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Terminator Salvation Review

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by Casimir Harlow Dec 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Terminator Salvation Review
    Schwarzenegger was The Terminator, and it was somewhat fitting that he bookended his pre-political career in Hollywood with performances in this massively popular franchise. Sure the films may have had their ups and downs, with T2 marking the pinnacle in perfection of the formula, but T3 still marked a clever farewell for Schwarzenegger, the action hero actor. The films that he had been doing around the time were not proving very successful, he had never really managed to break through into a deeper form of acting than just standard action hero persona and the 80s action hero was dead and buried at the time when he was still trying to churn out the same old movies (sure, it has since undergone something of a revival thanks to Stallone's Rambo and upcoming ensemble actioner The Expendables). T3, in retrospect, was an unquestionably cunning move - helping us remember Arnie for what he did best, even if the film itself was not up to the impossibly high standards set by its predecessor, Judgment Day.
    T3 turned the tables a bit on the Terminator timeline. Annoyingly, this made many of the events in T2, frankly, pointless - as it effectively stated that Judgment Day is inevitable and there is NO way of stopping it (also making the closing coda of this movie slightly hollow). This was probably quite a silly move because, even if it had some grounding in theoretical science surrounding time travel (that history cannot be changed, it is - in the grand scheme of things - inevitable), it was not very respectful of Cameron's first two movies. Just like David Fincher's risky attempt to rework the Alien franchise in Alien 3 by killing everybody off, after Cameron's amazingly hopeful sequel, Terminator 3's disrespect of Judgment Day was a little out-of-line.
    Still, perhaps most importantly for the studios (who were probably a little worried that John and Sarah Connor really had stopped Judgment Day in T2, leaving them no grounds for making any more lucrative movies), it did open things up for a sequel trilogy set during the post-Judgment Day War. This devastating 10-year apocalyptic era in the Terminator timeline was as unexplored as the 3-Year Clone Wars were during George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy, and the tasty titbits that had been given to us through nightmare sequences in the three pre-existing Terminator movies had only whetted audiences' appetites in this respect. With T3 paving the way for the apocalypse, it was only inevitable that the Studios, employing their most efficient cash-cow milking technique, would back a new set of sequels set during the Man-Machine Terminator War.
    The year is 2018 and the world is suffering in the post-apocalyptic dystopia created by the machines in a bid to eradicate mankind. Skynet, the global network and machine 'mind' behind the nuclear holocaust, is still wiping out the remaining humans after its initial attack fifteen years earlier. But even with ever-developing Terminator technology it encounters increasingly strong opposition from the survivors, who have banded together to form an effective resistance movement. At the forefront of the fray is John Connor, would-be leader of the human resistance. Unfortunately, although he is allegedly destined to lead the humans to victory against the machines, his notoriety is something of a folk story amidst the ranks, and he is - at best - just another good soldier and - at worst - a curse to the group, what with his strange foretelling of the future.
    Added into the mix we have a death-row convict, Marcus Wainwright, who signed his body over to medical research some fifteen years earlier, and who suddenly finds himself awake in this nightmare of a world, alone wandering the wasteland. Happening across a young boy, Kyle Reese - who will one day be sent back in time to become the future father of John Connor - who is desperate to join forces with the resistance and meet the famous Connor, he reluctantly goes along for the ride. But will his mysterious background prove too dangerous for the cynical, sceptical Connor, who is already wary of a new kind of Terminator in development by Skynet, a harder and tougher T-800 than he encountered before. Will Wainwright prove himself friend or foe, and will Connor survive to become the leader that he is supposedly destined to be?


    Let me start by saying that Terminator: Salvation is far from a bad movie. It is actually one of the more successful summer blockbusters of the year, and I'm not talking about in Box Office returns (where it did so badly it led to the Terminator rights being auctioned), but in terms of reasonably good quality results that audiences will appreciate. What with Transformers 2 proving far too long and full of too many silly bits to be totally enjoyable on the big screen, and G.I. Joe just being appallingly stupid, Salvation managed to strike a decent enough balance between runtime, epic bombast and cohesive plot. In my opinion, it succeeded where the others failed in giving audiences enough from all of these elements. That said, this movie is also far from perfect, and neither respects nor lives up to the potential of its first two predecessors.
    A man named McG should have been entirely to blame. Given that T3 was somewhat poorly received, often regarded as the least respectful entry in the trilogy, I would have thought that the best bet for a new trilogy would be to place it in the hands of a sure-fire decent Director. Sam Raimi's Spiderman Trilogy may have gone off the rails with far too many villains in Spiderman 3, but at least the first two films worked pretty well. And Memento's Chris Nolan has set a new benchmark standard for rebooting franchises, what with his dark and amazing interpretation of Batman. Yes, it would have been a good idea to pick a decent Director for T3. The Director of Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle should never have made it to anybody's list of Directors to hire for this important trilogy and, when it was announced that he was on-board, fans around the world must have almost given up hope. After T3 they must have been yearning for a return to the gritty, dark nature of the first Terminator movie, or at least as perfected an action alternative as Cameron's superior sequel - and the post-apocalyptic setting hinted at in the 'flashforwards' opened up a world of possibilities in either of these respects. McG, however, has neither the eye for action-with-humanity that Cameron does, not the added dark thrills that Nolan could bring to the proceedings. He is an MTV music video-style Director, without even the style that Michael Bay has for bringing amazing CG effects to the screen. What hope was there?
