I’m beginning to think I’m unsophisticated, easily led, maybe even a little stupid. I read the reviews for Terminator Salvation and they say ‘doesn’t capture the magic of the original’ or ‘haggard, nothing new’. They say that it’s a tired franchise and that it was a confusing and fractured movie. I know cinema is an artform, and in art there are as many opinions as there are people. Everyone reacts differently, but still, I think about the movie I saw yesterday and I wonder what other people went in expecting?
The first two Terminator movies are similar in layout, in my view, to the first two Alien movies. Terminator is a very personal story about a single machine trying to kill a single person and anything that gets in the way. Alien is a claustrophobic story about a single alien trying to kill the crew which eventually comes down to a single person. Both Terminator 2 and Aliens ramp up the action and move away from the heavier horror elements. I’ve seen reviews complaining that Terminator Salvation doesn’t capture the glory or the originality or the heart of the first movies. Well, I hate to break it to them, but Terminator Salvation isn’t trying to do that. It’s trying to be a modern action-based continuation of the Terminator story. On top of that, how much heart was there really in T1 or T2? Yes, we get the emotional bond and relationship between Sarah and Kyle in the first movie and we get a bunch of cheesy surrogate-father activity in T2 but they aren’t the mainstays of those two films.
I loved T1 and T2, I think they’re fantastic movies. I think T3 should have been different, but it had some okay elements. Personally, I think T4 (Terminator Salvation) is at least as good as T2. But the rush of bad reviews make me question my own experience, maybe I missed something they saw, maybe I saw something that wasn’t really there? I have to keep reminding myself that it’s art, and everyone experiences it differently. I think if you go in expecting something, and you don’t get it, then it leads to disappointment, and I think too many people went in with too many expectations. I’m not saying I lowered my expectations, but I went in prepared to watch MCG’s film, not my idea of what it should be, or my idea of how it should play out, but what he wanted to do and the film he wanted to make.
So with that said, here’s my actual comment on the film, and there are minor spoilers.
Terminator Salvation takes place in 2018, before the point in T1 where Connor sends Kyle back. As a viewer, things aren’t quite as you expect. John Connor is not the leader of the resistance, the Terminators are big ugly clunky slow devices, there are robots but they’re not roaming the whole of America (the rest of the world, as usual, doesn’t really exist), but it’s clear the war is on and that SkyNet has killed the majority of the human race. The resistance command (hiding in a submarine) is planning a major offensive, they’ve discovered a method of disabling the machines, and they’re ready to end the war.
John is in charge of a resistance cell, and during a mission (which starts the film) John learns that SkyNet is holding many human prisoners, for reasons unknown. He also learns SkyNet is aware of Kyle Reece. After John makes his escape, the mysterious Marcus emerges naked from the mostly destroyed SkyNet buildings. What follows is 60 minutes of chase sequences, fights and giant robots accompanied by loud special effects and some nice throw backs to the original movies. Eventually we learn (what everyone already knew) that Marcus is part-man and part-machine, which leads to another round of chases, attacks, fights and eventually some rescues and the conclusion to this chapter of the Terminator story.
The story revolves around John and Marcus essentially, with Kyle really just a side arc. I would be exaggerating if I said the plot was complex or deep, but it’s no different in that respect from the T2 story. The story is certainly engaging, and although you suspect much about the characters you are interested in seeing how the story plays out. There is genuine concern for the characters because it’s obvious from the outset this is not the future we were expecting, something is different, maybe sending Kyle back in the first place in T1 has changed the future already. It’s never clear that Connor, Kyle or Marcus will make it out alive and so the fights in which they end up are tense and thrilling. You really do get a sense of the power of the machines and the frailty of humanity.
The dialog is rarely if ever cheesy, and the characters are believable. I’ve seen complaints about the lack of character development but folks, please, the character development in a story arc this long has been done and really there wasn’t that much in the first movies. How much does anyone other than Sarah Connor change in the movies? Even then she really only changes in the first movie, in the second movie she is who she is and there’s little if any real development. So no, there’s not much character development in T4 but I don’t feel the movie is any worse for it. There are some nice character touches, and some touching moments.
The interplay between John and Marcus is strong, and while I agree that Worthington upstages Bale in many scenes, I think it’s the source material which causes that not necessarily acting chops. Anton Yelchin is superb as Kyle and probably the best overall T4 performance with an eye to previous appearances of the character, his “come with me if you want to live” line was crackling with history. The portrayal of humanity on the edge, with scum and villainy still rife and the arrogance of military command still present was better than some hokey image of humanity all pulling in the same direction against the machines.
There was some silliness, but it’s not unheard of in the Terminator franchise (you think a coffin is really suitable protection against military grade assault rifles), but nothing I struggled to forgive them for. The score is superb and the bone-vibrating sound enhanced my enjoyment despite some critics complaining it was too loud.
Overall it was an exhilarating and entertaining action movie which chewed through the 115 minute running time at a great pace. T4 shows us the start of the war against the machines and maybe things aren’t as different as we first thought. Terminator Salvation is really good, and you should really go and see it.