Terminator Salvation (2009)



Sam Worthington (Marcus Wright), Christian Bale (John Connor), Anton Yelchin (Kyle Reese), Moon Bloodgood (Blair Williams), Bryce Dallas Howard (Kate Connor), Common (Barnes), Michael Ironside (General Ashdown), Roland Kickinger (The T-800), Jadagrace (Star)

Sentient Robots/Nuclear War

“Early in the 21st century, SKYNET, a military defense program, became self-aware. Viewing humanity as a threat to its existence, SKYNET decided to strike first. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the event judgment day. They lived only to face a new nightmare… the war against machines.  To hunt down and eradicate humans, SKYNET built terminators.  As the war rages on, leaders of the human resistance grow desperate.  Some believe one man holds the key to salvation.  Others believe he is a false prophet.  His name is John Connor.  The year is 2018.  “ – Opening text

Defying odds and good taste, Terminator 3 was both a critical and financial success (the latter thanks to the international markets) and to the surprise of pretty much everyone a sequel began moving forward.  Arnold Schwarzenegger had gone off to be governor of California, Nick Stahl wanted nothing to do with the series, James Cameron had killed Neptune and been crowned King of Atlantis where he would rule for a thousand years, yet things moved forward.

Director/Owner of the World’s Douchiest Name McG was called in to direct a script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (writers of T3, more on them in a bit), Christian Bale and Bryce Dallas Howard signed on as John and Kate respectively.  Up-and-coming genre film star Anton Yelchin was hired as Kyle Reese and [trigger warning] up-and-coming action blockbuster star Sam Worthington was brought in as the film’s lead/new terminator (it’s not a spoiler, it’s the worst-kept secret in movie history if it’s even intended to be one) Marcus.  Bodybuilder/actor Roland Kickinger (a man who missed his calling as a villain in an Expendables movie, based on his name) and some CG took over for the part of the T-800.

It wasn’t a dream team but it looked like Terminator Salvation might just manage to live up to its name and for a little bit it actually almost does.

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We open on “the present” (sometime pre-2003 I suppose) where a death-row inmate, Marcus Wright, is being pressured to sign a release form to donate his body to science by an embarrassingly awkward-acted Helena Bonham Carter.  He kisses her and signs the paperwork and gets a lethal injection.

Now we pop up in the wasteland circa 2018 where John Connor and a squadron of resistance fighters break into a SKYNET base to steal some intel.  John goes topside to see what’s going on and narrowly avoids getting exploded and then killed by the top half of a T-600.  As he goes off to talk to Michael Ironside in his nuclear submarine headquarters we’re introduced to Marcus again.  Marcus is, as tradition dictates, completely naked though he’s covered with mud and screaming into the rain in a bit that feels like a random homage to Raising Arizona.

Marcus steals a dead soldier’s clothes and wanders into a nearby city where he narrowly avoids death-by-T600 thanks to a young Kyle Reese and his mute child sidekick (there’s that trope again.)  Marcus hangs out with the kids and feeds Kyle all the one-liners he’s going to use in the first Terminator.  Meanwhile John finds out that the data they got from the SKYNET base was a shortwave signal that stops machines from functioning, it’s the ultimate weapon in the war.

Marcus, Kyle, and Star narrowly escape the ruins of LA and stop at a gas station (presumably the same one that the characters have stopped at in the last 3 movies, this would have been a good place to put in a gibbering Earl Boen sitting in the corner mumbling about how this is all a delusion) but soon a giant robot shows up and grabs a bunch of people.

Our trio manages to a escape in a Mad Maxed tow truck but the robot shoots sentient motorcycles out of its knees and kidnaps them anyway.  Marcus tries to free his friends but gets knocked off the harvester ship and goes to meet a resistance pilot that was shot down in the action.  In a shocking twist, the pilot is a sexy lady played by Moon Bloodgood (who is presumably a Night Elf) named Blair, they go and camp in the ruins of a football stadium where she takes off her shirt, then cups her naked breasts and has a forlorn staring contest with Marcus.  I have no idea what the fuck that’s even about.

Marcus saves her from some would-be rapists and they go to resistance headquarters to meet John Connor.  The only wrinkle is that the bunker is surrounded by magnetic landmines and Marcus is a terminator.  After Marcus is taken inside and discovered, he’s tied up and repeatedly shot as John tries to get information out of him.

Blair frees Marcus because she “saw a man.”  An overlong action sequence which could best be described as white noise with explosions occurs and Marcus tells John that he can get him into SKYNET HQ to save Kyle and deal a blow to their infrastructure.  John convinces all of the resistance not to bomb SKYNET HQ against General Michael Ironside’s orders so he can get the civilians out, he then trips up a sentient motorcycle, pulls out its CPU, and rides it despite the fact that it was manufactured to operate on its own and has no throttle or seat.