    Well the hope lay in one man: Christian Bale. I can imagine the horrible conflict that fans must have been feeling inside, the dichotomy of wanting to have hope for this franchise because of Bale's involvement - playing the pivotal role of John Connor - versus the doomed feeling brought about by the knowledge that McG would inevitably bring his flashy, vapid style to the proceedings. Well, honestly, both men surprised me. McG 's eye for blockbuster Terminator action turned out to be ok. We're not talking Cameron, or Nolan, or Raimi, or even Bay, but McG gave much more to this movie than you would expect from the man behind Charlie's Angels. The opening few minutes of the 'action' part of the movie, which plays out like something out of a classic 'Nam War film, is a heraldic assault on the senses, following Connor as his team gets taken out trying to strike at Skynet. Honestly, after those first few minutes I thought I was in for a total man-machine war movie, putting us right in the thick of the battle. Whilst the result was pretty far from that, the opening gambit certainly proved that even McG occasionally has his good days.
    Bale, on the other hand, was supposed to be the saving hope in this production. Considering his involvement in the Batman franchise, perhaps it was not the greatest idea for him to sign up to play John Connor - the saving hope for mankind - in this trilogy, because it really does commit him to a role where the expectations were huge, but, honestly, whatever the situation, his performance was pretty average. I don't care about his on-set tantrums, he can be as precocious as he likes, just as long as he doesn't act like he's in a coma when he's being filmed, which is exactly what he did. Perhaps this is nothing unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster, but it is far from what we expect from this method man. After all, we're talking about the guy who slimmed down to a bag of bones for Rescue Dawn and The Machinist, the man who brought the 'dark' to the Dark Knight. It must be difficult taking on the third interpretation of the famous John Connor - future leader of the resistance - but Bale just seemed to be phoning in his performance, even slipping (sometimes very obviously) into his gruff Batman voice. Anybody could have put in this kind of performance as Connor, and it was a great shame that someone of Bale's calibre didn't bring something new and unique to the mix - as he has often done in the past. It may have been disappointing that Connor didn't get as much screen-time as many fans were expecting but, honestly, he was still clearly intended to be the star of the show, and yet he was so obviously not the star of the show.
    Oddly, those honours fell upon the man who played Marcus Wainwright, newcomer Sam Worthington. Kind of like a dumbed-down Russell Crowe, he's the actor I would have picked to play Duke in G.I. Joe instead of that muppet Channing Tatum. (If Paul 'Fast and the Furious' Walker is a poor man's Keanu Reeves, Channing Tatum is a poor man's Sam Worthington) I can see how Worthington is going to go on to do a whole bevy of CG-driven blockbusters (given his recent stint on Cameron's Avatar), and potentially become a veritable Doug McClure for the new generation, especially what with 2010's Clash of the Titans, but it will take something more than his performances in blockbusters to show him as having any kind of serious acting skills.
    Interestingly, both he and Bale were required to play two very similar roles, in almost opposite ways - Bale's embittered warrior, growing more cynical and tortured as every day passes, counterpointing Worthington's tortured soul: Marcus Wainwright, a murderer who has been set free and given a 'second chance', and is thus embracing his newfound lease of life with a gusto. With Bale on top form, and perhaps a slightly better actor in Worthington's role, this could have afforded us some quality character development. Still, with Bale in a coma for the duration, even the fairly clunky antics of Worthington managed to take centre-stage in this affair.
    Plot-wise, they really did not need much to do a decent war-themed movie set during the man-machine conflict. But in trying to give viewers something more interesting to absorb (and probably in trying to pad-out the war so that it could last the three planned films) the writers actually landed squarely in the realms of convoluted. There were numerous irritating moments. Why not just kill Reese at the start? And why is Connor worried about Reese? After all, he must have had a father before he sent Reese back in time in the first movie, which means that his father was not always Reese. The complicated, convoluted plot, and stilted script was evidence that numerous writers had been involved in creating this beast. To make matters worse, somewhere in amidst internet rumours and leaked plot-lines, much of the story had to be rewritten. Considering the many reviews of the film that have already been posted (what with the theatrical release and recent UK Blu-ray release), and the fact that many have already seen the movie, I have decided to mention a few potential spoilers. If you haven't seen the movie, skip the following italicised paragraph.
