Terminator Salvation (review)

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Not So Heavy Metal

It’s a bleak future for humanity, a postnuclear world in which homo sapiens have been driven to near extinction by their own creations, the sentient machines. The skies are leaden with fallout, the survivors grim-faced and hard, the eyes of the pitiable children deadened to anything but scrounging like rats underground, the only marginally safe place left to hide from the genocidal metal.

Or, you know, not.
The year is 2018, the planet was nuked to cinders no more than 15 years earlier — which we know because a pre-Judgment Day sequence set in 2003 opens Terminator Salvation — but things ain’t so bad at all. Really, the nuclear holocaust doesn’t look to have been that terrible. Everyone has nice white teeth and shiny hair and the skies are blue and antibiotics may be hard to come by but immunosuppressive drugs for organ transplantation appear to be in ready supply. Sure, the Hollywood sign that looks down over Los Angeles is ruined, but that’s merely kinda ironic, doncha think? Oh, and the war against the machines looks like it’s going okay, what with the human resistance able to maintain the kind of radio network that can broadcast from Southern California to as far away as at least New York — with the suggestion that the broadcast may well be going out live globally. (Some machines are still our friends!) But heck, that’s nothing next to the resistance’s ability to manage and protect large airfields complete with wide runways jammed with fully fueled-up fighter jets. Oh, and the helicopters! You can almost hear “Ride of the Vietnam-kyries” in the score as they bring fiery death to the bad robots. It’s awesome!

Or, you know, not.

I know it’s pointless to complain about things like actors who look more like models than they do like people who’ve grown up in a radiation-ravaged world scavenging for food while trying not to get pulverized by killer computers. (I have no doubt that Moon Bloodgood [Pathfinder, Eight Below], who plays one of Connor’s fighter pilots here, may well deserve People Magazine’s designation as one of the 100 Most Beautiful People of 2009… but no one should look that good in this 2018.) But I damn well will complain that it appears that director McG — past perpetrator of such awfulnesses as We Are Marshall and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle — has less than a passing familiarity with the well-established universe he decided to play with. Has he seen another Terminator movie? Even just in snippets on an airplane or something? His screenwriters should have known better: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris both wrote Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines… though they also are responsible for the litter-box leavings of Catwoman, too.

Relativity-ly speaking, it’s only sort of a major-ish problem that this feels like a generic action flick unwilling to take any of the narrative risks previous films and the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series did. Every time we’ve met John Connor, the past has been getting altered and the future has been getting changed and the universe has been branching off into new timelines. Which was maddening, in a way, but also exhilarating, too — it kept what could have been a predictable story fresh in clever ways. But that’s too scary for Salvation, which contents itself with merely filling in a few holes that, frankly, didn’t need filling.

But the hugest of the movie’s many problems: Terminator Salvation is sentimental. It’s emotionally mushy. It presents us with a new model of Terminator in the Robocop-ized Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington: The Great Raid, Hart’s War), who donated his body from death row to mad-science in 2003, so that Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), as the Borg Queen, could make him a secret Cylon who doesn’t even know he’s a machine. So that when he wakes up in 2018 he can make John Connor fall in love with him. No, really. Can you imagine a proper John Connor hesitating for a single moment to blow the fuck away the metal standing in front of him, even if the metal does think it’s human? It’s damn near close to character rape, what McG, Brancato, and Ferris force Christian Bale’s (The Dark Knight, I’m Not There) Connor to do here, and to not do. It’s damn near close to sticking some C4 right into the bitter heart of the Terminator universe and blowing it up, the way they have their characters — not only Connor — behave. Are these soft people who have spent their lives in leisure? Or are they tough, cynical warriors who’ve been battling for their very existence against relentless machines that they know will stop at nothing to exterminate them?

