This article, while about an alternate version of Terminator Salvation, does contain spoilers for the version in theaters now.




The Terminator Salvation you saw on movie screens this weekend was not
always the Terminator Salvation that was meant to be. Like in the
franchise itself, history has been changed, and the original script for
Terminator Salvation ended up getting gutted. You can still see the
outlines of that script in the current film (a form of deja vu, as
similar vestigial script elements can be seen in this summer’s
blockbuster hit Star Trek), but the specifics that might have made
Terminator Salvation if not better at least more interesting are gone.



What caused these massive changes? And what were they? The biggest
change came when McG flew to the UK to talk to Christian Bale about
starring in the fourth Terminator movie. The director wanted the Batman
star to play Marcus Wright, the cyborg protagonist of the script. But
Bale focused on another part: John Connor. The only problem is that
John Connor had about three minutes of screen time in the entire film;
most of Connor’s moments were played offscreen. In the original script
John Connor was the secretive leader of the Resistance. He lived on the
HQ sub, and almost no one saw his face, so as to keep him hidden from
the robots. Connor made radio addresses and existed as a legend for the
fighting men and women of the Resistance, but in the original script
Connor didn’t show up onscreen until the last minutes of the movie.



You may remember in late 2007 when the rumor that Bale was signing on
to Terminator 4 surfaced there were two competing reports: while Aint
It Cool had Bale tipped to play Connor, we had him tipped to play a
Terminator. As you can see both are correct; for a little while people
involved in the film were assuming that Bale was going to let go of the
Connor idea and move over to the Marcus role, but he had something else
up his sleeve: massive rewrites to beef up the John Connor role.



Watching Terminator Salvation as it exists in theaters it’s easy to see
that this was a bad idea. The script that ended up getting shot never
quite finds anything for John Connor to do. If you were to remove
Connor from the film, relegating him once again to radio voice over,
almost none of the film’s plot would be changed. It’s likely that the
new Connor scenes were the work of Jonathan Nolan, who did do a lot of
writing on the film, but who was denied credit by the WGA. The reason
would be that all of the work Nolan did was cosmetic – adding Connor
scenes that had no bearing on the film’s structure or plot.



Bale’s desire to star as John Connor was probably the most fatal blow
to the film; it completely distorted the shape of the story as it
existed. But the other fatal blow came from the internet. When the
original ending of the script leaked – John Connor is killed by a
Terminator and has his skin grafted onto Marcus Wright, who takes up
the shadowy leader’s place as the leader of the Resistance – many people
went crazy. On the surface it seemed like a major slap in the face of
the franchise, and doubly so on paper: John Connor, the guy who the
entire franchise is ostensibly about, shows up for two and a half
pages, gets killed and has his face transplanted onto a robot (in the
original script it’s actually just the face that gets slapped on
Marcus).



There are differing reports as to how far that ending made it. McG has
gone on the record again and again saying that was never the ending he
wanted (he came on to the project after the script we’re talking about
here was written), but there’s a lot of contrary evidence, including
on-set reports that have ‘Connor becomes robot’ written on production
calendars. The entire finished film itself feels like evidence that the
original ending was always the intended ending. The movie seems to be
inexorably building towards the ‘Connor dies’ finale, including
elements like endless scenes featuring Sarah Connor’s tapes, obviously
intended to give Marcus/Connor a primer on John Connor’s life and
destiny. In fact, when John Connor got a pole through the chest I was
excited – had McG been lying to us all along and kept the original
ending?



Of course he wasn’t. The film’s biggest weakness comes in the final
minutes, which feel almost completely slapped on, as the character
we’ve been following makes a sudden and boring sacrifice. The air just
explodes out of the movie as John Connor’s rescue feels utterly
unearned, and the ending of the movie is so final that you walk out of
the theater not caring whether or not the future war is ever again
revisited.



So what might have been? Before the Bale rewrites and before the internet kiboshed the original ending?



With John Connor relegated to the shadows for most of the film, the
original Terminator Salvation focused more on the relationship between
Kyle and Marcus. Star was always there, and was essentially always just
as useless, but without the constant cutaways to pointless Connor
scenes the film was able to delve more into Kyle/Marcus. The script
spent time examining what it was like living in a post-apocalyptic
world, and was more definitively R-rated. At the gas station Marcus
saves Kyle and Star from a group of cannibals, throwing one of them
into an open fire (intended as a callback to the biker on the stove in
T2. It’s important to note that the original script by extraordinary
hacks Brancato and Ferris – the guys who wrote The Net, Catwoman and
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – is not some discarded gem. It’s
got plenty of problems of its own).



But again, with Connor out of the script the relationship between Kyle
and Marcus gets to grow, which gives Marcus’ later quest to rescue Kyle
more weight. And the early scenes where Kyle can’t drive are paid off
in this script, first with a sequence where Marcus teaches him to drive
and later, in the third act, where Kyle gets the final heroic beat he’s
missing in the finished film.



