At the screening for Terminator Salvation I overheard many conversations in the audience regarding how much various people disliked, even hated the film. The interesting thing was that these conversations all took place before the film had even started. The various reasons given were all based on rumors they had been reading about on the Internet, rumors that were debunked by the movie itself. The comments afterwards were generally “I’m glad they didn’t do X, but I still hated it.” I really wonder how fair a chance a film gets when one has already been conditioning oneself to dislike it weeks in advance? I had read some of the rumors myself (this is a reboot, John Connor dies at the end, John Connor turns out to be a Terminator), but really only went in hoping for a good movie as my only expectation. And, you know what? I enjoyed the hell out of Terminator Salvation.
First of all, this is not like the previous franchise installments. We don’t spend the whole movie watching John Connor and Co. frantically scramble to prevent Skynet from going online and bringing about Judgment Day. That ship has sailed, the machines have risen. Instead, after getting glimpses in the three previous films of Earth under Skynet’s rule we finally get to fully see that devastated future world. The story actually begins in 2003, presumably before Skynet brings on Armageddon as per the ending of Terminator: Rise of the Machines. Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is on death row and it is the last day of his life. Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) is a scientist for a Cyberdyne project called Project Angel who has convinced Wright to donate his body to her research. She herself is dying of cancer and it is hoped that Wright’s body will help her find the answers she is desperately looking for. After Wright is executed by lethal injection, the film jumps ahead fifteen years and we literally land right in the middle of a Resistance raid on a Skynet facility, where it is discovered that the machines are experimenting on humans. Among the Resistance soldiers is an adult John Connor (Christian Bale), not yet the leader he is destined to become. Things go horrible awry resulting in the destruction of the facility and the deaths of everyone except for Connor. Once Connor leaves, a lone survivor emerges from the rubble of the base – A very much alive Marcus Wright. From there, the stories of both Marcus Wright and John Connor become the focus of the film and both paths cross that of a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). Wright literally encounters Reese in devastated downtown LA, while Connor discovers Skynet is on the hunt for Reese, his once and future father. Eventually Wright and Connor come into conflict and, later, an understanding with one another that results in each saving the others’ life.
Sam Worthington and Christian Bale both give performances that constantly vie to dominate this film and that is a good thing as it really elevates everyone’s work. Even the ever reliable Michael Ironside rises above what you usually expect from him. In his second big franchise film in less than a month, Anton Yelchin proves that he isn’t just silly comic relief and that the kid can act. He does a great job projecting Kyle Reese’s strengths and his complete idolization of John Connor is bittersweet, knowing his ultimate fate. I enjoyed Moon Bloodgood in Journeyman (I still miss that show) and it’s terrific seeing her here. Common was horribly underused in the atrocious Wanted, so I’m glad to see him in the much better role of Barnes, John Connor’s right-hand man. Helena Bonham Carter has a very small role that turns out to be far more pivotal than expected and she seems to relish the job, especially the part towards the end. I was surprised to see the character of Kate Brewster from the previous film and even more so to see her played by Bryce Dallas Howard, whom I didn’t see as an action film actress. However, playing a soon-to-be mother and a doctor suits her acting strengths and she does a fine job.
McG does some wonderful visual acrobatics over the course of this film. There is a sequence near the beginning involving John Connor and a helicopter that is insanely ambitious and works beautifully. One thing that particularly struck me was how much the combat scenes looked like they would not have been out of place in Band of Brothers. There was that same gritty urgency and camera work that made you feel like you were really there that was present in the HBO mini-series. A nice treat for long-time fans is not only the dearth of new machines (the aqua Terminators still freak me out), but we also get to see the genesis of the T-800 models, the Terminators with human skin, tissue and blood over the metal endoskeleton. Marcus Wright is a key bridge to this process, as is strongly hinted at in the trailer. I knew, thanks to spoilers, what Wright’s big revelation would be, but I don’t think it was ever meant to be some huge twist for the audience. Instead, it’s a much more poignant revelation for the characters in the film and a particularly gut-wrenching moment for Marcus Wright. McG shows us that dark, post-apocalyptic future we’ve only previously glimpsed and drops the pieces into place for where we generally know things go next. Although he tells a complete story, he leaves things open and I’m excited to see more.
This film is not about a bunch of franchise-altering M. Night Shyamalan-esque twists, nor is it meant as a reboot. This is the next logical marker on the road started in the first Terminator film and is a worthy addition to the series. At it’s core it’s about three men. Marcus Wright is a bad man who learns what it means to be truly human only to find out that he himself may not be. In the end, he realizes that to be truly human in spirit he must sacrifice the one thing that still makes him human in flesh. Kyle Reese is an idealist whose unwavering belief in John Connor, whom he knows through voice broadcasts only, inspires him to survive and spread hope and build strength in others, even when in the face of possible death. John Connor is a man whose destiny is unavoidable, but one he’s not sure he can meet even if he constantly inspires those around him. He realizes that there are better ways to defeat the enemy without becoming like them. These three men influence each other and challenge each other to be better people. They would not be the people they are in the end if their paths had not crossed. The fact that they are able to do all this against the backdrop of mechanical doom gives hope that the Resistance might not just win random battles against Skynet, but are capable of one day winning the war.
Despite what you’ve read or heard about this movie, ultimately you should go see it and judge it for yourself. Leave your expectations at the door and see what you think. Terminator Salvation might just be better than the rumors give it credit for.