Note: I have tried to make this as spoiler-free as possible. But a couple of minor ones may crop up here and there. If you want a truly pristine viewing experience...you've been warned.
I saw the original Terminator when I was 13. I was too young to see in in the theater in 1984 when it was released (thanks, Mom...) but I begged my dad into letting me rent it on VHS the next year. It totally mesmerized me and is still one of my favorite movies of all time. T2 was a worthy successor, if a little more reliant on action than plot or writing. T3...the ending was really good. Other than that, I could have done without ever seeing it. And I would wager many people have had the same experience, which is why so much buzz has surrounded this movie.
What amazes me is the wide range of reviews for Terminator Salvation (TS), the fourth in the series and a reboot of sorts at the same time. Some people have loved it, some have hated it with a passion (see Harry Knowles' borderline hysterical rant at AICN). So I went into the theater last night not knowing exactly what to expect. Would it be a worth addition to the canon, or would I feel it crapped all over my childhood like The Phantom Menace?
Now, with some time to reflect, I think that TS is not a bad movie. In some ways, it's pretty damn good. But it also could have been a lot better and really missed the boat for how to go forward in the series.
Let's start with the good stuff. Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is a great character. I don't think that his background and secret in this movie are exactly a secret anymore. Worthington plays the reveal about Wright's past (and what has happened to him) really well. He's a character you grow to like over the course of the film and root for. He has one moment when he is trying to enter Skynet Central that breaks his heart and all this emotion plays just across his eyes. It's a great beat that can easily be missed.
Then there is Anton Yelchin, who plays the young Kyle Reese. This was the performance of the film for me. If you think back to the original film and Michael Beihn's Reese, the similarities between the two is rather remarkable. Reese is the tragic figure throughout the entire series; he grows up in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, gets sent back in time to protect John Connor, gets laid once and creates John Connor, and then is killed by a Terminator. That, my friends, is the definition of a brutal life.
But Yelchin's Reese has only a bit of that grimness. He's had a tough life but still has a case of hero-worship for John Connor. He wants that jacket that proves he's part of the Resistance. He wants to earn his stripes. The scenes with Reese and Wright attempting to evade the various robotic hunters (more on that in a second) are great. If there was one giant drawback to his role, it's that McG put him (literally) in a box for the final third of the movie. Which is indicative of a larger problem I will address in a moment.
Moon Bloodgood does a nice job with the limited time she has on screen. As Blair Williams, an A-10 pilot who gets shot down and hooks up with Marcus as they travel back to the Resistance base, she plays a pivotal role in how she reacts to Wright when his secret is discovered. It may be a "duh!" moment for a lot of people, but it's an important moment thematically. And she also has an important role because it gives us a brief glimpse of the extra hell it must be to be a woman in this post-apocalypse world. Of course, she's also a woman who can knock a rapist the hell out. But she also gets short shrift over the final third of the film.
That's about it as far as the good performances go, and yes, I left Bale out on purpose.
Bale's John Connor is a one-note, one emotion character. It's all about finding Kyle Reese and the emotion is pained/angry. That is how Bale plays Connor across the whole film. Now, that isn't necessarily bad if you show something else about him. Hell, if I knew Reese was my future (past?) father I'd be breaking my back trying to find him as well. And I sure wouldn't be happy about killer robots destroying the world. But McG and Bale don't add any more depth to Connor. And so while you appreciate the necessity of Connor in this movie, you aren't exactly revved up when he makes an appearance.
Then you have Bryce Dallas Howard, Common and Jadagrace, who play Kate Connor, Barnes and Star. Three useless characters who add nothing to the film. Especially Star, who is such a blatant ripoff of the Newt character in Aliens (she's mute too!) that you want to punch McG in the throat. These three are given little if anything to do, and what they do is superfluous to the story or could have been done by anyone else.
Now to the special effects and the scenery and the set-pieces...wow. This is where TS knocks the ball out of the damn park. The battle scenes are jaw-dropping. From the first one (a raid on a Skynet facility that goes horribly wrong) you believe in this irradiated hell of a world. There's a set-piece where Reese, Star and Wright are hunted down by this multi-story Terminator that looks like it runs on coal or steam but has a pulse cannon on its shoulder. Oh, and it shoots motorcycle Terminators out of its shins. All these outdoor battles are shot with a washed-out, almost black-and-white look that really emphasizes how damaged the world has become. The various terminators are all unique and look real. Even the final battle at Skynet Central is kickass visually. The scenes are varied and creative (tow trucks can get the job done in 2018). There really isn't anything involving how the film looks that you can object about.
The plot and writing...
Look, for as much as I love Terminator and the whole concept/world...this has never been an "intelligent" sci-fi franchise. They've been violating the laws of time travel since the first film and then violating their own rules they made up for it. There are so many paradoxes and loops that this whole world would've collapsed upon itself by the time a metal Terminator came back in T2.
So for these films to succeed, they have to transcend their own limitations in logic and tell a damn good story and use an emotional hook. The original (which I reviewed for my 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies section) was a fantastic three-person story that was about the salvation of the human race. The second had the old "machine becomes human" hook which buttressed great visuals. The third film largely failed until the end when the inevitability of the world's destruction was realized and the weight of survival fell on a young John Connor's shoulders.