As in the final film Kyle and Star are captured by Skynet and
transported to Skynet City, but with one major change: Skynet has no
idea who Kyle Reese is. This is a point that bothers many viewers of
the final film; I’m not radically concerned, as Kyle Reese’s time
traveling shenanigans are public record enough that it’s believable
Skynet would have found out about him while taking over the world’s
computer networks. But by having Skynet not know who Kyle is the
original script removes the machines’ idiotic plan to bring John Connor
to Skynet City instead of simply killing his dad. This feels like the
kind of change that was made to give John Connor more to do, since the
whole sequence where Connor convinces the Resistance forces to step
down doesn’t occur in this script (and why would it? He’s Michael
Ironsides in this movie).



Marcus’ adventures with Blair are slightly different. In the original
script he saves Blair from a pack of rabid wolves as opposed to horny
rapists. This scene was important because it gives Marcus his first
awareness that he’s much faster and stronger than he used to be,
something he couldn’t quite prove against humans in a PG-13 movie
(although could you wreck a group of wolves in a PG-13 movie?). In the
finished film Blair and Marcus have a tender moment; the original
script takes things very, very differently: Blair offers Marcus a STAF.
That’s Sit Tight And Fuck, a phrase in common use in the Resistance.
See, it’s a horrible, miserable future and the humans of the time have
gotten over their petty prudery. If the only joy they can get is
fucking, why not take it? Life is cheap and they may not live to see
the next night, so tap whatever ass you can.



The next big change comes when Marcus is captured by the Resistance.
John Connor remains offscreen and he interrogates Marcus via
com-link. But Connor is thinking like the John Connor who has become
used to temporal assassination attempts, and he believes that Marcus
has been sent from an even more advanced future to kill him. Meanwhile,
we have more cutaways to Kyle Reese being transported to Skynet City;
this script really forwards Reese in a way that the finished movie
fails to do.



Marcus escapes the Resistance more or less as seen in the finished and heads to
Skynet City. And it’s here that the major changes really come into play.



In the original script the title Terminator Salvation actually meant
something. Watching the finished film it’s hard to figure out why it
has that name – is it because Marcus saves Connor’s life in the last
minute? In the original script Serena has a bigger role than a quick
cameo, and she explains the salvation element.



Marcus comes to Skynet City and finds… a seaside resort populated
with humans. He sees Terminator landscapers! It turns out that Skynet
hasn’t been trying to wipe out humanity. It’s been trying to save us.



This is perhaps the most bizarre idea in the whole script, and the one
that most obviously doesn’t work. It seems as though Brancato and
Ferris thought people liked the Matrix sequels, as this all feels like
it could be in those films. See, Serena heads Project ANGEL, which is
making Hybrids (ie, Cyborgs). The reason? Skynet did a calculation and
realized that humanity was going to be extinct in 200 years; the
machines decided to save a few by turning them into Hybrids and wipe
the rest out. It makes no sense, and is the kind of thing that makes
you wonder if these guys ever even watched the previous Terminator
films.



What’s fascinating is that the Project ANGEL stuff lasted well into
production. While I was on set I was given a security badge that gave
me access to all the stages; it had Project ANGEL’s logo on it. While
being given a tour of pre-production artwork we were told more about
Project ANGEL and the role it would have in the movie, a role that’s
completely removed from the final film. At the time I visited the set
it seemed like Serena was going to show up in person at the end of the
movie, just as she does in the script, and I saw artwork depicting
that.



It’s here that you can really understand where Terminator Salvation
fell to pieces. The film was being rewritten, piecemeal, on the set.
Instead of re-engineering the whole picture it seems like McG and
company were just tackling each segment, figuring out how to get John
Connor more involved without fixing the underlying structure at which
they were picking away.



Serena, a cyborg herself, meets Marcus and explains Project ANGEL and
the seaside resort to him. She also explains the Transport chip – it’s
embedded in all cyborgs and prevents them from feeling pain and
emotion. She then gives Marcus a tour of the whole Skynet City, showing
off the T-800s that are being developed and giving him a peak at the
T-1000 and T-X in the earliest stages. She also shows him the time
machine technology they’ve been working on, and the neural net AI
database of human brains, which will allow the Terminators to better
act like humans and as such better infiltrate human encampments.



Then the big shock: Marcus is too late. Kyle’s brain has been removed
and he’s been uploaded to the neural net database, and Star has been
terminated. All hope is lost, and Serena has activated his Transport
chip, so Marcus can’t do anything.



Just then there’s an explosion. Serena is distracted and, just like in
the finished film (where it actually makes less sense), Marcus rips out
his Transport chip. He then jumps into the time machine, which burns
his clothes off, and he goes back in time just far enough to rescue
Kyle and Star, grab a laser weapon and set off the explosion that
distracted Serena (whether or not Brancato and Ferris were watching
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey while writing this scene is
unconfirmed). And then the action begins.



