WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009 when the movie was released.
Remember how a while back the number three proved to be an unlucky number for sequels? There was “Shrek The Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and, most infamously, “Spider-Man 3” all turning out to be tremendous disappointments. Those sequels left a sour taste in my mouth which still won’t go away (“Spider-Man 3” still eats away at me furiously).
In the summer of 2009, it looked like the fourth movie in a franchise was having the worst luck of all. We got “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the fourth X-Men film, landing with a resounding thud. Now, we have “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth in the Terminator series and the first without Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is a franchise which surprisingly found enough energy and excitement for a third movie (I don’t care what anyone says, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was good), but now it has run out of gas. This sequel brings nothing new to the story of John Connor and his fight against Skynet, and I came out of it feeling unfulfilled which has never been the case with any “Terminator” movie before.
This is the first “Terminator” movie to get a PG-13 rating instead of an R, but this is no excuse. “Live Free or Die Hard” was the first in its series to get a PG-13 and proved to be even more exciting than anyone expected. The ratings for movies like these are pretty much irrelevant these days anyway, so why wonder if “Terminator Salvation” would have been better if it had been rated R?
In a time of endless sequels and prequels, “Terminator Salvation” is actually both. It starts off some time after the third movie and takes place in the year 2018, but it also comes before the events which set off James Cameron’s original. John Connor (“The Dark Knight’s” Christian Bale) has now fully accepted his role as the leader in the resistance against the machines, and he is no longer the whiny little bitch he was previously. I know this aspect really drove fans crazy in part three, so they will be relieved if and when they ever get around to seeing this movie.
It soon comes to John’s attention that Skynet is kidnapping humans, and one of them turns out to be Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), his father who must later travel back in time to get all hot and heavy with Sarah Connor or else he will not exist. Also, John meets a man named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is not all he appears to be. Soon all these characters will come together to fight against the evil which is Skynet.
One of my big problems with “Terminator Salvation” is it does not have much of a plot. It feels like it exists more for the explosions being set off every other minute more than anything else. The “Terminator” movies were never just about action and special effects, but of great stories and memorable characters which gave these particular films a lot heart and soul which the genre does not always allow for. This fourth “Terminator” movie, however, does not have much of a pulse, and all the loud explosions become tiring after a while. You don’t feel for the characters in the way you should, and some of them get short shrift and are simply there to maintain some sort of continuity in the franchise’s timeline. Lord knows with movies like this and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” timelines are getting a hell of a workout!
Bale is the third actor, or fourth if you count the guy in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s” prologue) to play John Connor. While he remains one of the best actors working in movies today, his performance as this titular character is shockingly one-note. Part of the problem lies with the screenplay as it does not endow John with the humanity which makes him the great leader we are told he is. Bale plays him as stripped of all feeling, and much of his screen time is spent yelling and screaming at others. Watching him portray this iconic character as a real sour puss made me wonder why John Connor bothered fighting the machines in the first place.
But other actors in the movie end up getting even shorter shrift thanks to the underwritten screenplay. One of the chief victims is Bryce Dallas Howard who portrays Kathryn Brewster, a character previously portrayed by Claire Danes in “Terminator 3.” Howard is more or less reduced to walking around pregnant, working on patients and showing a constant face of worry whenever John goes off into battle. This is a character who should have been utilized more and could have provided this movie with its strongest female protagonist. Howard is a wonderful actress, but she is wasted in a movie which fails to make better use of her talents.
Another character who is ultimately given little to do is Blair Williams, a fighter pilot in the resistance played by Moon Bloodgood. She gets a memorable introduction, figures in some of the most exciting action scenes, and there is no denying she is infinitely sexy. But in the end, Blair basically exists for the sake of the other characters here, and realizing this makes things all the more frustrating.
Helena Bonham Carter’s character of Dr. Serena Kogan could have been a great villain, but she appears only at the very beginning and end of “Terminator Salvation.” A great actress in her own right, she is also wasted in a practically non-existent role. The machines by themselves do not make much of an antagonist here, and they need that one face which can hold them all at attention. Carter’s character could have been this, but it proves not to be the case.
The script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris also contains a serious plot hole when compared to the other “Terminator” movies. At one point, the resistance discovers Skynet has a list of targets which includes John Connor and Kyle Reese. But the thing is Skynet could not have been aware of Kyle’s existence at this point in the series. If they were that aware of his existence, he would have never been able to go back in time to rescue Sarah Connor. The Terminator would have spotted Reese before he could have spotted the Terminator if this were the case. I know we are busy reinventing timelines right now, but this plot hole is completely inexcusable.
Even though John Connor appears to be main character, “Terminator Salvation” really belongs to Sam Worthington who plays Marcus Wright. Of everyone here, his character is the most fully realized as we follow Marcus on a road to redemption which takes him to a desolate future he could never have imagined. Worthington delves deeply into his character’s complex nature. Marcus Wright is not exactly a good guy, but he is not a bad guy either, and Worthington plays him as a character caught up in circumstances not of his own making. Without Worthington’s performance, “Terminator Salvation” could have been a lot worse.
One really good performance to be found here is from Anton Yelchin who plays a young Kyle Reese. Yelchin succeeds in giving Reese an energetic feel whic is almost completely different from what we have seen before with this character. Basically, we are seeing Kyle Reese in an unrefined state before he becomes the man who travels back in time to be John Connor’s daddy.
As for Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger, he is and is not in “Terminator Salvation.” With the help of CGI magic, his face was digitally placed on another actor’s buff body, and it makes it look like he never left the franchise. The audience I saw the movie with at Grauman’s Chinese applauded his appearance loudly, and it gave us all an ecstatic sense of joy to see him onscreen. However, it also proves my theory of how you can make a “Terminator” movie without James Cameron, but you cannot make one without Schwarzenegger.
And yet the most ironic thing about Schwarzenegger’s appearance is how it illustrates the movie’s biggest problem; It is missing a strong and intense sense of menace the other “Terminator” films benefited from. Realizing this makes “Terminator Salvation” an especially depressing experience as it is unable to replicate the success of its predecessors.
In all fairness, McG, best known for directing the “Charlie’s Angels” movies, does a good job with the action scenes, and the movie is never truly boring. He makes the action look like it was all done in one shot, and his handling of it is terrific. What he needs to keep in mind is how the characters need to be the ones driving the action and not the other way around. If you do not have strong characters to relate to, the special effects will not mean very much.
“Terminator Salvation” feels like it exists more for the special effects than for the story and its characters, and it makes this long running franchise feel like it has hit a dead end. Maybe it should have stopped after the third one. Considering the talent involved, I cannot help but feel like this could have been so much better. I came out of it feeling empty as if I had just seen something which went in and out of my system like a McDonald’s Happy Meal. This could have been a fresh reinvention of the franchise which thrives on imagination, but there is nothing new brought here. The Terminator will be back whether we like it or not, but will Hollywood’s thirst for franchises allow them the insight to give us a more effective follow-up? Well, here’s hoping.
* * out of * * * *
NOTE: “Terminator Salvation” was dedicated to Stan Winston, the special effects wizard who was an amazing creative force in movies like these. He will be missed.