REVIEW: Terminator Salvation [2009]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 115 minutes | Release Date: May 21st, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): McG
Writer(s): John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris / James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd (characters)

“So that’s what death tastes like”

I have never seen a McG film before. I avoided the Charlie’s Angels movies and thought We Are Marshall looked pretty mediocre—besides being a based on true events sports flick; not my genre of choice. But here we have him helming the newest entry to one of the best science fiction series in cinema. How would someone that people oftentimes compare to a “hack” like Brett Ratner do with a big scale production containing an existing mythology and fan base calling for greatness? We all know the weak job Ratner did on X-Men 3 with similar expectations.

Terminator Salvation is a bit different, though, being that it’s somewhat of a reboot—the first of a brand new planned trilogy—that has room to breathe on its own. You don’t need to be aware of the television show “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” nor be familiar with too much of the original trilogy either. Salvation amps up the action, brings in some pretty good talent to perform, and gets the aesthetic of post-Judgment Day perfect. Unfortunately, for all that it succeeds in accomplishing, there’s one glaring problem—the story’s very thin. With action scenes and explosions filling the screen at a rapid pace, story is pushed to the background so the film can prove an opening to a larger tale. When put alongside the future installments, (Can this thing tank to the point where money won’t be there for more?), it may all work perfectly. Watching as a film on its own thus far only shows a fantastic surface with weak interior heart.

I use the “heart” simile because of how important that muscle is for character Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). The film opens with his lethal injection in 2003, allowing us to see him sign away his body to a very creepy, cancer-ridden Helena Bonham Carter. The blatant, ham-fisted script pushes its agenda of second chances right from the start and never stops. Nor does it let up on the fact that Marcus’ heart is very strong with a pulse that comforts Moon Bloodgood’s Blair Williams as she rests her head against his chest in 2018. Wait … 2018? I thought he died in prison fifteen years earlier? Well, what would a Terminator movie be without a Terminator? Salvation uses the character of Marcus Wright much to the same effect that “Battlestar Galactica” used the skin-job cylons: a combination of machine and biology, one who’s consciousness stills holds the humanity necessary to make choices in his actions. Because, of course, the true sign of what sets a human apart from machine is its heart.

Besides Wright’s awakening, the film concerns the evolution of John Connor (Christian Bale) and his place in the Resistance. We learned through the first three films that he’d be our race’s savior, the one man able to unite all survivors to take down Skynet’s machines once and for all. However, in 2018, Connor is not yet the Jesus-like visage we think. A rogue voice commanding the masses, people listen to him because of the rumors and speculation they’ve heard. Connor isn’t even a general—that rank belongs to classic sci-fi action actor Michael Ironside. He isn’t universally loved either. Many believe him a false prophet and not worthy of the time or effort despite the eventual discovery of things spoken about years before. One major plus of Salvation, is that his teacher and mother Sarah Connor didn’t know everything as the future seems to have changed. A creature such as Marcus was never fathomed before. The fact that time travel has been occurring for the past three decades in attempts to alternately eradicate John and save him means the timeline has been altered. Somewhere along the line the machines discovered their failures and advanced their AI to create an ultimate infiltrator—half man/half machine. However, this weapon is awakened before it’s ready. It’s an outcome caused by Connor’s involvement with a mission to a Skynet laboratory that ends with the destruction of everything in sight besides Connor and Wright, setting up their collision course.

Wright goes on a journey to find the one person who might be able to explain why he’s alive: Bonham Carter’s Dr. Serena Kogan. On his way he meets the LA division of the Resistance in Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese. Yelchin is great in the role, even making facial expressions that recall memories of Michael Biehn in the original film. With this and Star Trek, the kid is finally making it into the big time after a very successful early career. John Connor is also on the lookout for Reese, searching while hatching a plan to utilize a sound frequency that will shutdown the machines. Once Reese is captured, both Wright and Connor try to find a way to recover him. When they cross paths, it is up to their trust in one another to decide whether they are on the same side or mortal enemies. The salvation of the title regards both of these men: one a murderer given a second chance at life and the ability to do good; the other lost and adrift, finally living the life he knew he would as a child, but needing to think outside the box and remember his future self sent a robot to the past to protect him. His future self learns to trust the machines and make them work for him. That mentality must begin somewhere.

As exposition, Terminator Salvation is a success. It refreshes our memories on the relationship between characters, re-familiarizing viewers with the age gaps and ramifications time travel has done to them through the previous stories. There’s a nice progression for Marcus Wright as we see him for what he was and who he becomes. Worthington, a virtual unknown Aussie on this side of the Pacific, but soon to hit it big after filming the lead in James Cameron’s new Avatar, sinks his teeth into the role. Here’s a Terminator that has a heart, emotions and feelings, and the ability to go against programming, even if he doesn’t know he’s programmed at all. It’s something seeing a soul behind the eyes of a face half composed of metal. Wright’s story is where the plot’s strengths end, though. For example: despite being introduced to Bryce Dallas Howard as Connor’s wife and Common and Bloodgood as two of his soldiers, we really learn nothing about them. Even Bale’s John Connor falls a bit flat.

Don’t get me wrong, Bale plays the part to perfection, (I could’ve done with less growl), and the character lives up to the one we’ve seen before. There just isn’t anything here to make us grow an attachment to him, to allow for the ending to resonate as much as the filmmakers hope. Worthington’s Wright is so complete a character, and even Yelchin’s Reese is three-dimensional, that Connor is left by the wayside. Bale is asked to perform as someone more legend than man, someone making the tough decisions in order to save the world. I just wish the story allowed us to discover who he is and what he is to become. Maybe we’re supposed to get that in the next film. For now we must be happy to see a glorious landscape of charred, bleak destruction inhabited by robotic vehicles of death wreaking havoc wherever they go. As an action flick it’s great, but besides Marcus Wright’s conflicted monster there isn’t much more.

[1] CHRISTIAN BALE stars as John Connor in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action/sci-fi feature “Terminator Salvation,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, also starring Sam Worthington. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] Marcus Wright (SAM WORTHINGTON) stands in front of what remains of the Hollywood sign post-Judgment Day in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action/sci-fi feature “Terminator Salvation,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, also starring Christian Bale. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] A T-800 Terminator in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ action/sci-fi feature “Terminator Salvation,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film stars Christian Bale and Sam Worthington. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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