Film Review: TERMINATOR: SALVATION (aka T4)

The TERMINATOR saga continues in...Terminator: Salvation

[Note: This review contains minor spoilers.] Terminator.

The word in and of itself is practically iconic in pop culture. Most people, even if they haven’t seen any of the films, know to a certain extent what the films are about, and the title character himself (or should I say “itself”?) has seeped into the public consciousness in a way that only the most famous of cinematic characters have (ie; Darth Vader, Dracula, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, etc.)

The first two films in the series endure and are even revered because of what makes them resonate with their audience: even though they tell the story of machines that travelled through time to both destroy and protect the future of mankind…they are very HUMAN, emotional stories. James Cameron made the first film on what is now considered (as it was back then as well) to be a “shoestring” budget. When you watch it you can literally FEEL the gritty, guerilla-filmmaking-inspired, low-budget aura of the film; the effects (while admirable for their time) feel dated and even look “clunky” in certain spots. But, what sells everything…what makes the film work even in 2009 is the emotion behind the story; the love story between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese…and the drama involved in watching a woman come to grips with the fact that she and her offspring are the only hope for all of mankind.

Fast forward to July 3rd, 1991 when T2 was released to the public…it took both the country and world by storm. No one had ever seen those ground-breaking, cutting-edge effects as polished, seamless, or breathtaking…few films featured such epic, large-scale action as flawlessly and beautifully executed…and even fewer films unleashed one set piece after another in the final 45 minutes the way it did. Yet, despite the awe-inspiring visuals, the grandiose style, and the incredible budget (or perhaps BECAUSE of these things), James Cameron didn’t forget what made the first film work; the emotion of the story. He backed up the jaw-dropping effects with a story almost anyone could relate to…characters we wanted to see succeed…and the touching tale of a boy and his robot (who becomes the surrogate Father he always wanted) and a boy and his Mother. Feel free to laugh at the simplicity of the summary…but, at its heart, that’s exactly what the story of T2 boils down to; the story of a fragmented but mostly functional “family unit”…and their struggle to discover their own humanity while staying alive.

2003 saw the release of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines…and the title could not have been more apt. Gone was much of the emotion that was at the center of the first two films…replaced coldly by efficient, “by-the-numbers” filmmaking. True, it was a fun ride and there were a few touching moments interspersed throughout (to this day the final two minutes still choke me up)…but the humanity of the characters was largely replaced by somewhat generic character arcs. While watching the film it felt like the steam was definitely running out of the Terminator franchise…

But, since Hollywood seldom knows when to “let go” of a cash cow’s teet, 2009 brought the newest installment in the saga, McG’s Terminator: Salvation (let’s call it T4, shall we?). Sadly, the trend started by T3 continued; no emotion necessary…

…after all, it’s a story about machines.

In all fairness, it should be noted that the film LOOKS great; the design, editing, cinematography, effects (at least 98 percent of them) are technically superior to most films. As you watch the film, it’s wonderfully apparent that director McG and his crew did their research and that at least visually…you are immersed in the world created by James Cameron. I also have to admit that McG knows how to stage, shoot, and edit action (unlike his peer, Michael Bay); throughout the fight and battle sequences the viewer is always aware of exactly what is happening, where, and to who.

But, the problem with the film lies in the drama…there’s no real emotional resonance with pretty much anything that happens or anyone on screen. Which is a shame, because as previously stated, with the first two films you really care about Kyle Reese and Sarah and John Connor. With this film it seems the viewer is asked to simply move along from one action sequence to the next. Unfortunately, most of the time I found myself asking, “And…why should I care?”

Not to mention there are entire segments in which you have to “check your brain at the door”; some of the characters make UNBELIEVABLY idiotic decisions- and I don’t mean “unbelievable” as in “I can’t believe anyone in real life would do that”. I mean as in, “There’s no way someone in THIS universe or reality would do this”. ONE character in particular makes a decision that COMPLETELY goes against everything they’ve been lead to believe…everything the previous films have “taught” us…everything this character is supposed to stand for and believe in. As a fan of the franchise, that REALLY bothered me…because it betrayed the legacy of the films and the character.

