Terminator Salvation (2009)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Juan F. Enjoy!]
When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, there are some films that need no introduction. The Terminator movies are among them, being one of the all-time great franchises in sci-fi cinema history. The first installment was something of a cult sensation, until the second installment achieved massive success. The third one wasn’t as big of a hit, but still did extremely well. And that brings us to the fourth installment, 2009’s Terminator Salvation. This one deviates quite a bit from the three previous movies, with a post-apocalyptic tale where John Connor (Christian Bale) is all grown up and ready to fight against the machines.
The film starts in the year 2003, where Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), a cancer-stricken doctor working for Cyberdyne Systems, persuades a death row inmate named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) to allow medical research to be performed on his body after his execution. We know Marcus is a condemned man with a heart of gold because he shows remorse for his brother and those “two cops” who are dead because of him.
He eventually agrees to sell his body to Cyberdyne, but only in exchange for a kiss from Dr. Kogan. He then follows up the experience with, “So that’s what death tastes like.” What a charmer.
Marcus is executed and a lengthy crawl catches us up with what happened immediately afterwards, for those who missed Rise of the Machines: Skynet came online, instantly became self-aware, and brought about “Judgment Day”, seeing humans as a threat and killing off most of the population.
Cut to the far-flung year of 2018, where the protagonist John Connor leads an attack on a Skynet base. He finds out that Skynet is actually keeping some humans as prisoners (and we get a brief glimpse of the body of our executed friend Marcus). He also learns that the machines have created a new model of Terminator, the T-800, just as John predicted. It seems his foreknowledge of future events has him seen by the resistance as something of a prophet, though not much is made of this.
But then Skynet destroys the entire base with a nuclear missile, and John is the only survivor. He gets rescued, and then just a few moments later, Marcus Wright emerges from the base alive and well.
John goes to the resistance command center, located on a submarine. Stupidly, he gets there by jumping out of an airplane and landing in the ocean and evidently swimming his way down. We learn the resistance is being commanded by General Ashdown, a welcome appearance by Michael Ironside. According to him, they’ve just found a special kind of radio signal that could be Skynet’s “off switch” and disable any machine. And they have to use it fast: Skynet is planning to kill off all the top resistance leaders within a week. And to everyone’s confusion besides John, they’re also targeting an unknown civilian named Kyle Reese.
Meanwhile, Marcus has made his way to post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, where he has a run-in with a terminator. He just happens to be saved by a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who’s surviving on his own along with a mute kid named Star (Jadagrace Berry). Of course, this scene involves several winks to the other Terminator films, with a repeat of the shot of a robot foot stepping on a human skull, and Kyle forcing in the “Come with me if you want to live” line.
John Connor heads back to his home base and meets up with his team and his pregnant wife, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. He listens to audio tapes recorded years ago by his mom Sarah (and this voiceover is actually a nice, uncredited bit from Linda Hamilton) to remind us of who Kyle Reese is: He’s the guy who eventually goes back in time, turns into Michael Biehn, hooks up with Sarah Connor, and becomes John Connor’s dad. So if Skynet kills Kyle Reese then there’s no John Connor, meaning we essentially get another “stop Skynet from preventing John Connor’s birth” plotline, even though this movie barely gives the impression that John Connor is all that important to the resistance.
Eventually, Skynet tracks down Kyle Reese using a giant, Transformer-like terminator, which ejects “moto-terminators” from its ankles, combination motorcycle/robots that chase the guys down (at least the toys based on this movie must have been cool?). Kyle is captured by the machines, while Marcus ends up tossed around by the giant robot and thrown into a river.
He lands in the same place as a downed resistance pilot named Blair (Moon Bloodgood) who’s really just here to be eye candy, get topless (in the director’s cut, anyway), and have a romance with Marcus.
Eventually, she takes him back to base to meet John Connor, but a magnetic land mine gives him away. This is where both Marcus and the members of the resistance discover that he’s a robot created using the original Marcus’ heart and brain. Although Marcus believes he’s human, John is convinced that he’s been sent to destroy him.
Cut to a big and rather pointless action sequence where Blair helps Marcus escape from the base, and the resistance decides to rain down hellfire just to destroy one measly robot. And then it turns out to be all for naught when John decides to team up with Marcus to infiltrate Skynet Central (they actually call it that) and rescue Kyle.
The callbacks to the previous films kick into high gear as John tells his wife “I’ll be back” before he heads out on the mission, listens to “You Could Be Mine” while laying a trap, and once inside the base, he has to confront one of the brand new T-800s. Essentially, it’s a bodybuilder with the CGI likeness of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger grafted onto his body. It’s a pretty cool idea, but not in the least bit convincing.
