“Terminator Salvation,” which opens today, is first and foremost composed of well crafted Terminator action. However, that action rests on an uneasy collection of characters and story ideas. It satisfies the appetite for robot mayhem, but lacks the tight writing of the earliest films in the series.
Set in 2018, the film, after a couple of false starts, introduces us to John Connor, a loyal Resistance fighter, but not yet the leader. He is part of a strike team that raids a Machine research facility. During this engagement, John finds evidence of the T-800 series Terminator. The raid also unleashes Marcus Wright, a man given the death sentence in 2003, but still very much alive in the Machine Era. It may have something to do with signing his body over to a company called Cyberdine Systems back in aught three.
While Marcus walks the ravaged country, Connor meets with his superiors in the Resistance. Skynet, the Machine overmind, has planned an attack on key Resistance personnel in four days time. Both Connor and Kyle Reese, the man who will father Connor by means of time travel, are named as targets. All hope is not lost, however, as the Resistance now possess a means to disrupt Skynet’s command frequency, shutting down Machines in the field. Connor tests the frequency disruptor in anticipation of a Resistance counter-strike.
Marcus arrives in the ruins of Los Angeles and is quickly aided by Reese, played by “Star Trek’s” Anton Yelchin. Marcus, Reese, and a mute child listen to one of John Connor’s broadcasts and decide to track him down. Meanwhile, Connor is also attempting to find Reese. After some well-realized action sequences, Marcus comes to Connor’s Resistance cell and learns his true Machine nature. Marcus and Connor form a truce as they have learned Reese is being held in the same location the Resistance intends to attack.
The biggest problem in “Terminator Salvation” is its inability to decide whose movie it actually is. The publicity would have you believe it is about John Connor, played by Christian Bale. The script clearly presents Marcus as the principle character. In its fully realized form, Yelchin’s Kyle Reese takes the lead in all of his scenes. Bale’s Connor, though dynamic, disappears for much of the second act of the film, while Marcus and Reese attempt to cross the post-apocalyptic landscape. That translates into forty minutes of screentime where Bale is largely absent, except for a moment where he watches a Marcus and Reese action scene from his command bunker.
Having Connor search for Reese while Reese makes the journey to Connor is a genius idea, but the film does very little with it. Much like Connor’s absence in the second act, Reese disappears for much of the later half film. Marcus — now revealed as a Cylon-like Terminator with a human heart — and Connor form an uneasy alliance to infiltrate the T-800 production facility in San Francisco, where Reese and hundreds of humans are being harvested for the T-800 research. When one character becomes the goal of another, they cease to be active participants in the film. Reese is slightly better served as his occasional cut-away scenes make you wish the film was about his attempt to find the Resistance.
The film also includes a Spielberg-esque precocious child in the form of Reese’s mute traveling companion, Star. Her eyes go wide whenever she senses a Terminator close by. It is safe to say this sort of character is the last thing a film called “Terminator” should possess.
Though Marcus, played brilliantly by Sam Worthington, appears in almost the entire movie, the push-pull between Connor and Reese relegates him to the film’s observer. He merely watches the backstory revealed in the first “Terminator” unfold without any true objective of his own. Understanding that, Worthington brings a depth and humanity to the cyborg character. We never learn the reason why he was on death row in 2003, but Worthington’s manner tells you everything you really need to know about his circumstances. Like the Reese scenes, Worthington makes you wish the film was firmly about Marcus.
As observer, Marcus allows the audience to see the most fully realized depiction of the Future War ever devised, and it is this aspect where the film shines. Director McG brings life to the somewhat stale trope of post-apocalyptic life. Though many of the situations are familiar, they never seem to rely on wholesale riffs from films like “The Road Warrior.”
The film rarely leans on the “destroyed landmark” gimmick or many of the other tropes common to these sorts of films. The typical scavenger characters appear, but are quickly dispensed with. Characters hiding and reticent to share their resources are swiftly collected by the Machine Harvester.
Never have the Machines felt so real, visceral, or loud. Between the Aerial HKs, Harvesters, and Terminator/motorbike hybrids, there are many ways to get killed in the future. Realized through all the various movie magic tricks available, the film never lets you see where the strings are; the reality of robot opponents is palpable.
“Salvation” also excels at action. An early sequence in the film has Connor running from the Machine research facility to a helicopter in order to chase an Aerial HK. Both aircraft crash after a short chase. The entire scene is presented, seemingly, without a single cut. The craft involved with the scene goes a long way toward selling the reality of the film’s situation. It is an impressive piece of big, loud, summer movie filmmaking.
Similarly, the film’s closing action scenes show a similar attention and care. One particular aspect of the final fight is a shocking simulacrum of a person who could no longer be involved in the Terminator franchise.
While never maintaining its story, “Terminator Salvation” does maintain the integrity of its setting. It presents the Future War situation more realistically than any film before it. While we never get to know the characters, we get to know the world; which may not be enough for some viewers. The first two Terminator films are classics because of their careful balance of well-realized setting, action, character, and story. “Terminator Salvation” recaptures the first two elements of that equation, but the rest is fuzzy math.