"Screw everything I've learned is important and vital to the survival of humanity...I'm gonna go blow up some Terminators but GOOD!"

Many of the problems I’m talking about simply come from the choice made by the producers and director to cast Christian Bale as John Connor; when you make that move, to a certain degree…you’re limiting the writers. You simply cannot cast an actor of his stature and ask them to simply sit behind a radio and bark orders to people or live in a cave and serve as an Obi-Wan-ish type inspirational figure. Because of his name, reputation, and caché, casting Bale in such a role requires him to be in the heart of the story, in the heat of the moment, and on the front lines.

But when you do this…it betrays the logic of the franchise established by James Cameron. It’s understandable if his character is in “the past” and running for his life from Terminators sent to destroy him. In that instance, of course he’s going to be in the middle of it all and we’re going to follow his every move. But, in the future…Connor has to be smarter than that. He has to know that he IS the future…that he can’t just pack a backpack, lock and load a gun, kiss his wife and say, “I’m off to shoot Terminators, honey!”, and walk out the “front door” and into a volley of future warfare gunfire.

With Bale as the star of the proceedings…what choice do the screenwriters really have? It’s either piss off Bale and the producers and stay faithful to the reality Cameron created…or keep Bale and the moneymen pleased and tick off the devoted “Terminator” fans (or anyone with half a brain for that matter) and completely abandon all logic derived from and respect for the previously-established story.

That’s not even mentioning the complete lapses in logic and strategy on the part of Skynet…a computer whose original sole function was to come up with…defense LOGIC and STRATEGY.

"So you're Skynet, huh? Wow...you're even dumber than my character!"

Like I said, you have to be ready to swallow some major BS with the film’s plot, unfortunately. Be ready to convince yourself that certain characters would do things that betray their every instinct and all they’ve been taught and learned. Well…at least be ready to try…

As for the cast itself, many of them perform on a perfectly serviceable level. But, that’s about all that can be said as much of the time they seem to be merely “going through the motions”. Christian Bale seems to have only two “modes”; intense and really intense. Beautiful and talented Bryce Dallas Howard is given basically NOTHING to do besides look empathetically at people and be pretty, and even Sam Worthington comes across as merely “competent”.

Bryce Dallas Howard stares blankly into the middle-distance...one of her favorite activities in TERMINATOR: SALVATION.

The real star is Anton Yelchin as the young Kyle Reese; he brilliantly mirrors some of Michael Biehn’s personality quirks, facial ticks, and line delivery without ever crossing into parody. What’s more, he melds these aspects seamlessly with his OWN personality…so what we see is just a HINT of Kyle (Michael Biehn) Reese; promising that the emergence of the “FULL” Kyle Reese we know will surely grow along with the character itself. Yelchin’s a major talent and I was excited to see what he did with the role in the future; he’s definitely my second favorite part of the film itself.

My favorite part had to be the appearance of a certain Cybernetic Organism- I won’t spoil anything for you in terms of where or how -and the pretty impressive effects employed to make this happen.

He said he'd be back...and he sort of is in T4.

Another stand out for the film was the score by Danny Elfman; it’s not as thematically driven as some of his earlier works (there’s a lot of “noise” and Mickey Mousing)…but, the theme he created is a great one that actually gave me chills up and down my spine. The reason being…Elfman brilliantly bases his theme (heard during the Main Titles) for T4 on the melodic, harmonic, and even rhythmic building blocks of Brad Fiedel’s original, hauntingly-beautiful, and memorable Terminator theme. So, even though the theme is something new and fresh, it’s also rooted in the musical “mythology” of what came before, and as a result…it elicits the same aesthetic response in many ways (and, in fact, if you dissect the Main Titles note-by-note, an ACTUAL quote of the original Terminator theme’s first six notes can be heard at 2:05, in an exchange between the trombones and trumpets…simply genius). You’ve also gotta love how Elfman employs the famous 6/8 meter T2 rhythm at a certain, perfect point in the film.