    Basically, they had it in mind to turn Wainwright into Connor at the end of the movie, effectively making the famed resistance leader, the future hope for mankind, a cyborg himself (albeit with Connor's face). Whilst the ending they finally went with probably sits better - as the alternative would have been a left-field attempt to twist the previously-known Terminator history - the knowledge that things could have been very different certainly puts an interesting spin on things. You see, potentially, it may have left Bale's performance open up to augmentation in the later films: the actor himself could have almost been excused for his monotone performance had he changed things up a gear as the 'new' Connor in the sequels. It could have also made for some much more thrilling action sequences, and given fans some of the classic Terminator versus Terminator action that has proven difficult to work into these sequels. Still, instead they crowbarred-in a more straightforward, but also more rushed, alternative.
    Beyond Connor and Wainwright, the other characters (and actors) tend to get relegated to the sidelines, popping up as one-dimensional, clichéd entities to round off the proceedings. Anton Yelchin (Chekov in the Star Trek reboot) gets to offer up a couple of nods to Michael Biehn's classic character as a young Kyle Reese, and new chica on the block Moon Bloodgood (yes, that's really her name) makes for a decent enough heroine, but she's still no Sarah Connor. Scanner's Michael Ironside also appears to come out of his cameo unscathed, despite the wafer-thin script, but basically all the others amount to a strange collection of famous faces in totally worthless and utterly forgettable roles. Helena Bonham Carter gets the strangest, shortest cameo in her film history, M. Night S's muse, Bryce Dallas Howard, so promising in The Village, makes for an abysmal Kate Connor (and that's even after Claire Danes' annoying portrayal of the character in T3), and Common breathes new life into that long-gone and best forgotten 'token' foray into ethnic diversity that was once a terrible staple in movies. In fact, if you add Bale's lacklustre input into this mix, you get one of the longest lists of wasted talent in film history. Still, whilst the movie would have been something special had any or all of the aforementioned actors been given characters to act with (think of all the recognisable players who all put in superb supporting performances in the new Batman movies), it probably would have been enough to make a very good movie just to have two strong leads and some decent action.
    Now in terms of action, as I've already stated, McG has his moments. And the early battle sequence and helicopter crash marks one of them (ironically, the later helicopter crash sequence is also one of the better scenes, so perhaps McG should make a movie about helicopter pilots). Unfortunately, the rest of the movie really does not live up to this, and has a mish-mash of effects-laden scenes that range from silly-but-fun to just plain silly. Some of the setpieces are quite enjoyable, and the extended final confrontation is pretty enjoyable, but McG's crass attempt to give us some Transformers-style action, with a building-sized Terminator robot, was just plain stupid and did damage to what should have been the most potent of the extended action sequences. The action scenes also suffered often because the characters themselves had not been developed enough, and there was simply too much reliance on jaw-dropping effects to get the job done. So, unfortunately, rather than two strong leads and some decent action we ended up with a couple of average lead performances (in a sea of forgettable supporting ones) and some hit-and-miss action which, while it makes for better-than-average entertainment, is simply not good enough for this popular franchise.
    Maybe the next post-Judgment Day Terminator instalment will be the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, and the final chunk will resonate with Saving Private Ryan grandeur, but the way things are going it looks more likely this will be just another enjoyable but forgettable bunch of franchise sequels. Fans will mourn it as being almost as much of a missed opportunity as Lucas' Star Wars prequels, newcomers will wonder why people are complaining so much about something that is clearly more flashy and modern than the old, 'dated' Terminator movies, and those who don't ask for too much will probably be rewarded by a couple of hours' of decent blockbuster entertainment every two to three years. Honestly, things could have been a whole lot worse, but they also had the potential to be a whole lot better. Otherwise this 200 Million Dollar blockbuster wouldn't have bankrupted its backers. Think Bond, think Bourne, think Batman. Terminator: Salvation just adds baby steps to a franchise that started off with two movies' worth of Olympian strides. Enjoyable fun, but largely forgettable.
    Directors' Cut
    A quick word about the Director's Cut. Rather than the significantly longer, vastly improved version that many might have been unrealistically looking forward to (anticipation that was not aided by McG's own statements about how it was going to be 'significantly longer') this 'Director's Cut' is actually just 3 minutes' longer and merely affords us a flash of Moon Bloodgood's... um... goods, and some extra violence. This includes a couple of added nods to the previous Terminator movies, with Worthington's Wainwright doing what all good Terminators do by not only impaling somebody during a fight - this time using a screwdriver - but also by getting pounded into a pillar a lot more at the end. Those with a keen eye will also note a new shot with a Terminator attacking Connor's team from underwater during the opening sequence, as well as Michael Ironside's General cracking out his Desert Eagle to threaten Connor on the sub'. None of these fairly minor edits are enough to make this a significantly better movie, but they are certainly more than enough to make this definitively the better of the two cuts on offer in this set.