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Marcus arrives at SKYNET HQ to find Helena Bonham Carter representing SKYNET who tells him that he’s a prototype meant to infiltrate the humans and bring important figures back home, like he just has with John Connor.  She then goes on to tell him that the shortwave signal was a trap meant to lull the humans into thinking they had a chance of winning.

John successfully breaks into the SKYNET dungeon and frees everyone only for the first T-800 to step off the assembly line as the familiar theme plays.  John and Kyle manage to set it on fire and burn its skin off so the camera doesn’t have to keep awkwardly finding ways to obscure its penis and we begin an overlong marathon fight scene that is just a series of tributes to the last three movies.  The factory where the T-800s are made holds giant vats of molten metal to dump on him, a tank of liquid nitrogen that can easily be shot to freeze the molten metal solid, and the hydrogen fuel cells that John can use to blow up the facility.  I’m honestly surprised there’s not a hydraulic press in there somewhere.

Marcus comes to save the day but he has a human heart so the T-800 just punches him in it and he keels over dead.  John manages to stop the terminator long enough to defribulate Marcus with some electrical cables after the beating-on-his-chest-with-one-fist method of CPR fails him.  Marcus kills the T-800 and he and John bro it out for a couple of seconds before John’s heart gives out.

They take him topside but Kate gives him only a few hours as his heart is failing.  But hey, Marcus has a heart!  And even though that procedure is extremely complicated in a world that’s not post-apocalyptic, the likelihood of his heart being compatible to John isn’t likely, anti-rejection medicine is long gone, and it would take months if not years to come back from that kind of thing, John’s awake seemingly only a couple hours later.  His gravelly voice-over mumbles some bullshit about being strong and the credits roll.

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Say what you will about Terminator Salvation, but the first hour is a solid piece of film-making.  Yeah, the new terminator designs are stupid (giant aquatic snakes, giant grabber bots with laser cannons, and robot motorcycles are goofy as hell, the fact that the snakes and cycles are called “Hydrobots” and “Moto-Terminators” respectively makes them that much sillier.) But the action is solid, the character beats land, and the whole journey aspect of the story works.  Even when Moon Bloodgood’s completely unnecessary character shows up, things are good.  It’s only once John and Marcus meet that the movie starts to drag and never stops.

Between last column and now I was made aware of a blog post by John Brancato, one of the two writers who did the finalized script for Terminator 3 and the first draft for Terminator Salvation.  It’s an interesting read and I recommend everyone give it a glance for just how much of a mess the movie business is, but he went into how the writing process went on these movies.  For T3 he pretty much hates everything that I did and says that it was bad writing that the studio wanted, he admits that his investment in the whole thing was more because Jonathan Mostow was a buddy of his writing partner and called in a favor (Salvation was begrudgingly done so his writing partner could pay off his house) so he’s not entirely blameless for how things went, but most of the egregiously awful stuff from Terminator 3 was studio mandated and that awesome ending was the one bit of good writing he got to sneak past them.

Brancato says he’s surprised how much of their draft that McG used and goes on to talk about how what little interaction they had with the man was bizarre to say the least.  Suffice to say that their script featured much less John Connor and more cannibals and other cool post-apocalyptic junk.  He says they came to the realization early on that John Connor is a boring character and that there’s not much to do with him, and they’re kind of right.  John never developed quite the way that Sarah did and though I don’t think he’s an entirely lost cause, a writer would have to basically invent all of John’s characteristics for that not to be true.

What Brancato admits is they never really came up with a good third act, finally settling for a weak reveal that SKYNET killed the world to save the world from humanity’s destructive nature and that they’re keeping a group of cybernetically enhanced people alive in a green utopia within their epicenter.   Brancato says he didn’t really care for that reveal but the studio liked it as they kept insisting the audience find out SKYNET’s motivation and he didn’t ever really think the movie would get made anyway so he left it.

Fast forward to later when McG was working on the movie and the two writers were kept out of the loop entirely (they did some press junk and got to see a rough cut per union regulations) and whoever punched up the script and removed the utopian ending forgot to write something better in its place (In my head someone just scribbled in “DUN DUN DUNDUNDUN DUN DUN DUNDUNDUN DUN NUH NUHHHH DUN NUH NUHHHHHHHHHH”) and the flacid third act we have now was born.

The one other big thing McG and his people changed was the ending.  Originally, John Connor died and Marcus was re-skinned with his appearance and had his voice changed to sound like him.  It makes sense as Marcus is a terminator, he knows about SKYNET, and in this timeline John Connor probably isn’t even the right guy anyway.  Nobody has ever adequately been able to describe why John Connor is supposed to be hot shit, he’s just a figurehead and a name the people rally behind so this makes sense.  Unfortunately this plot-point leaked and the internet responded in the way it does.  The ending was changed and so John Connor gets a heart transplant and absolutely nothing is accomplished.

