WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: In 2003, convicted murderer Marcus Wright is put to death. Fifteen years later, he wakes up and finds himself caught up in the fight between Skynet’s machines and the human Resistance. At the front line, John Connor prepares to use a device that could end the war; but he’s aware that unless he can ensure the safety of a man he’s never met, his future might never come to pass.
In his prison cell, murderer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signs away his body for a kiss from Cyberdyne representative Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter). In 2018, he wakes up and clambers into a post-nuclear holocaust landscape, where the fabled John Connor (Christian Bale) is waging a war for the Resistance against Cyberdyne’s Skynet, the defence system-turned-masters of the earth. The Resistance’s General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) informs Connor about a sonic device that might disable the machines and begins plans to attack their base in San Francisco; however, John is aware – via his mother’s recordings – that he has to find and keep alive a certain Kyle Reese. When Marcus catches up with Kyle (Anton Yelchin) and his young companion Star (Jadagrace Berry), then feisty Resistance soldier Blair (Moon Bloodgood), he appears to help them all; yet his part in the conflict is uncertain, and he creates an almighty conflict within his own resurrected mind.
Ask anyone what they know about Terminator Salvation and the first answer will most likely be ‘oh yeah, that’s the film where Christian Bale lost it’. Bale’s on-set meltdown at Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut (snigger) is indeed the most notable thing about the film, which tells you a lot about it. How can something so intrinsically interesting as the Terminator universe – a world of self-conscious machinery, of time travel and relentless chase scenes – be made so dull? Here’s how:
The first problem is one of narrative logic. Time-travelling paradoxes were present in The Terminator, Terminator 2:Judgment Day and Terminator 3:Rise of the Machines, but by and large they lurked in the background, not drawing attention to themselves. By joining John Connor at 2018, before he meets Kyle, the paradox can’t help but jump out and make a nuisance of itself. Despite being a fairly solid lump of flesh and bone, John (admittedly, perhaps mistakenly) believes that he has to keep Kyle alive so that the future (and the past) will play out as his mother has told him it will, presumably thinking that he’ll disappear, Marty McFly-style, if he doesn’t. That would be fine if the movie played on the paradox – imagine that awkward first meeting!* – but the script’s just as grim as McG and Hurlbut’s drab pallet of greys and browns, keeping a straight face even as Bale delivers the preposterous line “We’ve been at war since before either of us even existed”.
Get over that hurdle and you run straight into a confusing proliferation of plots. The original Terminators vaguely followed the same formula: machine pursues vulnerable but semi-protected human. Salvation replaces that simplicity with three separate story strands and fails to convince with any of them: is the movie about John and the Resistance’s efforts to hit at the heart of Skynet? Is it about Marcus and his efforts to understand his renaissance? Or is it about Kyle, being led unknowingly towards his extraordinary destiny? The answer, of course, is all three; but none of them grab the viewer, despite the fact that each has their obvious point of empathy – John’s pregnant wife, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard); Marcus’ bond with the loyal Blair; and Kyle dragging round the mute and completely pointless kid, who I only know is called Star and is a girl because I looked it up.
Fans might argue that I would only complain if the fourth movie copied the first three too closely; and they’d probably be right. However, the problems with the plot are only half the story, since Terminator Salvation is executed really poorly. Marcus’ backstory is laid out clumsily, and if the reveal of his true nature is meant to be any sort of twist, it’s rather spoilt by the fact that we see him die in 2003 and miraculously come back to life fifteen years later; helpfully, McG provides a good deal of cruciform symbolism just in case we don’t understand Marcus’s role in the scheme of things. Also, Sam Worthington might look the part, but accents are not his thing – non-Australian ones, anyway.
Poor execution also ruins most of John’s story. Even though Terminator 2 was famously propelled by CGI, the crunching reality of the stunts made a real impact. McG, by contrast, knows how to blow stuff up and order up visuals from the special effects team, but hasn’t the faintest clue how to arrange events so that the result means something. One example: early on, Connor demands to be taken to the Resistance command centre, requiring him to dive into the middle of the ocean; although the plunge looks moderately realistic, there’s absolutely no sense of how he then – in the very next shot – comes to be standing, bone-dry, in a submarine. Also, because CGI is now the default way effects are made, nearly every scene, including those featuring Terminator-on-man action, is composed of actors reacting to things that aren’t there. The effects are pretty good but turn Terminator Salvation into a close copy of Transformers, a comparison it can do without since it’s already nicking body parts from not only its superior origin movies but a host of other films: Robocop, The Matrix, Apocalypse Now. Virtually the only pleasant surprise in the whole movie was the satisfying (virtual) cameo towards the close, which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it; even here, however, nothing feels as remotely real or threatening as the original film. The will-he-won’t-he ending, by the way, is scuppered by the film’s own logic: if Connor’s alive now, he’s surely immortal until 2029 at least.
I may be being a little unfair, since sci-fi films are rarely watertight, plot-wise, and always borrow from other movies. However, James Cameron’s Terminator films were something different, something exciting, and McG has simply created generic sci-fi action movie #3,299. I wasn’t moved to a manic rage by Terminator Salvation: I was just really, really bored.
NOTE: That’s another thing: if Skynet now know about Kyle, wouldn’t they write something into their coding along the lines of ‘Under no circumstances make a time displacement machine’? And don’t the Resistance use a lot of computers, considering who they’re fighting? And isn’t it odd that John doesn’t bat an eyelid at blowing apart his best friend from the early 90s? Questions, McG, questions.