Terminator Salvation (2009, McG)

Salvation

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

During a war with sentient machines, John Connor is given a mission to storm the opposition’s headquarters. Meanwhile, a mysterious man can’t remember anything since his own death 15 years earlier…

Main characters:

* Top billed is Christian Bale, playing the third on-screen John Connor we’ve had in this series. (The fourth if you count a cameo of an older version in 2029. The fifth if you count a TV series. More on that later…) After the teen of T2 and the twenty-something of T3, John is now a man of 33 (ie, the age that another idealistic JC was when he was crucified) and is fighting for the human resistance forces in the post-apocalyptic war we’ve been told about since the original movie. It’s a tough, harsh, cold world as the few remaining humans attempt to combat all-powerful metallic overlords. John has yet to reach his destiny position as the movement’s leader, however; here, in 2018, he has superiors whose orders he doesn’t always agree with. When he meets a cyborg with no love for the enemy, Skynet, John is not enamoured but reluctantly joins forces with him to mount a rescue of some humans prisoners. (That’s right, even after his experiences the previous two films, this John Connor finds it hard to believe that a cyborg might be a good guy.) Bale gives a typically po-faced, deadly serious performance, often doing little more than barking his dialogue into a handheld radio. The actor also famously lost his shit on set after the director of photography distracted him during a take. (To be fair to Bale, he later apologised profusely.)

* When we first meet Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), it’s in a prologue set before Judgment Day. He’s on death row after a criminal incident that killed his own brother and some police officers. Soon before his execution he’s persuaded to donate his body to Cyberdyne – the tech company featured in the earlier films. Then, much later, an understandably discombobulated Marcus awakens in a nightmarish future: 15 years have passed, there’s been an apocalypse, the machines have taken over, he’s not aged a day, and he’s very clearly not dead any more. WTF? He soon encounters murderous robots, but is saved by a man called Kyle Reese who says he’s a member of the human resistance… Then, after a big action sequence that should have killed Marcus, we learn that he is actually a cyborg. (He’s more shocked by this spectacularly obvious ‘plot twist’ than we are.) Turns out, he was built by Skynet to be an agent who could unknowingly infiltrate the resistance and get close to its figurehead, John Connor. Having met John, what does the cyborg Marcus do? Does he assassinate him? Take him prisoner? No, he’s so outraged by what’s been done to him that he agrees to help John defeat Skynet… Did the IT boffins not see that one coming?! Worthington is nominally this film’s lead actor, and in fact there are rumours that initially Marcus was the POV character throughout. (Then Christian Bale was hired, necessitating a swelling of John Connor’s role. Before that, Connor had been a cameo.) But the actor plays the part too tough-guy for us to care much about him.

* Kyle Reese is, of course, younger than when we knew him in the original Terminator movie. He hasn’t yet travelled back to 1984, he hasn’t heard of Sarah Connor, and he hasn’t even met John Connor. Young and impulsive – and just a bit cynical – he constitutes the LA branch of the resistance. He gets to wheel out one of the franchise’s key lines of dialogue – ‘Come with me if you want to live…’ – but is later captured by the machine forces, which provides John (who knows Kyle will one day go back in time and be his father) with the motivation to rescue Skynet’s human hostages. Kyle is played by Anton Yelchin, who fails to remind us of Michael Biehn’s original in any way beyond having the same name.

* Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) is a resistance pilot who crashes near Marcus after a big action sequence, so he helps her disentangle from her parachute cables. As he has knowledge about Skynet’s forces, she takes him to see her boss John Connor… Blair is certainly a sexy character, and it’s not a bad performance, but she’s a perfunctory role. She’s just there to move Marcus from plot point to plot point.

