Revisiting the Reviled — ‘Terminator Salvation’ Occupies an Awkward Place in Time

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

Be careful what you wish for. We’ve all heard that uttered to us in one form or another, but it is especially relevant when approaching pop culture. As prequels and other retreads of beloved properties have shown us, sometimes explaining the mythos behind a story can be wholly unsatisfying – I’m looking at you, Star Wars prequels. Another example of this would be Terminator Salvation. The fourth Terminator film would be entirely set in the post-apocalyptic battlefield for humanity’s future. It’s a setting that fans have been clamoring for since that battlefield was teased in both the first and second Terminator movies. With Christian Bale hot off The Dark Knight set to star as John Connor, what could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a bit. In trying so hard to give the audience what they wanted, the makers of Terminator Salvation instead pleased nobody, making the most generally disliked Terminator movie of them all (yes, it is worse than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, though there’s room for debate).

Following 2003’s Terminator 3, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to be Governor of California. Without the iconic actor being able to reprise his role, director McG along with screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, had an opportunity to craft a bold new vision for the future of Terminator, but they collaborated on a film that suffers from severe symptoms of callbackitis and ultimately tries to cram too much into its metallic frame. This is a bulky monstrosity, not a lean, efficient killing machine. No wonder humanity is losing the war.

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2009 was a very different year. America was just entering its brief, bewildering fascination with Sam Worthington. Terminator Salvation opens with his character Marcus Wright facing down the end of his death row sentence. Before he feels the lethal combination coursing through his veins, he signs away his body to Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), the terminally ill idealist of Cyberdyne, the company behind the eventual war between man and machine.

The film then takes us to the frontlines of that very war. John Connor, the aforementioned Bale, is not the leader of the resistance, just a high ranking soldier. Viewed by some as a prophet and others as a charlatan, Connor’s assault on the Skynet installation goes entirely wrong. Though they were able to abscond with valuable information, Connor was the sole survivor of the raid after the site is blown to bits. As Connor makes his getaway, a naked and muddied Marcus feels the air for the first time in years, howling at the moon from his newfound liberation. Unaware of the ensuing apocalyptic war, Marcus is saved by Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the future time traveling father of John Connor. But when Kyle is captured by the machines and Marcus revealed to be a human-machine hybrid, John Connor must face the greatest challenge in his life – getting through this movie.

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Sad that part about Terminator Salvation is that there’s an interesting angle about John Connor that is underplayed. The idea about Connor having doubters and working to prove himself right while facing political opposition is compelling enough that the film doesn’t need the mechanized Marcus and his moral quagmire. Of course, this didn’t work upon its release because the reveal of Marcus’ metamorphosis into machinery was given away in the trailers while the film earnestly plays it as a shocking revelation. (The same thing happened in T2.) Marketing flaws aside, this character and his purpose only muddle what would otherwise been a fairly effective post-apocalyptic romp.

Even having not seen Terminator Genisys, Salvation falls into the same pitfalls as every other Terminator sequel – having at least one Terminator as a good guy. What was an interesting, if prematurely revealed, twist in T2 with the killing machine as a force for good, diminishes with each go ‘round. And if there’s ever a time to reestablish the Terminator as something to be feared, wouldn’t the war between man and machine in a desolate wasteland once called society be the perfect time? Not in this movie.

Not only does Salvation once again diminish the terror of the Terminators, it falls into the trap that is often seen in remakes and reboots of long-standing franchise – a need to endlessly reference the past. It’s not enough that characters have to mutter “I’ll be back,” and “Come with me if you want to live,” the action scenes are also callbacks to prior installments. When Marcus and Kyle are in a tow truck being chased by motorcycle Terminators, multiple elements – a motorcycle jump, the removal of a windshield – are merely references to a similar chase in T2. Even the climactic fight between Connor and the T-800 ends in a manner that once again references T2. There are more and more of these moments throughout Salvation, though I have no intention of cataloguing each asinine callback. Terminator Salvation, like many other films before and since, is deathly afraid to be its own movie, hence the CGI Arnold that appears at towards the end of the film.

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Terminator Salvation isn’t a good movie, but it’s not an overwhelming incompetent film. McG stages some pretty good action in the film’s opening. But the wheels come off when it reintroduces Marcus decades after his execution. He’s just a nothing character that serves little purpose in the whole other than to slow down the film. A former music video director, McG can sneak in some stylized scenes, though he can never get style and story to work together. And he includes weird flourishes that feel incredibly out of place, like when a radio starts play Alice in Chains.

Intended to start a new franchise, Terminator Salvation underperformed at the box office and the rights to the franchise expired, resulting in Terminator Genisys. But those glimpses into the futuristic war from the first two films poisoned the well. Over 20-plus years, we’ve individually built up that war in our imaginations into something that no filmmaker could convey. That’s the thing – not everything we love in movies needs to be explained in great detail. All these years later and the only thing people remember Terminator Salvation for is Christian Bale’s enraged rant at cinematographer Shane Hurlbut. Amazingly, this is the only Terminator movie without any time travel. I’m willing to bet a few people would like to go back in time and erase Terminator Salvation.

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