing is in my opinion very unneeded in the Terminator franchise. The Terminator movies have created their own highly successful universe and aesthetic parameters over the years, so this bit of borrowing from another well known movie franchise came off as rather low rent to me. It was also slightly reminiscent of the obligatory scene in any James Bond movie where the villain takes time to unfold his entire plot for Bond’s convenience…
There was also the matter of the ending, of which I felt the safe route was taken unnecessarily here. I read in the beginning the idea was for John Connor to have died and then for the Marcus character to live on and be modified to resemble Connor’s voice and likeness, and then he would be the one to later send Kyle Reese back in time to 1985. This would mess around a little with the canon of the previous films, but, in my opinion, would have been the braver, and more artistically satisfying outcome, rather than the one we got, with the Marcus character sacrificing himself so that Connor could live on. I will say that for what it’s worth that the writers and the director did put together that whole storyline in a way where it did kind of make sense in the end. Anytime you’re dealing the intangible of time travel, even when it’s not the main focus of the movie you open yourself up to a million different little what if questions such as, “was Kyle Reese always predestined to be the father of John Connor or was there perhaps an original scenario where there was a different father but then Reese stepped into the role and altered that part of the equation through an act of his own free will?”… One could speculate for ages, but in the end, that is a matter for the fanboys to argue about.
My final judgment on this film is that overall it was a fun and engaging romp through a future world wrought with chaos and destruction. It sort of half worked on the level of a dark and symbolically potent action thriller, that it obviously wanted to come across as, although mostly, it just came off as another big budget special effects bonanza with the occasional bit of introspective brooding thrown in for good measure, which, while far less memorable in the long run, is still a more than acceptable choice in my opinion. Christian Bale was quite satisfactory in the role of John Connor, and there were several different scenes that I found quite captivating, especially the final battle with the T800, which was engineered so well, you’ll swear they brought back the Arnold from 1985 to reprise his role here. All of the various Terminator machines here were also pretty cool looking and effectively used, and I really dug the part of the movie where we got to see the new models being constructed on the assembly line, in the midst of the T800’s battle with Connor at Skynet HQ.
As a piece of film making, I cannot say that Terminator Salvation is an achievement on anywhere near the same level of either of the first two Terminator films which were both five star classics in my estimation, but I would say it is rather safely a higher quality level of film than the third installment of the franchise. It is supposedly the first of a new Trilogy of Terminator movies, if the producers can somehow work around their present legal and financial troubles anyway, and I for one am more than ready to see this story continued. With a few small tweaks, I think there is still the possibility of a great movie being made in this storyline universe of the post-apocalyptic war with man and machines, with the occasional time traveling hi-jinks thrown in, and this movie, I think, just missed accomplishing that by a hair or so. So with that, I will now conclude my review, and say thank you all for reading and I’ll see you again, in the very near future.