By Marty Mulrooney
After seeing Terminator Salvation last night, I was somewhat lost for words (unusual for me I can assure you.) The state I was in as I drove home was made up of both positives and negatives, all of which raced through my mind in some kind of self-loathing, fan-boyish frenzy. As a long time fan of the Terminator franchise (not including the extremely disappointing T3), I had high hopes for the latest installment, against my better judgement.
After all, Terminator 3 had been a huge step down from the prior films, and the director of this fourth outing was the somewhat annoyingly named McG (real name Joseph McGinty), whose past examples of cinematic excellence included the Charlies Angels films. (Groan.) On the other hand, the trailers looked excellent, Christian Bale was cast as John Connor, and Stan Winston was back to do what he does best via animatronic gags etc. (Sadly, Stan Winston died during the creation of the film. The production was dedicated to him in the end credits.)
The film begins in the modern day on death-row, introducing new character Marcus Wright as he agrees to sign his dead body over to medical science. Arguably the best performance in the whole film, relative newcomer Sam Worthington plays this character perfectly. Helena Bonham Carter is also sufficiently interesting/ creepy as the ex-Cyberdyne employee Dr. Serena Kogan, suffering from terminal cancer, who arrives to get the papers signed before Marcus is given the lethal injection. How Marcus then wakes up in the desert when the film begins proper in 2018 is the films biggest surprise and a major plot point.
*SPOILER WARNING* As the new main Terminator of sorts (to be fair this was already given away in the bloody trailer), he doesn’t quite fill Arnie’s boots just yet (if only because that was such an iconic performance in action cinema) but he definitely acts well beyond the majority of his co-stars and has a great screen-presence. His physicality is surprisingly solid as well, you can definitely believe he can take on a T-800 with his bare hands. It come as no surprise to me that James Cameron apparently suggested him as a good choice after working with him on his new film Avatar. *SPOILER OVER*
After this opening, the film wastes no time in advancing to the year 2018. First and foremost, this is definitely a terminator film in the sense that it involves the future war against Skynet, previously only ever shown briefly. Here, it is shown in all of its glory (albeit, it is a different one than was shown in Terminator 1 and 2… Terminator 3, although a poor film overall, did feature an ending that changed the game somewhat, as Skynet went live and created a new Judgement Day after the old one had been prevented.)
Still, this is the first Terminator to not take place in a familiar modern setting, instead taking place in a future where nuclear war has left the world a barren desert landscape, American cities such as L.A (the setting of the previous terminator films) consisting solely of building shells and burnt out vehicles. In some ways, this visual style reminded me a lot of the Mad Max films. The muted colour pallet definitely added to this feeling of desperation and despair afflicting the human race. Certainly, this is not the future war as depicted in the previous films. I will be totally honest and admit that whilst in some ways I enjoyed the setting, in other ways I felt it was slightly bland and generic. It didn’t really stand out for me personally.
On the other hand, the new machines shown in this film are excellent. The giant Harvester machine may look slightly ripped off from Star Wars, but this is soon forgotten when it is seen in action. It is truly a sight to behold, and the ante is only upped further when the next new robots emerge from its legs: the Mototerminators:
These bad-boys truly are little beauties, zipping along at ferocious speed, slipping and sliding everywhere, using advanced calculations to avoid collisions and even slide sideways under cars flung into their path. (Sadly, the film then ruins this later on when John Connor captures one by luring it with music (okay okay, it was admittedly a very cool nod to Gun and Roses from T2) and then causing it to crash with… a rope pulled across the road. Hmm.
The earlier model T600, as described by Kyle Reese in the original film, is present here and looks very creepy. Bulky, slow moving and with poor rubber skin and glowing red eyes, you can genuinely imagine being hunted by these determined metal killers. Speaking of Kyle Reese, Anton Yelchin gives an excellent performance here as a younger version of the character, wisely choosing to only show hints of the man he will become, instead of simply emulating Michael Bein.
The effects are excellent throughout, paired with music of a pleasantly high quality (Danny Elfman mixes the old with the new very well.) I think the main problems for me were on a script level. The story was at times excellent, and other times seemed quite weak. *SPOILER WARNING*(A simple noise to defeat the machines? Please!) *SPOILER OVER* Also, the film simply didn’t have that many memorable lines. The lines that did get a reaction were usually nods to the previous films, “I’ll be back” etc. I would have liked to see John Connor or Marcus say something new that would be remembered and quoted. A lot of the dialogue felt a bit on-the-nose and scripted to me, which is a shame. For example, the current Resistance Leader is played by veteran actor Michael Ironside (nice and grisly, as had already been proved in Starship Troopers.) Still, he isn’t given much to say or do besides being stereotypically difficult, condemning innocent lives when John wants to save them. I wanted more meat!