Then again, maybe McG intended to destroy this franchise, cuz the boy sure do love him some explosions. Salvation doesn’t so much say, “Hey, world, here’s my new Terminator movie!” as it says, “Hey, Michael Bay, I. Am. Coming. For. You.” If McG hoped that his veritable orgy of techno toys — oo, look, a Terminator that’s like a motorcycle! oo, look, a gigantic Transforminator! — and stuff blowing up would be, you know, orgiastically thrilling, well, it isn’t. It’s boring. So boring that next to McG, Michael Bay is an auteur of cinematic destruction.

Perhaps Salvation’s only redeeming quality is that it is frequently hilarious, practically begging for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. Its deployment of clichés is admirable: If, for one, Skynet has put Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin: Star Trek, Charlie Bartlett) at the top of its most-wanted list, being clearly aware of Reese’s once-and-future importance to humanity, why doesn’t it kill him instantly the moment it captures him and thereby eliminate John Connor forever? Its stupidity is profound: If machine hunter-killers roam the night seeking out humans via infrared, why would anyone ever build a fire out in the open? Its borrowing of visual tropes from such sources as Ridley Scott’s 1984 Apple ad to James Cameron’s Aliens makes it ideal for hooting along to with your geek pals.

When you’re not crying your broken geek heart out, that is, to see John Connor defeated in such an ignominious way. Skynet didn’t need to send Terminators back in time to kill John Connor. It just needed to wait for McG to come along and do the job for it.

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Victor Plenty
Victor Plenty
Wed, May 20, 2009 1:26pm

Astroturfing appears to be well under way, with suspiciously high user ratings for this already showing up at Yahoo Movies, IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Thanks for enduring this and bringing warning back to us, MaryAnn.

hoptoad
hoptoad
Wed, May 20, 2009 1:48pm

If john connor “blew the fuck” out of ever metal he saw, he never would have sent arnie back in t2, would have tried to kill arnie in t3, and and would have never trusted Summer in the chronicles… much less SAVED HER on numerous occasions.

I must admit MaryAnn this aspect of your review has me a bit puzzled…

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Wed, May 20, 2009 1:54pm

You make an interesting point, hoptoad. And yet, how Connor behaves here feels completely phony.

JoshB
JoshB
Wed, May 20, 2009 1:59pm

Well hell. The trailer with the NIN background music almost had me believing this could be good.

Blackwater
Blackwater
Wed, May 20, 2009 2:00pm

Oh god, TSCC watchers. That shit isn’t canon and isn’t part of the movie universe.

Those are different circumstances anyway. Connor KNOWS he needs to send a terminator back.

C
C
Wed, May 20, 2009 2:07pm

I saw the movie lastnight and this review is very accurate. There were too many instances my brain screamed “WHY!?!?!?”…

You left out a good point though, John Connor was not the only character ‘raped’ onscreen. Skynet, the ruthless AI, manufacturing thousands of T800s a day, can only manage putting 1 or 2 on a high profile target at a time. The entire second scene of Helena Bonham Carter’s was also mindnumbingly stupid, unnecessary, and HUMAN… each minute it dragged on the review lost decimal points in my estimation.

If anybody is looking for a truthful review on TS, this is the one. Beyond a few scenes of hand-to-hand combat, the action is just passingly exciting, and while you almost have to see the fourth movie in a series, don’t expect to be satisfied.

Martin
Martin
Wed, May 20, 2009 2:36pm

I would say that there’s a difference between trusting machines and understanding how crucial they are to your destiny (Or whatever the temporal past tense for destiny is).

I think John Connor’s relationship with machines is something very complicated. He’s supposed to stop the machines and yet without their help in the past, he’d be dead. As was said in T3 (and one of the better bits in it), a Terminator was the closest thing he had to a real Father figure but he knows that he’s going to have to fight them.

I think it would be interesting for it to turn out that with all that meddling in time, John Connor actually becomes useless as a leader of the resistance. Just because someone survives, doesn’t mean that a different up-bringing would provide the same results.

JSW
JSW
Wed, May 20, 2009 2:40pm

Makes me glad that Terminator 2 was wrapped up in such a way that any future entries in the series are completely unnecessary (which doesn’t mean that they can’t be entertaining in their own rights.)

nerdycellist
Wed, May 20, 2009 2:48pm

Well crap.