Thankfully, the intelligent and studied music of Danny Elfman is one of the few bright spots in TERMINATOR: SALVATION.

T4 is what one could call great “popcorn entertainment”…but, regrettably, that’s about it. Sure, it entertains in a lot of spots, and in that regard it more than capably does its job. But, the problem is…this wasn’t supposed to be just a mindless, summer, popcorn, action film; it’s the first chapter of the “Future War” saga of the Terminator franchise. Anyone who knows me well can tell you; T2 is one of those movies that helped cement MY future. It was the kind of film that not only entertained the hell out of me…but also reinforced the idea in my head that someday, somehow…I HAD to be a part of that sort of filmmaking.

T4 was supposed to be the same kind of film; it was supposed to be a grim epic…it was supposed to have a sense of gravitas throughout…it was supposed to have a strong, steady moral compass and a real, touching human message. The viewer needed to feel the emotion and witness the horrors that Kyle Reese hinted at and we saw glimpses of in the original The Terminator; the emotion that goes along with the threat of the elimination of the human race (in aiming for a more “audience-accessible” Terminator– one that is rated PG-13- the filmmakers only placed further restrictions on themselves and the story they were trying to tell/show). The viewer needed to feel the importance of the proceedings. But, all of that was missing from the film in general (in fact, the last five minutes of Mostow’s T3 are more touching than anything that happens in this film), and that was what disappointed me so. Because the Terminator films (the first two most assuredly and definitely and even the third chapter, although to a much lesser extent) have always been about the HUMAN condition. The first was a love story…the second was about a surrogate father and a fragmented “family unit”…the third was about one man accepting and stepping into the destiny he’s fought so hard to escape.

But T4 only gives lip service to the all-too-important ideas and themes like these that SHOULD be at the center of the film. It’s like John Connor delivers one or two lines addressing the importance of his destiny and being a human being, then a second later winks at the audience and says, “Come on, let’s go blow some stuff up good!” T4 is like T3 in that you can almost feel the franchise and all potential for it slipping further down the hill…becoming a distilled, lukewarm, somewhat apathetic version of the original, brilliant film and its amazing sequel. It’s pretty difficult for me to believe that Christian Bale’s infamous meltdown took place on the set of this movie in that…it’s impressive to me that this movie could, in any regard, actually stir someone’s emotions to that point. The franchise has declined to the point where the movies mirror the title character itself; they are technically amazing, beautiful to look at, efficient, and calculating…but they are also cold, soulless, and basically without emotion.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is reportedly in talks to return to the TERMINATOR franchise.

There’s talk of another Terminator film being in-the-works at Warner Bros. Word even has it that James Cameron is involved in development talks with would-be director, Justin Lin…and that Arnold Schwarzenegger was instrumental in bringing Cameron back into-the-fold. Whatever happens with the future of the franchise, let’s hope that the filmmakers get back to what makes the series work: humanity.

Perhaps I’m “too close” to the source material. Perhaps the films mean too much to me personally and because of that I am unable to “just let go and have fun”. But, ever since T2, I’ve come to expect more from certain films and franchises. I’ve come to expect more when I see the potential and know what the film COULD’VE been…

And this film COULD have been. But, it’s not. It’s just about a bunch of action, sadly. It entertains, but in the end it doesn’t really add anything to the almost mythic Terminator legend. It really saddens me to think that the most heartfelt emotion conjured inside me by the film was because of its failures…and not its successes.

Rating: 2/5 ★★☆☆☆ 

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About Lito

Lito is an LA-based aspiring actor, writer, producer, and musician who studied at both Juilliard and the Indiana University School of Music. Lito had a featured role in David Mamet's film RED BELT, and also served as one of the producers of critically-acclaimed and award-winning documentaries such as NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: THE ELM STREET LEGACY, MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD, and SCREAM: THE INSIDE STORY, which have been featured on A&E networks and in Entertainment Weekly. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his beautiful wife and is just trying to live the dream…all the while staying one step ahead of the supposed impending zombie apocalypse.

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