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I, like you dear readers, have come to detest Sam Worthington to the very core of my being.  If you look up “bland leading man” in the dictionary, you won’t find it because it’s more than one word, but if it were in there you’d find a picture of Sam Worthington.  Strangely enough, he’s my favorite part of the movie here.

There’s a certain kind of charm here that works with Marcus’ broody nature, and Worthington’s usual character template of “white guy who’s good at everything” actually fits this character.  This movie probably features the best performance the man has ever given and I’ll stand by him in this movie any day.

Christian Bale, inversely, is just awful here.  John Connor is not what one would call a “rich character” anyway, but Bale somehow manages to phone it in more than Furlong and Stahl combined.  Batman Begins was really the start of the self-parody stage of Bale’s career but this movie was the one that cemented it with every line delivered in a raspy whispered shout and almost every line is some pseudo-philosophical platitude about being strong and staying alive.  I hope this movie makes him feel nothing but shame.

Anton Yelchin is delightful here and was the perfect actor to play a young Michael Biehn, he even has the right raspy quality to his voice.  Unfortunately Kyle gets damseled at the midpoint of the film and Yelchin’s charisma is sorely missed in the second half.

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The movie has a washed out brown quality that’s reminiscent of Fallout 3 and Reign of Fire.  Many complain about this aspect, and it does get tiring at times but the cinematography by Shane Hurlbut is beautiful.  He relies far too much on shaky cam in the early action scenes (an unfortunate trope in this day and age) but so many of the shots are just absolutely breath-taking even though his tendency to focus on characters that are off-center becomes hard to not notice after a while.

The tow-truck chase is a great action set-piece and as silly as the Moto-Terminators are they are used to good effect in that scene.The action is dynamic and that chase scene is on-par with the best in the series; unfortunately the other action scenes are incredibly dull and lifeless.  Marcus’ escape from Connor’s camp is the biggest waste of a special effects budget I can think of, offhand.

While the CG isn’t great and the new terminators suck, the T-600 endoskeletons are the scariest they’ve been since the first movie’s climax.  They’re bigger and bulkier than their predecessors and their movement is a bit reminiscent of the ABC robot from Judge Dredd but they have a certain weight to their movement and the ones with bits of tattered rubber skin clinging to them are rather creepy.

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Some would say that Terminator Salvation is the worst movie in the series but those people are crazy and too caught up in the surprisingly subversive ending of Terminator 3 to remember that that movie was a boring remake of Terminator 2 and not even as much dumb fun as 2003’s other dud The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  To those people I say, talk to the hand.

Terminator Salvation has some serious scripting problems, particularly in the back half, but it moves the story forward and it’s in no way a rehash of what’s come before (even with the random callbacks) and there’s about half of a good movie in there.  It’s certainly way more watchable than Terminator 3 and though I’m disappointed at the lack of a Dr. Silberman cameo, the fact that this movie features no attempts at levity is a relief to me.  The effects are better, the acting is better, the tone is more consistent, it’s T3‘s superior in every way except the ending.

The idea of having a protagonist, an audience surrogate, and a terminator all be the same character is kind of ingenious.  The audience surrogates in these movies are shitty characters.  T1 Sarah was bleh, John was better but not by much, and Kate was just the worst, but Marcus is a character capable of taking care of himself but still clueless about the world around him.  He’s kind of a subversion of how these movies work and I appreciated that.

Now, back to my theory about time loops spiraling off of one-another.  This movie kind of vindicates my theory that Terminator 3 was just SKYNET trying to keep John busy so it could kick off Judgment Day early as well as hook all its enemies up to make them more easy to destroy in the future.  The T-800 that attacks John could even be the T-800 that killed John in the previous timeline, this time stopped before it got the chance by Marcus who was a new variable in this timeline.  This would presumably mean that in the next revolution, The T-800 will not be sent back to save John and whether that means that the T-X will kill him or that Judgment Day will be pushed back is unknown, maybe that’s where The Sarah Connor Chronicles or Genisys fit into the continuity.

Speaking of Genisys, we’ve reached the end for now.  As with Mad Max I will not be covering the newest entry in our franchise until it comes out on home video so I can digest it in my leisure but don’t worry, I have something stupid and explodey that should tide you over planned for Monday.

Terminator Salvation is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and on Amazon Instant and can also be purchased as a 4-in-one Blu-ray set with the rest of the series.

“Y’know, this was supposed to be my weekend off, but noooo. You got me out here draggin’ your heavy ass through the burnin’ desert with your dreadlocks stickin’ out the back of my parachute. You gotta come down here with an attitude, actin’ all big and bad… and what the hell is that smell?!  I could’ve been at a barbecue!!  But I ain’t mad.”

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