I had been seeing this trailer squashed between the ones for Transformers and GI Joe and wound up with crap-blows-up fatigue. In that context, the film looked like it was going to be another one of those two-kids-playing-with-action-figures-making -kzhszz! – sounds-as-they-bang-them-together flicks. But then I remembered that Christian Bale is actually a good actor, and he had reprortedly refused to do this if the script couldn’t be read as a play and still be compelling.

Now that I know the film was not misrepresented in that trailers I’m sad. Thanks for the warning!

Jake
Jake
Wed, May 20, 2009 4:13pm

Is it possible that Skynet was using Reese as a trap to lure John in and kill them both? That was the impression that I got. I don’t think you really thought very hard. Sounds Like you wanted to dislike the movie for some reason. I know it isn’t as good as T1 or T2, but come on.

SaintAndy
SaintAndy
Wed, May 20, 2009 4:55pm

I haven’t seen it yet ..so this is more of a hypothetical question, but how come, according to your review, this is crap, and Wolverine was not? You basically have 2 crappy movies, with 2 very charismatic lead actors in them ..but one gets your vote, and the other one doesn’t.
What surprises me is that you don’t mention anything about Bale’s performance …surely at least that was a redeeming quality to the film.

Martin
Martin
Wed, May 20, 2009 5:32pm

@ Jake:

But surely killing Kyle Reese before he has the chance to go back in time to kill John will wipe John from the time-line. If, as has been pointed out in the review, Skynet knows who John Connor’s father is, it stands to reason that killing him before he’s had a chance to father Connor is the easiest way.

You either keep Connor’s parentage secret (although I can imagine a cliff-hanger scene where Skynet analyses both DNA samples and figures it out for itself) or state that killing Kyle before he fathers Connor is a paradox and something Skynet doesn’t want to risk.

If these (or something just as credible) is in the film, then it’s not a problem. If there isn’t, it’s sloppy writing.

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Wed, May 20, 2009 8:30pm

I think John Connor’s relationship with machines is something very complicated.

Yes, I agree. But there’s no hint of that in this film. He goes from “machines are irredeemably bad” to “oh, but this one is so cute and thinks he’s a person and awwwww” at the drop of a hat.

If, as has been pointed out in the review, Skynet knows who John Connor’s father is, it stands to reason that killing him before he’s had a chance to father Connor is the easiest way.

The reason why Skynet wants Reese is not explicitly stated, but if it’s NOT because he will eventually father John Connor, there’s no alternative explanation on offer. It’s the only reason for Skynet’s Interest that makes sense.

how come, according to your review, this is crap, and Wolverine was not?

Because they’re different movies, with different aims and agendas. And as goofy as *Wolverine* is, it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything or treat its characters unfairly.

What surprises me is that you don’t mention anything about Bale’s performance …surely at least that was a redeeming quality to the film.

No, not really. As much as we’ve heard lately about how Bale insisted his role be fleshed out, he’s really not much of a player here.

Honestly, though: the whole cast ranges from “fine” to “most excellent.” Anton Yelchin is one of the most impressive young actors working today. Bale is god. Bryce Dallas Howard is a goddess. I’m curious to see Worthington in other roles. But they’re all wasted. Why go to the bother of casting actual actors if you don’t need them to do any actual acting?

The problem with this movie is not the cast. But none of them are worth seeing the movie for.

Mathias
Mathias
Wed, May 20, 2009 10:35pm

The writers of Catwoman wrote another bad Terminator film?

Say it ain’t so.

Perphaps you should take some of the blame off McG’s well-deserving shoulders and place it on the writer’s feet. If these two never write another film again, it’ll be a good day for Hollywood.

Saladinho
Saladinho
Wed, May 20, 2009 10:45pm

“As goofy as Wolverine is, it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything or treat its characters unfairly.”

Hh. Tell that to Deadpool.