The trio try to escape Skynet City with Kyle driving an ATV, paying off
his driving lessons. They’re pursued by Hunter/Killer Terminator Tanks,
and they take most of them out as they rip through the seaside resort
(including killing one Tank by… making it drive into a pool), but
they end up on a dock and with one last H/K tank about to end them.
Then suddenly Blair shows up leading an airstrike that destroys the
tank. Then the sub surfaces, and John Connor finally makes his
appearance, leading human troops in combat against the Terminators at
the resort. Connor and Kyle meet, but it’s not a big moment.



Marcus has rescued a bunch of humans while at Skynet City and the
Resistance take them aboard the sub. Everybody is happy and it seems
like the Resistance has won the day when Marcus suddenly realizes that
Serena is among the refugees. She attacks, blowing off his arm and gut
shooting John Connor. Fade to black.



Later Marcus wakes up in the hospital. Blair tells him that they’re
covering up Project ANGEL – even within the film this was too stupid to
let anyone know about it. But there’s bad news: John Connor’s not going
to make it. His wound is fatal. On his death bed John Connor gives Kyle
the picture of Sarah Connor (when I interviewed Anton Yelchin he
confirmed that this scene had been cut before shooting, which he
thought was a good idea. That does make it seem like the original
ending was never intended for production). John and Kate
beg Marcus to take up the mantle of John Connor – since no one has
really seen him anybody can be him. The legend is bigger than the man,
they insist.



Marcus agrees, and John Connor’s face is grafted onto Marcus (this, it
turns out, is the source of Connor’s scars. You would think they would
have cut off his face from the back of the head, under the hair, but I
guess not), despite the fact that nobody really knows what Connor looks
like anyway. But it’s done, and Connor dies and Marcus now must step up
and lead the Resistance into the future.



In a lot of ways the original Terminator Salvation script is still
poking through in the final film. In fact, except for the additional John Connor
nonsense in the first two acts, the opening two-thirds of the movie
(minus the prologue, which was not in this script) more or less follow
the original beats. These are the best parts of the movie, and it’s
when the finished film moves into the third act that everything starts
falling apart. It’s obvious that McG and Jonathan Nolan never really
cracked their own third act, and without the death of John Connor they
never found a reason for this movie to even exist. In effect what
they’ve done with their undercooked third act is make a movie that’s a
TV episode – in the end everything is more or less back at the status
quo. And by backgrounding Kyle and robbing him of his third act
heroics, the finished film has taken away its only other good reason to
exist, namely that it’s the beginnings of the Connor/Reese friendship.



Would the original ending have worked? People would have walked out of
theaters mad, no doubt. But it was a ballsy idea that could have been
executed better than it was in the script. You don’t even need to do
the face transplant – have Marcus be the original owner of those John
Connor scars the whole movie and they’d read like a reveal at the
finale. The ending of Salvation now is so pat that it isn’t the opening
of a new trilogy but just another boring prequel, setting up things we
already knew about. Killing Connor would have been shocking and would
have added drama to the upcoming installments. Hell, it sounds like
Skynet City offered pretty great technology to the heroes – why not
have Connor’s brain downloaded into Marcus’ body?



These are all pointless considerations now. The finished film opted to
play utterly safe, and as a result it’s a lump without buzz or
excitement. Ironically Bale’s demand to beef up John Connor, which led
to a final film that is utterly distended, would have perfectly set up
the character’s demise. The biggest problem with Connor dying at the
end of the original script is that his death carries no weight as he’s
a nobody throughout the film. But in the current movie, which feels
like it’s building to that death, it would have been the kind of
surprise that works, one that’s had a foundation laid.



The beefing up of Connor led to the diminishment of Reese, a big
problem in the final product. Anton Yelchin came on to Terminator
Salvation
at a time when he was the second lead; I imagine his demotion
must have been disheartening. And to audiences it’s disappointing as
Yelchin is the best actor in the piece. A Terminator Salvation with
twice as much Yelchin might very well have been a movie that was more
enjoyable, in the same way that Star Trek overcomes its script
handicaps with great casting.



Looking at this weekend’s box office it’s likely that Terminator
Salvation
is the end of the franchise. And it’s probably the end of
Christian Bale forcing major rewrites on projects as well. I do think
that a smarter rewrite of the original Brancato/Ferris script, one that
allowed for a truly shocking ending, might have turned out a film whose
failure at the box office would have been worth mourning. While I enjoyed myself watching
Salvation, at no point did I really give a shit about what was
happening or what was going to happen next in the series. McG and Nolan
muddied the end of the picture, delivering action
generics (yet another Terminator fight in a factory) while never
finding their own hook that would give this movie more of an impact
than you would get from an expanded universe novel. The only thing that
was really, truly broken in Brancato and Ferris’ script was Project
ANGEL, and the finished film doesn’t really give Skynet any better
motivation for collecting humans. McG, fearing the fan backlash (which
was already starting when the original ending leaked) opted to ‘fix’
the element that least needed fixing.