Terminator Stagnation

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Most audiences expected Terminator Salvation to be an exciting new beginning for the iconic Terminator film series.  Set post-Judgment Day and focusing on the future war between the human Resistance and the calculating machines led by Skynet—a computer system that turned on and destroyed its creators—this film seemingly has all the makings of a bombastic summer blockbuster. If you’re looking for explosions and giant robots, then Terminator Salvation just may tide you over until Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen hits theaters in June. However, if you’re looking for a satisfying film experience that both honors and adds to James Cameron’s Terminator mythos, then you’ll be extremely disappointed.

Terminator Salvation isn’t a terrible film, but because it’s content with leaving the narrative heavy lifting to the previous films in the series—particularly Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)—it never really justifies its existence. Set in 2018, the film introduces Resistance hero John Connor (Christian Bale) to a young Kyle Reese (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin). As fans already know, John will send Kyle back in time to protect his mother Sarah from the first time-traveling Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and impregnate her, thereby ensuring his own birth. So, in essence, this film is equal parts unnecessary sequel and pointless prequel. This is just a small piece of a story we already know.

Directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels) with a screenplay by the team of John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Catwoman, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), Terminator Salvation is, almost appropriately, completely mechanical. The action is great to look at and is often thrilling at a base level, but there’s never any reason to root for these characters. We care about John Connor because Cameron made us care about him earlier in the series. Here, he’s just a growling cipher who occasionally blows things up. In placing so much emphasis on action, McG and company have robbed audiences of that necessary emotional connection to these characters that makes the pyrotechnics and chase sequences amount to more than just eye candy. It’s a major problem when we’re given absolutely no reason to care about the future of mankind.

Terminator Salvation begins in 2003, when death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) meets with a terminally-ill representative from Cyberdyne Systems (Helena Bonham Carter), who urges him to donate his body to her company’s research. He agrees, seeking redemption for his murderous ways. Marcus wakes up 15 years later, quickly discovering that the human race has been almost entirely wiped out by Skynet.

Meanwhile, John Connor has just discovered Skynet’s plans for the T-800 Terminator. Yes, that’s the infiltrator model that Arnold made famous in the previous films. He also learns that Skynet has targeted his future dad, Kyle, for termination. Apparently, the machines know that he’ll grow to become John’s father. Fortunately, the Resistance has also discovered a frequency capable of shutting down Skynet machines, which could determine the outcome of the war.The need to rescue Kyle soon unites John with the mysterious Marcus, who harbors a potentially dangerous secret unbeknownst even to him (Spoiler alert: He’s half machine, courtesy of Skynet). The two form a shaky alliance as they attempt to infiltrate Skynet Central, save Kyle and ensure the survival of the human race.

As John Connor, Bale is disappointingly flat. He glares, he barks orders and he’s always focused on the task at hand. But he’s never human, and we never buy that he’s the messianic leader that will ultimately lead mankind to victory. He’s intense and he hates Skynet. That’s just about all we get as far as characterization goes in this film, making the mythology’s central character staggeringly boring. Whenever the film focuses on Bale’s Connor, it grinds to a halt.

He has a wife, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose screentime is cut tragically short despite her supposed importance. Fleshing out his relationship with her would have been a great opportunity to humanize Connor, but McG doesn’t give her much to do aside from looking doe-eyed and pregnant.  Who needs sentiment when there’s stuff to blow up elsewhere?

Worthington’s Marcus is thankfully a far more interesting protagonist, and Yelchin’s Kyle Reese has room to grow in the inevitable sequels. Moon Bloodgood is also believable as battle-hardened Resistance fighter pilot Blair Williams.

But the real stars of this film are Skynet’s robotic monstrosities.  From the looming Harvesters to the speedy Moto-Terminators to the snake-like Hydrobots, the varied forms of mechanized death in Terminator Salvation spice up the action considerably. The classic, skeletal Terminators also make a return, with one particularly familiar model popping up in the final act. Indeed, with the help of some digital wizardry and a body double, 1984-era Schwarzenegger makes a phenomenal cameo in the film’s most exciting sequence as a prototypical T-800. Unfortunately, the rest of Terminator Salvation’s finale is so abrupt and awkwardly staged that it’s nearly impossible to walk out of the theater craving the next installment.

It probably won’t be the worst movie of summer 2009, but Terminator Salvation is a hollow, joyless and incredibly average filmgoing experience. You may marvel at the special effects—which are admittedly well done—but it’s little more than a passable, mindless diversion. Terminator deserves far better than this. 

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