Terminator Salvation
Still more lifelike than Cameron Bright.

Golden Mug

Sound (Douglas Murray, William Files, Robert Shoup and Luke Dunn-Dielmuda)

Visual Effects (Chantal Feghali, Charles Gibson, Susan Greenhow and Ben Snow)

Theatrical Release Date: 05/21/2009
Director: McG
Cast: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Jadagrace, Jane Alexander, Michael Ironside

Dum Dum, Dum-Dum-Dum. Dum Dum, Dum-Dum-Dum. That familiar sequence of notes can only mean one thing and that’s another Terminator film. After the lackluster “T3″, few were quick to clamor for a sequel and the rebirth of the franchise only makes the recent cancellation of the TV series that much more confusing (although different entities own the properties, this film should only have boosted its ratings).

Instead of continuing on in the present, as the first three films had done, “Terminator Salvation” takes place in the future, 2018 to be exact. At that time, prophesied leader of the revolution against Skynet and its machines, John Connor (Christian Bale), is in a position of command within the resistance. While there are technically a few bigwigs ahead of him, he’s the heart and soul of the whole enchilada.

The basic plot here is that the resistance may have discovered a way to turn off the machines in one fell swoop but Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) has been captured and Connor must rescue him before the attack. Fans of the franchise realize who Reese is and why it’s important for him to be spared. If you have never seen any of the films … well … why not? In any case, this latest installment does tell you the rationale behind it but it does so with very little significance.

In fact, watching this film, you either know the mythology behind the rise of the machines or you’ll spend the entire film wondering what makes everything so dramatic. That’s the first of many missteps the script makes – assuming that the audience will know the history of the films. Sure, the last sequel was only five years ago but that gap, coupled with this being virtually an entirely new branch to the franchise, makes the featured inclusion of more detail necessary.

McG has stated in interviews that this is a brand new start for the franchise, but that he and his collaborators are “respecting the mythology of the original films”. Wait, what? So, you’re basically saying that some things will work within the continuity that’s been built over the last 25 years … and the stuff that doesn’t is meant to be different? Congratulations on building the biggest excuse clause you could and making it hard for die-hard fans to fully embrace this and for newcomers to understand just what the hell is going on in the film.

The next problem that the screenwriters have (and there were a good number of hands this script passed through) is that the original script called for a different focus to the film. The character of Marcus Wright (played well by Aussie Sam Worthington) was intended for Christian Bale and as such, the main story. When Bale chose to play Connor, it called for a retooling that the script never recovered from.

While Worthington was able to largely enjoy a character arc and development, Bale basically softened his Batman voice and barked/glared throughout the film. He’s a fantastic actor and I can see him in the role, but another few passes at the script would have helped to flesh out the role and allow for people who didn’t know the character to fill in the emotional components that were missing in the film.

It seemed quite obvious to note where the script started and where the rewrites took place. An example would be the series of radio broadcasts that Connor makes to the resistance. These feel like something that would have tied in his character to the film in the original drafts, allowing the audience to realize that John Connor is around and doing what he can to fight the machines. With the character now being brought to the forefront of the story, we get scenes of Connor dramatically holding the mic to deliver these “pep talks” and because he always ends with “This is John Connor”, all that’s missing is him saying “And I approve this message”.

There are also some scenes that must have been cut from the film in order to keep the running time right at two hours (115 minutes). This is most evident when you’ve cast Jane Alexander as a potentially key figure spiritually for the young Kyle Reese or Bryce Dallas Howard as Connor’s love interest, only to see them on-screen with a small handful of lines and a fraction of the screen time worthy of bringing actresses of their stature and ability to the set.

Somewhere during the writing of the script, the issues of time travel that have been so key to the franchise also seemed to be forgotten. Roland Kickinger was cast as the famed T-800 made popular by the Governator. He was the body double while CGI took care of grafting Arnold’s face onto the head. As McG didn’t spend a lot of time using the skin of the robot (thanks to weapons and fire), the result was convincing and fun.

However, Connor doesn’t seem to recognize Arnold and early in the film, as they are learning of this new T-800 model (the subsequent ones have yet to be made by 2018 apparently), he still doesn’t seem to remember anything about this particular robot killing machine. I’m fairly certain that for 95% of “T2″, Arnold was helping Connor (Edward Furlong in that film) to stay alive.

How would you ever forget that face or that model of Terminator? And if the premise is that this franchise is so wholly divorced from the previous installments, don’t give the audience such knowing nods like “I’ll be back”, the Guns ‘N Roses song “You Will Be Mine” or a picture of Linda Hamilton. I appreciated these tips of the hat and it’s apparent the filmmakers have a reverence for the source material but casually dismissing Connor’s attachment to the T-800 is really confusing. And yes, I know all of this falls into McG’s escape clause but it’s damn annoying.

The last thing I’ll mention about the script is that test audiences gave it the final blow. There is an original ending to the film which I won’t mention. Those of you Internet-savvy folks can go find out what it was if you want to. Because the notion of the original ending rubbed those who saw the early prints the wrong way, we got a rewrite that falls somewhere between “The Invisible” and “One Life to Live”.

I’m too annoyed to get into this rant but filmmakers need to realize that they are responsible for creating a work of art that holds true to their vision. I can understand using test audiences to assess comedy, trying to make sure you haven’t gone too far over the line (though even that annoys me). However, when it comes to sci-fi, horror and drama, STICK TO YOUR GUNS. If you want to let the monster win, DO IT. If you want to have the Earth explode, DO IT. If you want the main character to die in the arms of their beloved, DO IT. Stop bowing down to the pressures of your weak-stomached investors and craft a piece of art worth both your time and ours.

Moving on …

Oddly enough, I’m not just going to bash this film’s head in. I enjoyed the perpetual nuclear haze maintained by the cinematography, the acting all-around is decent and the action is as well. In particular, there’s one sequence when Kyle Reese is being captured that involves some aerial combat between a few of the machines and some A-10 fighter jets that is truly exciting to watch. It would have been nice to see a few more humanoid robots but the inclusion of different robots such as eel-like swimmers, super fast motorcycles of death and very large Iron Giant-like monstrosities were fun to watch.

And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Will the movie be worth your time and money? In the end, I say yes. This is a big step up from “T3″ and while it doesn’t carry the same emotional weight of the first film or break new technological ground like “T2″ (though in speaking with a colleague, he’s right in saying that was mostly due to “The Abyss”), “Terminator Salvation” delivers what a big summer blockbuster should and as such I’ll give it a solid 3 out of 5.

The movie is still built primarily for those who have seen the previous films, as the weight of the story has to come from the audience since it’s not in the script. And had said script been able to develop John Connor and deal with the time travel issue better, I could definitely see moving it up a point but alas, it was not to be.

Hopefully, as this new series continues (the plan is to make two more films), a more capable director will be brought on and the screenwriters will be on the same page with the cast. They now stand at a crossroads, much like at the end of “The Matrix”. The next film will either devolve the entire project to the point of absurdity or turn this trilogy around. I guess time will tell … which is so very apropos.