Doa766
Doa766
Wed, May 20, 2009 11:04pm

I heard there’s a good topless scene on this movie

Doa766
Doa766
Wed, May 20, 2009 11:18pm

“So boring that next to McG, Michael Bay is an auteur of cinematic destruction.”

this is something that pisses me off to no end: the notion that Michael Bay (and McG too for that matter) might be an awful storyteller but his action scenes are great; his action scenes are terrible, awfully staged, confusingly edited to hide that he can’t design anything that has momentum and/or makes sense, most of the time you can’t tell what’s happening between the huge fireballs

Michael Bay sucks at action scenes, I would even say that he’s better on the character/story scenes than in the action stuff (and his non-action scenes usually appear to be directed by a mentally challenge person)

Doa766
Doa766
Wed, May 20, 2009 11:32pm

“And as goofy as *Wolverine* is, it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything or treat its characters unfairly.”

You say that because all you know about Wolverine and the X-men universe comes from the other X-men movies, or in other words: nothing.

Wolverine and the other X-Men characters that appear on that film have a much larger and more detailed backstory and mythology than John Connor, and all that backstory and mythology were badly raped on that adaptation

Ken
Ken
Thu, May 21, 2009 12:27am

But the future is bleak. There’s not a throat lozenge to be found for anyone.

Brandon
Brandon
Thu, May 21, 2009 10:59am

“And as goofy as *Wolverine* is, it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything or treat its characters unfairly.”

WHAT? Oh LAWDY please be joking.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Thu, May 21, 2009 11:53am

Well, to be fair, I think MAJ is correct that, within the context of the X-men movies, Wolverine does treat the characters fairly, and dosen’t fundamentally change anything. Stryker here leads logically to Stryker in X2, Scott Sommers represents a younger version of the one we see later. Granted, Sabertooth seems to forget that he’s Logan’s brother, but then Sabertooth in X-men barely registers as a character.

One of the fundamental problems with Wolverine is that, since there is no discernable difference in Logan’s personality in any of the 4 films, and since he ends up with amnesia anyway, the events of that movie are irrelavent and advance the character o Logan not one whit. But it’s still fair to him.

Now, in the context of the comics, yes, the X-Men movies play fast and loose, tossing characters into roles they never had. Deadpool is probably the most egregios example. Which is bizzare: Hood and his screenwriters make the effort to get Wade right, but then thoughtlessly blend Deadpool and Weapon XI into an extraneous Big Bad that resembles neither character. Wierd.

I’d also point that some folks seem to be implying that Marvel is always fair to the characters in the comics and never fundamentally changes them. Really? REALLY??? ;)

C
C
Thu, May 21, 2009 1:53pm

For those who are doubting:
Wolverine WAS a better film. Which is sad.

Christian Bale has about 1 interesting scene, other than that he is shackled by an unwieldy script. NONE of the performances are worth watching. Sam Worthington’s character is the most interesting because it is the ONLY dynamic character in the whole movie… nobody else changes or presents anything interesting.

SaintAndy
SaintAndy
Thu, May 21, 2009 2:32pm

how come, according to your review, this is crap, and Wolverine was not?

Because they’re different movies, with different aims and agendas. And as goofy as *Wolverine* is, it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything or treat its characters unfairly.

That would seem to be the logical answer, and I suppose one can argue that, even though both films are crap, one is mildly entertaining, and the other one is not. However, it is my impression that you also seem to like certain actors (such as Crowe, or Jackman) and that influences your perception of the film accordingly. No one can really blame you for that, film critic or no film critic. Bottom line, it was my understanding that, had Bale been one of your favourites (boyfriends?) you might have given Terminator 4 a higher rating.

On a different topic, I must say I agree with posters above, and I would never rank Bay higher than any other director (except, perhaps, Boll).
Every time I read/hear/see another misguided teen (and even adults who are still stuck in teen gear) praising Bay’s films to the sky, it makes my blood boil. His films are an abomination, and they’re boring, soulless, and mindless. Ratner or McG can sometimes deliver passable creations, Bay just does the same loud, stupid shit over and over again, obviously catering to a loud, stupid audience.

