Movie Review: Terminator Salvation
By Matthew Huntley
June 4, 2009
Terminator Salvation is fun and exciting once you accept it won't have the same brains or emotions as its predecessors. I wouldn't even categorize it as science fiction; it's more a full blown action extravaganza with expensive special effects and a ceaseless momentum, although both are done well.
I wasn't expecting Salvation to hold a candle to James Cameron's Terminator movies, which have firmly cemented themselves in the pantheon of Hollywood science fiction. They exist on a whole other level of filmmaking, one that was inspiring, original and set a high bar.
McG's Salvation, on the other hand, is more derivative and seems less interested in the intelligence and moral dilemmas offered by the first two installments. It cares more about action, violence and stunts. That's not a bad thing, per se, and they help to keep the movie going, but they also seal its fate to be less impacting down the road. Unlike the first two films, and to a lesser extent, the third one, I don't expect to remember Terminator Salvation for very long. Yet, for the two hours I spent watching it in the theater, I liked what it had to offer.
The plot opens in 2003, when a death row inmate named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signs his body over to science at the request of an ailing doctor (Helena Bonham Carter). Marcus believes it will be for a good cause and a chance to redeem himself of past sins. Fifteen years later, he wakes up in a post-Judgment Day dystopia (a la Mad Max) and discovers he's in the middle of a war between the machines and the struggling human resistance.
The humans are spread throughout the world and led by John Connor (Christian Bale), who has become the race's symbol of hope and endurance. He, along with other Resistance leaders, intercepts Skynet's plans to execute a list of significant humans at the machines' headquarters in San Francisco, including Connor himself and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). You'll recall Kyle Reese is John Connor's father and one of the essential figures in the humans' ability to fight back.
What I'd like to know is how the screenwriters would handle the situation of Kyle Reese actually dying. Let's say he took a bullet to the head. Would John Connor and the Resistance suddenly vanish because they would cease to exist? Would it be like Back to the Future and their bodies would gradually disappear or would it be instantaneous? This is one paradox the Terminator franchise never explained, along with how John Connor ever came to exist in the first place. In the original Terminator, he sent his father back in time to protect his mother. They made love and created John. Okay, but then how did John Connor ever come to exist during the first timeline — the one when he first sent Reese back in time? By sending Reese back, did John wind up changing who his father was because Reese got the job done first?
But I digress. By now, the plot is not meant to explain such inquiries. It's just an excuse for lavish action sequences, which are handled surprisingly well. The sound design and visual effects are exceptional and place us inside the action instead of making us mere observers of it. One superb chase scene takes place when Marcus, Reese and a mute child survivor (Jadagrace Berry) flee from a flying Terminator vessel while driving a tow truck. They must maneuver and dodge not only the flying aircraft but a couple of automated Terminator machines on motorcycles. The sequence provides quite a rush.
A lot of the movie steals from the first two installments, including the ending that features lava, liquid nitrogen and an arm reaching out for one last effort to destroy the human in front of it. Still, for whatever reason, this recycled material felt fresh and I found it entertaining on a visceral level. It probably could have ended sooner if the Terminators took less time to throw John Connor and Kyle Reese around the room instead of simply breaking their necks. But then, we wouldn't have much of a movie.
You'll notice I didn't go into much detail about the plot. There are two reasons for this: 1) there isn't a whole lot of plot to describe and 2) I didn't want to reveal a plot point that may spoil the surprise twist, even though the trailer gives it away. Nevertheless, the surprise is kind of neat and adds an interesting dimension to the Terminator mythology, one that I wish the movie explored further.
There are hundreds of science fiction and action movies better than Terminator Salvation, but the movie provided me enough thrills and eye candy to recommend it. McG and his production team get us to react to the action instead of simply watching it. I suggest you go in with neutral expectations of the plot and allow yourself to be immersed in the visual and aural effects. They'll provide you some exhilarating moments for sure, even if you won't remember them for very long.