Terminator Salvation

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 05/21/09 14:00:00

1 stars (Total Crap)

The summer of ’09 has been populated thus far with two prequels and a prequel that became a sequel. The fourth Terminator film is a sequel on the timeline of the series but still comes before the time a certain Schwarzenegger model was created. It is the beginnings of our hero, John Connor, even though we’ve watched his adventures and legend grow in a trilogy of films. After 25 years of waiting, he’s all grown up and waiting to save mankind and potentially even a summer populated by the ridiculous (Wolverine, Angels & Demons) and the wildly overrated (Star Trek). Save us John Connor! Wait, what’s that? Joseph McGinty is calling the shots? The auteur of Charlie’s Angels known as McG? Who are we kidding? We’ve known this for a while but keep trying to forget this little nugget that one of the best and most consistent action franchises had been handed over to this guy. Press on though we did trying to think positive that our memories and some big dumb action would save the day and pull us through the fourth chapter. It’s safe to say though that the machines have won this battle, using a title as sad irony as audiences will be forced to slog through one of the most inept screenplays for a big budget blockbuster we’ve been privy to in some time.

Taking place in the year 2018 (14 years after Judgment Day began in the previous film), resistance fighters continue to fight the war against Skynet, the military software that became self-aware and wiped out most of the human race. For those who missed Linda Hamilton’s opening narration to Terminator 2, you get it printed out here nearly verbatim. John Connor (Christian Bale) has been called “a false prophet” for all the knowledge he presumably relegated to his military comrades. After discovering the blueprints though for the next model of Terminator (the T-800s), where human tissue will disguise the metal exoskeleton, an attack leaves John the only survivor. He is picked up by the underwater resistance, some joint American/Russian submarine base led by General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) who enlists John in a plot to take down Skynet Central, even at the cost of all the human lives now being harvested by the machines.

Across the landscape having escaped from that initial attack unscathed, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a former death row inmate who donated his body to science fiction, meets up with a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, who was barely believable as a young Walter Koenig let alone Michael Biehn) and his even younger, mute sidekick Star (Jadagrace). Kyle hasn’t earned his stripes in the resistance yet and certainly doesn’t know that someday he will get to have sex with Sarah Connor and spawn John. After he’s captured, Marcus finds Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), a pilot for the Connor crew that also includes Barnes (Common) and John’s pregnant doctor wife, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard). Marcus gets Blair out of a couple scrapes and she tries to return the favor when a landmine finally makes a dent in the chiseled loner. Enough dents to show some of that chisel came courtesy of a blowtorch. For underneath his wounds is the very exoskeleton that has been hunting down what’s left of humanity. This is news not only to our heroes but also to Marcus him/itself.

The haphazard description of the plot is no accident since Terminator Salvation can’t make up its mind what story its trying to tell. Our brains keep telling us that is John Connor’s story. It always has been. So then why does the film provide more concentration on this Marcus character? Beginning with the impossible feat of creating a more stupefying prologue than this summer’s Wolverine Origins, Marcus takes the spotlight from Bale’s John, turning him into a supporting player in his own franchise. The way John Connor is written (and eventually played by Bale), he’s a one-note scowl-a-minute that runs counter to the eventual message it tries to wrangle in about the differences between man and metal. So why not a little Marcus to take the reigns and spin things off for future Terminator fans? Because the film doesn’t know what to do with him either.

From the early trailers, there was evidence to suggest that screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (responsible for such gems as the giant alligator film, Primeval, and giant turd, Catwoman) had seen a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica in their day. The behavioral patterns of a machine who thinks they are a man seemed right out of the deservedly acclaimed retooling of that sci-fi series. Marcus’ plight though (aside from the obvious hints of the opening scene where he signs the Cyberdyne forms to take away his Australian accent) doesn’t take shape until midway through the film giving us little time to fully grasp all the implications of his situation, but certainly enough to recognize all the inconsistencies.