Saladinho
Saladinho
Thu, May 21, 2009 2:44pm

I’m sorry Good Doctor, but I don’t see anyone implying anything of the sort about Marvel.

The Wolverine film is crap just like this new Terminator probably is (haven’t seen it yet, and am now afraid to), and it’s both unfair to its characters and the viewer’s intelligence.

The movie has Stryker kill a general and get arrested for it, and then we’re supposed to believe he was able to become an army col. in X2.

Sabretooth apparently gets amnesia in the first X-men movie and forgets that Wolvie is his brother, and he’s apparently devolved into a more canine state in the intervening years.

Also, somehow, even though his dad’s name is Thomas Logan, his name is Creed.

And poor Deadpool. The “Merc with a Mouth” has no mouth.

Ah! It ultimately doesn’t matter. Two wrongs don’t make a right :(

David Ellis
David Ellis
Thu, May 21, 2009 4:21pm

Killing Reese doesn’t take out Connor when he already exists in this timeline.

Martin
Martin
Fri, May 22, 2009 1:10am

David Ellis, are you suggesting that killing Reese (or indeed anything that constitutes ‘mucking about’ with the timelines) would create an alternate timeline so as long as we stay in this timeline it’s OK?

If so, then all time travel is pointless, you can’t change the past (or the future) you can only create new parallel universes. If that’s the case, then all then the whole Terminator franchise is pointless, there’s no need for Skynet to send 3 Terminators back in time because Connor exists in that timeline and you’re only creating alternate realities.

I’m sure that these alternate realities are awesome and filled with rainbows and sunshine (for whichever side does the altering) but how does that affect the parties (nearly said people there) that want to do the changing unless they have a way of jumping into that new reality.

May I redirect you to Wibbley Wobbley, Timey Wimey?

Newbs
Fri, May 22, 2009 9:39am

It was no masterpiece, I get it, but Terminator Salvation was way better than Wolverine. I just can’t get my mind around the vitriol I’m seeing in response to this film. It’s really good, and has just a hint of deeper sci-fi elements to fuel the imagination. 35% on Rotten Tomatoes seems like overreaction to something other than the actual film.

I’m kinda glad it’s gonna make 80 million bucks this weekend, not that box office is any measure of quality — I just really wanna see the sequel. This was an excellent action adventure flick, full of badass cinematic moments and cool ideas.

Victor Plenty
Victor Plenty
Fri, May 22, 2009 7:22pm

I feel really sorry for you, Newbs, if you end up having the same experience I did, last time I found myself thinking: “Yeah, everybody hates this movie… but I really want to see the sequel.”

In that case, the movie in question was The Matrix Reloaded, and very few will need me to explain why that did not end up anywhere near so well as I had hoped.

May your luck be better than mine.

son of connor
son of connor
Sun, May 24, 2009 4:53am

There’s a real neat trick I learned from film school, its called ‘suspension of disbelief. If you master it, there’s a very bright future ahead of you in this business (the movie going business)

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Sun, May 24, 2009 5:33am

Hey, I’ve heard of that thing! One of the interesting things about suspension of disbelief is that it is not actually the same as just mindlessly approving of any chod that gets set down in front of you.

son of connor
son of connor
Sun, May 24, 2009 7:44am

Hiya Bruno, want to hear something funny? my comment wasnt actually directed at this movie at all :p (I havnt even seen it yet)

ameliab.
ameliab.
Wed, May 27, 2009 12:49am

I don’t know about you guys, but I really think C. Bale’s lost something…I fell in love with him waaaayyy back when “Empire of the Sun” came out, and watched him flourish into a truly unique actor. There was something genuinely vulnerable and intuitive about him; he had an edge that never got the better of him–in other words, he was open. Now it’s the opposite. I guess American Psycho drained the last of his spark–understandably so–because ever since the guy’s got no emotional range, no spark, and certainly doesn’t seem interested in the work. I read his recent GQ interview and frankly, the guy’s pretty odious. (He reminds me of those tools we ALL went to school with who wrote bad music on their acoustic guitars and made us listen at parties, who read bad poetry and underlined the worst parts and never smiled and told any potential girlfriend that he had to be a loner, that he just couldn’t love, yada-yada.) If you’re sick of the day job Chris, hang it up and do something else. Otherwise, wake the f*ck up and give us a little more than a pretentious “artiste.”