This also leaks in to other areas of the film. Having recently re-watched T2, it is actually surprising just how many human interactions there were. Young John with the protector T-800. John and his mother. His mother and her Mexican contacts. Miles Dyson and his wife. Sarah and the T-800’s reluctant mutual respect. You get the idea. Sam Worthington has a nice bit of interaction with resistance member Blair Williams (played by Blood Moongood, who I am sure plenty of people would kill to interact with) yet even this seems slightly rushed and underdeveloped. The best relationship is probably between Marcus and the young Reese, because it feels natural and both actors give the standout performances of the film.
Which finally bring me to Christian Bale, who has recently been cemented in viewer’s minds as the new Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. This may prove controversial, but I actually felt he was slightly miscast. At one point in the film he did his raspy Batman voice down a communications radio and I nearly laughed out loud in the cinema. He is a hugely capable actor, and to be fair the terminator franchise has never been about tremendous acting anyway (although Linda Hamilton in T2 is as good as any performance I have ever seen. Her voice cameo in this film is hugely welcome), yet I still wish the script had given him more development, and more to do. Instead, he was a pretty straightforward bad-ass, with a pregnant wife whose pregnancy is never mentioned at all, who he hardly interacts with, who looks the part but sadly sometimes seems to be just going through the motions. Case in point: there is hardly any interactive magic between Bale and Worthington. I would even venture so far as to say that Worthington out-acts Bale, although admittedly he had the better role. (Which was actually offered to Bale in the first place!)
The ending showdown stumbles here and there, but nearly makes everything worthwhile after-all, with a thrilling battle with the very first T-800 at a Skynet factory directed with plenty of gusto and kinetic energy. The happy ending afterwards may feel tacked on, but I guess it does leave plenty of space for the story to continue.
*SPOILER WARNING* The T-800 in the final battle starts out fully skinned, with seamless special effects recreating Arnie as he looked in the original Terminator! This looked amazingly good and was a very nice cameo (of sorts). It definitely tied the film a lot more into the prior chapters and was a great way to please fans of the originals. *SPOILER OVER*
In the end, I think how much fun you get out of this film depends on what you expect in the first place. I know several other people who loved the film and didn’t dwell as much on the legacy it was building upon as I did (I think I am officially a geek now). It is very different in tone from the classic originals, yet I did feel it worked well as an action film and had some great special effects. The first of a planned trilogy, I now hope they spend more time on the actual scripts so there are less mistakes and inconsistencies, and so that Christian Bale can blow us all away with his true acting ability rather than just looking tough and reading his lines. (Oh, and of course melting down on set. Sorry, had to get that in somewhere!) I don’t usually give scores, but for arguments sake I would say this film can fall anywhere between a 7 (for a picky fan like me) and a 9 (for somebody with lower expectations who just wants a good summer blockbuster) out of 10. The good news is, this is definitely a much better film than Terminator 3, which I hated. Bring on Terminator 5…
In short, I liked:
- Sam Worthington as the new terminator. He shows plenty of promise, and I hope he is brought back in the next film.
- The music. Danny Elfman used the old score in the right places, and the new score was pleasant enough.
- Moon Bloodgood… need an explanation?
- The effects!
- The new terminators. They were creative and fitted in well with the established universe.
- Helena Bonham Carter. She was very creepy when Skynet used her as a familiar face to communicate with Marcus.
- John Conner’s battles with the torso of a terminator near the beginning, and his battle near the end with the very first T-800. (Arnie is back!)
- The new setting. At least in some instances, it felt a little too generic. I often noticed flames emitting from funnels and barrels. Looks good, but makes no sense really!
- The inconsistent script. Kyle Reese is explained to be number 1 on the Skynet hit-list. Why not kill him immediately when captured and then John can never send him back?
- Skynet’s plan. Skynet goes all James Bond baddie at the end and explains its evil plans to Marcus. Marcus then pulls the Skynet chip out of the back of his head (how he knew exactly where it was, and why it was put somewhere so vulnerable anyway, is beyond me.) Marcus also escapes from the room he is in by smashing the glass. Surely Skynet could have just built a reinforced room and kept him there?
- Skynet’s plan part 2: Why rely on one T-800 to kill John at the end? Why not just deploy every single machine in the area? John would have been toast. Instead, they have a plan that relies a lot on chance (Marcus may have never ran into Kyle Reese in the first place, may never have fixed the radio and heard John Connor, etc etc.)
- The decrease in strength of the terminators from prior films. In the past, if a terminator got anywhere near a human, it could easily punch its entire arm through their body, killing them instantly. Think about it, in the last 3 films (yes, even the third one!) a terminator never once touches John Connor. That is the excitement of the chase. Here, they grab him… then throw him against a far away wall so he has the chance to escape. This happens a few times and makes them seem less intimidating and more tame. I want that dangerous feeling of a killer machine to come back! I guess PG-13 won’t allow for the gore that this would require.
Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming Terminator 2: Skynet Edition Bluray review, coming soon.