The output of Cyberdyne labs have always been tracked in easy numerical multipliers (like Atari home game systems.) The T-600 were the prototypes with rubber skin over the purely metal Terminators. T-800s were the harder to spot models with blood and sweat. The T-1000 was liquid metal and so on. The condemned-to-death Marcus (whom we know little more than his involvement in the death of his brother and two cops) is goaded into his donation by Dr. Serena Kogan (an inexplicably cast Helena Bonham Carter) who is concerned about the future of the human race. What she’s so paranoid about in 2003, a full year before Judgment Day, is anybody’s guess. Now we’re meant to believe that Marcus has no knowledge of what’s become of his body. He doesn’t even seem phased by his indestructibility that is tested more than once. His previous memories intact and all, fine, we’ll buy that. Precisely how are the machines using this guy as an infiltrator then? There’s no suggestion that his every move is being tracked by Skynet making him an ideal spy. The machines can’t even find Connor’s base despite having Terminating Water Moccasins in a pond on its outskirts.

So if Marcus believes he’s human and has no mission, what precisely are the machines expecting him to do? Are they awaiting him to discover his true nature so he can do more than to look down and scream…TWICE?! If Connor has just discovered the plans for the T-800, what model is Marcus supposed to be? You certainly don’t start with a complete package like him and then regress to Schwarzenegger’s Model 101. And in 2018, John hasn’t become THE leader yet. Sure he’s got a ragtag group and makes the occasional Tokyo Rose broadcast, but in the opening mission it’s made very clear – “you are not leading this mission, Connor.” Then why has Skynet been hunting down Connor for years? He doesn’t smash their defense grid until 2029 which is when the original T-800 is sent back to 1984 to destroy his mother. Why the elaborate trap using Kyle Reese when the system should have no knowledge he’s John’s father? Shouldn’t Ferris & Brancato know a little bit of this since they penned Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines?

That film has become some kind of pariah in the years since its release. I still believe that director Jonathan Mostow (the more than competent action director of Breakdown and U-571) delivered a tautly executed successor to the Cameron films and can be easily defended over most by-the-number actioners simply for its ultra-destructive tow truck chase and surprisingly dark ending. Those ready to jump on the bandwagon for the fourth picture (as if Brett Ratner had somehow ruined the series) need to be prepared for a long jump since McG’s sense of direction is like a blind man who never has to turn left or right. And I don’t put the fault entirely at McG’s door. He’s certainly not learned anything in the storytelling department (even after mucking up a completely by-the-numbers story like We Are Marshall) but at least he gives a few of the action scenes a little room to breathe. The biggest set piece though is basically something that may have been cut out of Transformers and suggests that Marcus may be a thinly veiled microcosm of McG himself; a robotic entity with no identity but a nickname and a few memories of things he saw over the years. Like the sentinels from The Matrix, the plucked-up people and cattle calls from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, General Grievous from Revenge of the Sith the "you arrogant ass, you've killed us" moment from The Hunt for Red October and about another half-dozen lifted derivatives. He even works in a reference to his television show, Chuck, as Marcus has a Johnny Mnemonic “O”-face when he scans over the entire history of Skynet. A shame Brancato & Ferris couldn’t get their hands on a Terminator intersect.

If the Terminator series was defined as a series of extraordinary set pieces with the occasional nugget of sci-fi ideology about where the human race is headed, then the least Salvation could have been is a big, dumb summer spectacular. Light on ideas but heavy on action. The appearance of guns and explosions are there but none of it makes a lasting impression on us from one scene into the next and the hunt for a PG-13 rating has certainly neutered the film beyond repair. There’s nothing more unsightly than an escapee being mowed down by a minigun and then merely slumping over a fence. With the first hour, in particular, alternating between John and Marcus, audiences may feel this is what Cormac McCarthy’s The Road would look like if directed by Michael Bay. The smarter Brancato and Ferris try to get by interjecting 101 parallels between the human heart and the soulless machines (and the danger of us behaving just like them) the dumber Terminator Salvation becomes. By the time it looks like Richard Dawson’s Running Man crew created another stunt body double to get audiences all riled up, all the nostaglia has been sucked out thanks to a script unworthy of a direct-to-video sequel. At film's end, I'm unsure over precisely who has been saved? John Connor? Humanity? Or audiences who will save countless hours by never feeling the need to revisit this film again.

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