Rarely has a franchise become so defined by just one movie in the series. The original Terminator is certainly well regarded as a cult film, and deservedly so. But it could never be said that it set the box office alight. Terminator 3 : Rise of the Machines was a very poor entry into the series, with only a bleak nihilistic ending to commend it. Therefore, the point the franchise combined quality with box office success will forever be marked by Cameron's awesome, high budget, genuinely ground-breaking Terminator 2. That movie alone ignited the franchise within the cinema audiences mind, and subsequently went on to be released numerous times on various home formats.
When Terminator : Salvation was announced I was deeply sceptical. However, as time went on I was more and more intrigued. Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, and Helena Bonham-Carter are all well-regarded actors and such talent could only whet the appetite. The only problem was, that the studio decided to entrust this promising ensemble with, errrrrr, McG. My expectations plummeted to the extent where this was the first film in the franchise I hadn't seen in the cinema. I had it earmarked as a day one purchase on Blu-ray however.
Oh boy. Where does one start? Well, there is a maxim that if you haven't got anything nice to say then you shouldn't say anything at all. Unfortunately, a blank review would not sit very well on these pages. So - here we go. Buckle up, and prepare - this isn't going to be pretty.
Terminator : Salvation does not attempt to “reboot” the franchise as is currently in vogue. It takes the sensible approach and tries to tell the story of the Resistance against the Machines - the events that occurred after the Judgment Day referred to in the second film. I say sensible, because Cameron had created a lot of back story to his original ideas which were mentioned briefly in the other films. However, the events of Judgement Day have never actually been shown on film, and the resistance fighters were only shown briefly in flashback in the previous films. It was definitely sensible, if another Terminator film was to be made, to explore this part of the mythos, but was it really necessary? Did we not know enough from what we are told in the original films? To me, the Terminator films have always been about the terminator himself with some focus on Sarah Connor and her battle to save her son. Telling the story of the resistance battle against the machines needs a human focus to ground it, and sadly the focus that the makers try to frame the story with (without giving away any of the story) simply is too shallow to really work.
Christian Bale plays John Connor as an adult, struggling to fulfil his prophesied destiny as the leader of the resistance. He is surrounded by scepticism, in a parallel to the situation his mother found herself in during the second movie. The resistance is struggling for direction, for co-ordination under General Ashdown, their leader (Michael Ironside). Some believe that Connor will be the future leader of the resistance; others believe he is a false prophet. Against this background of internal conflict comes Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convicted criminal who signs his body over to Cyberdine systems just before he is executed and wakes up in the post-Judgment Day ruined landscape. Also present in this world is Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), destined to go back in time and become John Connor's father. Reese has become Cyberdine System's new main target for destruction, meaning that if they succeed Connor will never be born.
The thing is, reading the above plot sounds like it could really work. The audience has been crying out to see the future world so often alluded to, and the roll call of talent on the acting side is promising. The trouble is that McG has made a big, dumb, pyrotechnic action thriller without any of the emotional framework that was provided by Cameron in his films. He tries to produce some interesting emotional background but he just seems unable to engender any interest in his characters.
It has to be said that the characterisation certainly isn't helped by the unbelievably wooden perfomances present in this film. Bale is quite simply awful in the role of John Connor. He never manages to nail the essential charisma of a man who would be a leader of men. His performance is wooden and rigid, never allowing any kind of humanity to show through. Although his screen time is more limited than you would imagine, he is always going to be the major character. He is the one we have always rooted for in the past, but Bale never manages to convey anything sympathetic in the character, anything to make us feel for him, to believe in him.
Worthington, who seems to be the hot new talent of the year after this and Avatar, is marginally better than Bale but is still little more than a chiselled jaw and load of muscle. He is the character who should provide us with the conflict in this film, with the essential dilemma of what it is to be human - and the script thinks that this is exactly what it is doing. But due to the appalling performance this aspect of the story never really sells itself.
Even below these top two, none of the other actors produce anything of note either, apart from the usual excellence from Ironside. He is never going to be the kind of actor to win awards, but he brings his usual gruff, no-nonsense approach to his role and is the only person to come out of the mess with any kind of credit.
It is only fair to assume that McG is not a director of actors, as we know that all this talent can produce much better performances than they do here. However, this is a big summer blockbuster - and the audience are likely to be expecting a lot of bang for their buck. The action is certainly present here, but it suffers from what I like to refer as Transformers 2 syndrome. I don't know if it is because I am getting old, but Terminator : Salvation seemed to be trying to pound me into submission with ridiculously over the top (and loud) action sequences. At times there seemed to be no time to pause for breath. The film just seemed to be as relentless as the T-800 in the original film. I am afraid that the end result was that there was so MUCH action that the action itself started to become boring. Yes, it takes some skill to present pyrotechnics on screen in such volume as to make spectacle boring. Bay managed it in Transformers 2 and McG manages it here. Two of possibly the worst summer blockbusters in living memory.
The UK Blu-ray release of the film contains both the theatrical version and the directors cut via seamless branching. The runtime difference is only three minutes, and the directors cut is not massively different. There is a scene of Moon Bloodgood topless, which is meant to have deep and meaningful ramifications for her relationship with Marcus, but merely comes across as gratuitous. There is also a fight scene which is extended and slightly more violent (and flows better than the theatrical version, where the cuts are very obvious), a short scene at the beginning with a terminator model that is in the trailer but doesn't appear in the Theatrical Version, and finally a few alternatively shot scenes. These differences are enough to get the film (bizarrely) an R rating in America - but it is still only a 12 over here.
To McG's credit the film does look stunning at all times. The post-apocalyptic landscape is well realised and beautifully shot with a crushed palette that really makes one feel that this landscape has been a nuclear casualty. But sadly the film itself can only be described as a disaster. The first half hour was actually pretty good but instead of pulling back and allowing the story to breathe, McG just piles on more and more action, more and more pyrotechnics, and more and more fights. The result is to bore the audience into submission and never once are the characters allowed to emerge from the carnage as people that we can actually care about. Just witness how Cameron does it in Terminator 2. Just brief scenes where Connor, for example, sees the children playing with guns and the dialogue which ensues. There is more humanity, more emotion in that brief scene than there is in the whole of this film.
And at the end of the day, that is exactly where McG fails. The Terminator films as realised by James Cameron were not really about the robot. They were about the human ability to self destruct whatever the circumstances. They were about the inevitability of fate, and the conflict between man and machine, and the humanisation of the latter. Yes, there was action - but this wasn't the main aim of the film. McG tries to shift the emphasis, but sadly fails on all counts. His action is so relentless, that it overcomes all other parts of the film, and eventually the audience. The humanity that was the core of the franchise has been stripped out by bad direction and bad acting. And that is what makes this film so bad, such a let down both as the start of a new trilogy and as a successor to the two classics (and one dud) which went before. Even Terminator 3 had some good points to it - there are no redeeming features here. One to avoid.
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