Other characters:
* Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) is the woman who comes to Marcus’s prison cell in 2003 and gets him to sign away his body to Cyberdyne. He twigs that she’s a cancer suffering whose time is running out. Later, in 2018, Skynet’s AI mainframe uses her likeness when talking to Marcus.
* General Hugh Ashdown, played by the dependably gruff Michael Ironside, is a resistance bigwig who clashes with the impetuous John.
* John’s wife and confidant, Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard), is no longer the vet we met in Terminator 3. Now she’s shifted to human medicine, all the better for fixing up war casualties. She’s also pregnant. Despite a new actress, she’s still a fairly boring character who only really exists on the periphery of the plot.
* Barnes, played by rapper Common, is one of John’s lieutenants.
* Sarah Connor’s voice is heard when John plays some of the cassettes of advice she made for him in the 1980s. Linda Hamilton returned to rerecord the lines so that new inelegant information could be crowbarred in. (‘This is tape number 28. It’s Sarah Connor to my son, John’).
* Star (Jadagrace Berry) is a mute child who hangs out with Kyle. She seems to have psychic powers of some kind – or maybe just an uncanny sixth sense.

Where: The prologue takes place in Longview State Correctional Facility. When we cut to the future the events range across California – taking in both LA and San Fransisco. John also has a diversion out to sea, because the resistance’s headquarters are housed on board a submarine (cute idea). When on land, Terminator Salvation’s vision of a nuclear-winter West Coast amounts to either dusty, arid scrub and deserted highways, or bland, bombed-out ruins of cities. Other than the obvious broad strokes, the locations and production design do little to texture the story.

When: The opening scene is set in 2003 – so before the events depicted in Terminator 3. The bulk of the movie is then in 2018, which is some years after Judgment Day in this new Terminator timeline. At one point, Marcus says he was born on 22 August 1975, making him 28 in the prison scene.

I’ll be back: Partly because he was then the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was not directly involved in this fourth Terminator movie. So here his famous catchphrase is instead said by John Connor before he leaves for a mission. Schwarzenegger does, however, still have a hefty presence in the film. Making use of CG technology that was then quite new and is now becoming a cliche, we see a T-800 burst out of a metallic booth and attack John. It looks exactly (well, nearly exactly) like a 1984 Arnie and the incidental music clangs heavy with the famous old Terminator cue. It’s a remarkably impressive visual effect, and the scene does actually make plot sense too as John has stumbled across the T-800 development lab.

Spin-off: In the year before Terminator Salvation’s release, a TV off-shoot called The Sarah Connor Chronicles had begun airing. Starring Lena Headey as Sarah and Thomas Dekker as John, it was a sequel to the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in other words, it ignored Terminator 3 and created *yet another* alternate timeline). The story saw Sarah, John and a reprogrammed Terminator protector (Summer Glau) evading Skynet agents sent from the future while attempting to avert the coming apocalypse. After a fun-enough start, the series soon lost its lustre and was axed after 31 episodes across two seasons.

Review: It seems that eras tend to get the Terminator film they deserve. In 1984, cinema was in the wake of visionary and impactful science-fiction movies like Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner; it was also the golden age of slashers such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. So therefore James Cameron’s original Terminator blended the two genres, creating something as smart as it was stylish; as downbeat as it was intense; as much a horror film as it is a sci-fi. Seven years later and the world had moved on. Hollywood budgets had grown, as had the digital technology available to filmmakers, so Terminator 2: Judgment Day added huge spectacle, revolutionary CGI and 1990s confidence to the mix. By the time the series reached Salvation, cinema had evolved again. The noughties saw a rush of sequels and reboots that took their subject matters more seriously than previous incarnations – see for example 2005’s Batman Begins (with Christian Bale), 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek (with Anton Yelchin). Terminator Salvation nominally does the same trick as those films, but what it lacks in comparison is dynamism. The best of that era’s series relaunches tell their stories with pace and style and just the right amount of character complexity. They’re also often *fun*, even while being much less frivolous than, say, Batman Forever or Moonraker. But Salvation is a dour, drab and depressingly straight-ahead film. It has a grimy and colourless visual palette, which is at least in keeping with the shallow characters, broad-stroke emotions and functional plotting. There’s no *heart* to any of it. This is also very much a sci-fi war film, overloaded with bombastic action (admittedly including some fun long takes) and Terminator tech that feels like it’s been cut-and-paste from another noughties reboot: 2007’s Transformers movie.

Five two-day-old coyotes out of 10