RogerBW
RogerBW
Thu, May 28, 2009 9:02am

A reasonably plausible-sounding claim about the original direction of T:S, and how and why it was changed, is here:

http://chud.com/articles/articles/19577/1/EXCLUSIVE-WHAT-WENT-WRONG-WITH-TERMINATOR-SALVATION/Page1.html

The original script described there certainly doesn’t sound like a masterpiece, but it does make more sense as an “event film” (as opposed to an “episode film”) than what we got.

Dr Rocketscience
Dr Rocketscience
Thu, May 28, 2009 11:23am

Ah, dammit Roger, I thought that was my idea. ;-)

Cause after seeing T:S last night, my wife commented that without the Terminator setting and characters, you might have had an OK sci-fi/action movie. That got me thinking about my own 2 script explanation.

My theory is that there was this script about Marcus Wright, convicted but remorseful murderer, who donates his body, wakes up as cyborg, and gets his “second chance” to make amends by saving the world. This script – deemed by producers to be trite, amateurish, and derivative of things like Demolition Man and the Terminator movies – was getting passed around, its best hope to someday become a “Syfy Pictures Original.”

Meanwhile, there was another script for a fourth Terminator movie floating around. The “twists” in that script were that, a) it was set in the post-Judgment Day future; and that b) in it Conner had to save Kyle Reese’s life in order to be able to send him back in time later. But that script was languishing as well, probably due to plot holes that were proving difficult to close and a need to be padded out to about 2 hours or so.

So, someone gets a hold of the Marcus Wright script, notices the Terminator elements already in place, a decides to blend the two scripts. By now the studio is pushing hard for a 2009 release, so the hastily written script carries its own set of problems: the parallel stories never quite match up; many of the plot holes are still left unaddressed; and there are vestiges of other stories floating around. For instance, why does the Helena Bonham Carter character have cancer if nothing ever comes of that fact? Because that opening scene was copy/pasted as-is into the new script, the only connection of the doctor to Skynet being a quick shot of a sheet of paper bearing the Cyberdyne logo, probably added in post-production.

Well, it’s a theory. The one linked above is probably more accurate. Either way, I think we’re looking at two competing scripts.

Newbs
Fri, May 29, 2009 11:17am

Dr Rocketscience (Thu May 28 09, 11:23AM):

Well, it’s a theory. The one linked above is probably more accurate. Either way, I think we’re looking at two competing scripts.

Well, the CHUD article is based on an actual script to which the author has access, so it’s very accurate. It’s frustrating though, how horrified the entire internet was after the initial Ain’t it Cool spoiler leak — and now almost universally folks are saying that would’ve been a badass ending. You can’t win with the internet, is the lesson. Here’s a great clip from Drew McWeeney’s blog where he interviews McG about this very thing. It’s pretty interesting.

Dexter Morgan
Dexter Morgan
Sat, May 30, 2009 9:57am

You can’t win with the internet, is the lesson.

The Internet is indeed a harsh mistress.

Paul
Thu, Aug 13, 2009 9:57am

Ah, that script doctoring explains a lot of my problems with the movie. When writers rewrite they have to be careful to go back and make sure the new elements mesh properly with the old ones.

But to say something positive, I thought there was something grimier and grittier about the special effects in this movie, right down to the film. T2 and T3’s special effects were just too pretty and slick. While I agree that life in their world was in some ways too good, it had a grimy, scary feel to it.