This film should have been about what it means to be human. It touches on it with Marcus Wright. But Kyle Reese could speak to the wellspring of human resilience as he lives a fated life that tries to beat him down and can't. Blair Williams' scenes with Wright speak directly to the idea that humanity transcends simple blood and tissue, and her ability to realize that gives the Resistance a chance to defeat Skynet. This film should have also set up Kyle Reese to be the centerpiece of the new trilogy. He carries more weight than anyone, including Connor. It's because of him that any of this is possible. And for the first 2/3 of the film, McG seems to have been doing just that.
Then it all falls apart at the end. Reese gets shut in a box, Williams disappears and Wright gets a couple of moments (one being nullified thanks to some heavy-handed exposition by Skynet). What we get mostly is John Connor hunting for Reese and fighting a T-800 that looks like Arnie (admittedly a very cool moment) and the most ridiculous revival/wounding/surgery ending ever seen. I'll just say this; it strains every bit of credulity for me to believe that Kate Connor can successfully perform a heart transplant in an open-air field hospital in the middle of nowhere. I don't care if its 2018 or 2318, that's just ridiculous.
Connor cannot be the centerpiece of this trilogy. And yet that is where McG seems intent on taking us. Connor needed to play a role in the first film, to put events in motion and to drive the plot that sets up this new world. But he is useless as the main character in any other film. There is no growth to his character, no depth beyond where he is right now. With the focus on Connor, the other films are pre-ordained to become little more than Michael Bay-esque wankery where all that matters is how big something blows up. The biggest mistake McG ever made was letting Bale play Connor instead of Marcus*. His star power and salary costs will force the focus to be on Connor when it should be on Reese.
The writing is the weakest part of the film, and it speaks to the actors that they rise above it to a large degree. Not only is some of the dialogue wooden (how Bloodgood got her "beating heart" line out without laughing at it speaks volumes to her dedication to acting), but characters are left by the wayside at random and logic holes are common and huge. I'm not even talking about time travel here, since that hasn't occurred yet (for them, anyway).
John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris wrote Skynet to be as intelligent as my old Commodore 64. This all-powerful computer has John Connor in its sights. And rather than just flood a floor of its building with super-heated steam, poison gas or even just blow up part of itself to kill Connor, it goes through an elaborate charade to unleash an Arnie terminator on him. It's like Skynet is a Bond villain, and not even a good one like Bloefeld. And then there is Skynet's occasional knowledge of Reese, which is baffling because Skynet should have no idea about who Reese is to Connor or why a T-800 would un-nerve Connor. And sometimes the script realizes that. And then sometimes it doesn't, such as when the robots use Reese as bait to lure Connor into Skynet Central. At this point, only two people know who Reese will become; John and Kate Connor. No one else, including Skynet, should have that knowledge. Hell, in the original they use the time-travel tech to go back and kill Sarah Connor, which tells me that Skynet should never have a damn clue as to who Kyle Reese really is. And yet you have Terminator after Terminator scanning him and using him as bait. It makes no freaking sense at all.
And there is too much exposition. They have a clever idea in the script that seems like a boon for the Resistance but results in the destruction of the Resistance command. And just as Skynet's plan (as brilliant as their pursuit of Connor is idiotic) comes to fruition, we are treated to a 15-second piece where one of the commanders explains for us what we are already watching happen. You'd have to be a dumb as a post to not know what was unfolding, yet Brancato and Ferris felt the need to tell us anyway. And then there is Skynet's lengthy history recitation with Marcus when, once again, we already know what happened. Exposition is bad enough when something isn't shown. It's 100-times worse when something is shown to us and yet the writers insist on telling us about it anyway. It shows a level of contempt for the viewer. To which I reply, "Hey, I'm not the idiot who wrote Catwoman, am I?"
Take all of the above together and what you have in Terminator Salvation is a damn good stand-alone action flick. The problem is that it is the first part of a trilogy, and McG has basically cut his own legs out from under him going forward. The last third of the film made clear that John Connor will be the focus of the trilogy and he simply isn't a deep enough character to pull that off. His story has no arc at this point. And neither will the franchise. That said, I enjoyed this movie for the most part. The world is believable, the visuals are stunning, the battles are intense and the Terminators are varied and creative. Throw in a trio of good actors making a weak script almost believable and you want to forgive McG for his baffling choices over the last third of the film. You don't, but you want to.
I'm giving Terminator Salvation a 7.9 out of 10. What I fear most is that this is the highest score any film of the trilogy will receive. It is so hard to make a strong second film even when you have great material because it's a bridge between inception and conclusion. For every Empire Strikes Back you get a dozen M:I-2s. I don't see McG making the former.
* Bale as Marcus would have established him as the main character in this movie, which would have been an infinitely better choice. The original ending could have resolved this problem as well going forward. McG should have had the balls and foresight to stick to the plan. Imagine if Cameron had given in back in 1984 and let Arnie play Reese...