Elsewhere in the base, Marcus “syncs” himself with Skynet computers (like an iPod?) and sees an AI recreation of Dr. Kogan, who tells him over and over that he’s really an “infiltration prototype” specially designed to lure John Connor to them. And I have to call bullshit here, given the sheer amount of coincidences and contrivances involved in finally getting John to Skynet Central.
John continues battling the T-800, thankfully melting off its uncanny valley-ish Arnold face at some point. Eventually, Marcus shows up to help him out, but John still ends up getting a random metal spike straight through his heart.
Despite his mortal wound, John still gets to destroy Skynet Central in the end. The problem is his heart is badly damaged. Marcus, being a true pal, offers to have his own heart transplanted into John. Naturally, John Connor recovers, and he’s now the leader of the resistance after General Ashdown and the others got themselves blown up attempting to use their kill-switch signal.
The movie ends with John’s voiceover telling us that the war against the machines will continue, and that, as always, “There is no fate but what we make.” I guess that calls for a fifth installment, which is apparently in pre-production as I write this, complete with Arnold coming back to play an old Terminator. I wish I were making that up.
If you’re looking for lots of mindless action, this movie won’t disappoint. There are plenty of the chase scenes you expect from this franchise, including motorcycle chases, helicopter chases, plow-truck chases, and many other kinds of chases. There’s a cool scene where a molten ore-covered metal man is flash-frozen and yet he still keeps on ticking. Though, I can’t help but find it amusing that Skynet, an advanced global network of machines, mostly uses robots that fight the humans with their fists. (They do use some guns too, but only once in a while.)
Despite all that, the movie is just dull. It’s true that the final 30 or 40 minutes is non-stop action, but it’s monotonous action with no clear purpose or goal and no one to really root for. The story is just blah. And it takes itself way too seriously. All of the other movies threw in a chuckle here and there, but this one is completely devoid of humor. Though that’s probably mostly due to the post-apocalyptic setting where everyone is struggling to survive. All in all, for an action movie, Terminator Salvation is a downer.
In the original film, the Terminator was truly scary and menacing. But here, the machines are far too easy to defeat. They can withstand almost any attack, except if an enemy stabs them in the back of their necks. And even though it turns out to be a ruse, we’re also led to believe a simple radio signal can cause them all to turn themselves off. It’s not very intimidating when your murder machines have this many serious design flaws.
But the biggest disappointment is Christian Bale, who brings nothing to the table here. Frankly, he acts more robotic than the cyborgs he’s fighting. Just watch the scene where John first meets Kyle Reese. He’s actually meeting his own father for the very first time, and there’s barely a reaction.
Some people may recall that this is the exact same film where Bale had his famous tantrum against Shane Hurlbut, the director of photography. And he looks like an even bigger asshole when you see the film and realize he was yelling at a guy for ruining scenes this boring and stupid.
Sam Worthington, as usual, is just alright in this movie (though I think he should have spent more time with the dialect coach, because I spent half the movie wondering if his character was supposed to be Australian). Though it seems that when you have Worthington playing a robot, and you pair him with Christian Bale acting like a robot, the two cancel each other out. They both look bored the whole time, even when there are tons of crashes, explosions, and machines whirring all around them.
And I have no idea why they got Bryce Dallas Howard to play the part of John Connor’s wife, when pretty much any actress, or a dirty mop propped up in a corner, could have given the same performance.
There are no memorable lines here, unless you count the memorable lines quoted verbatim from previous movies. Bale tries to give a passionate speech to the resistance in the middle of the movie, but it fails due to being full of too many generic platitudes. Who would follow a guy making these kind of vague and obtuse statements about “saving our future”?
And the return of the original Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger was cool in concept, but creepy in execution.
The movie is written by Michael Ferris and John Brancato. However, Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s brother, ended up doing major revisions on the script. The original ending was supposed to have John Connor dying, and Marcus taking his place. When this was leaked to the internet, the third act was completely rewritten. But the ending we actually get isn’t much better. Overall, the Marcus Wright character feels like something that might have made sense eight or nine drafts ago (in fact, the original plan was for Marcus to be the protagonist, with John Connor as more of a peripheral character). And the same goes for Moon Bloodgood’s Blair character, who has no real impact on the story, and basically disappears halfway through.
Honestly, this probably isn’t a franchise that should have been continued past the second film. (And it definitely shouldn’t have been continued by a director whose claim to fame is the Charlie’s Angels movies.) Once you get into the actual future war between man and machines, you lose a lot of what made the first two Terminator films entertaining.
Which would be fine, if this movie made an attempt to do its own thing and be a good story in its own right. Instead, Terminator Salvation just comes off as a strained attempt to graft the plot of the original Terminator (protect an important person from being killed by machine assassins) onto a futuristic, post-apocalyptic environment. And it doesn’t work. It’s too much of a bummer and everyone seems glum.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]