2018. John Connor (Bale) is part of the Resistance waging war on Skynet, which is building the T-800 Terminators he remembers from childhood. But the future he knows is clouded by the arrival of Marcus (Worthington), a stranger haunted by memories of Death Row.
For 25 years fans have For 25 years fans have waited to see the future war between man and machine hinted at in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Ragtag groups of humans, scratching out dirty, hardscrabble, post-apocalyptic lives as they are engaged in a relentless war with deadly robot endoskeletons: this is the kind of thing that excites 13 year-old boys and the 13 year-old boy living inside every grown-up moviegoer. And while Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines brought the series to the point we’d all been waiting for — Judgment Day was here! Nuclear fire rained down on humanity! Skynet was in control! — it took two hours of rehashing to get there.
Now comes Terminator Salvation. It’s the future war. It’s the years after Judgment Day, when the cities of man have fallen and the machines scour the landscape, killing and harvesting humans. It’s the movie we’ve been waiting for, but it’s also a movie coming in this modern age where franchise follow-ups seem to yield only disappointment. It’s the post-prequel world, and audiences are ready to settle for less — especially when they realise Terminator Salvation comes from McG, the auteur behind the silly Charlie’s Angels films and the soppingly sentimental We Are Marshall. A man who lacks the common decency to have a complete name.
So perhaps the greatest surprise doesn’t come in the form of plot twists but from the fact that the movie is... pretty damn good. Let’s not be foolish — it doesn’t hold a candle to the first two James Cameron films, but it wipes the floor with Terminator 3. As a movie all on its own, not compared to the prior entries, it works very well.
Part of what makes Terminator Salvation work is that it’s unafraid to be its own entity. While the film shoehorns in the usual catchphrases — “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live” are both dutifully trotted out — it eschews the standard sequel architecture of being nothing more than a remake of the previous film. McG’s film boldly moves forward; gone is the standard chase structure of the Terminator franchise, replaced here with men-on-a-mission adventure. Gone is John Connor as a hapless dork reliant on a benevolent robot buddy, replaced by a glowering John Connor played by the best glowerer of his generation, Christian Bale. Gone is the LA of the late 20th/early 21st century, replaced with underground bunkers and robot factory cities.
For a summer blockbuster, Terminator Salvation is bursting with plot and incident. Much of it even makes sense! The film is propulsive, barely stopping for breath.There are exciting chases, suspenseful close calls, edge-of- your-seat battles and adrenaline-charged set-pieces. McG’s movie doesn’t just serve up a monotonous series of humans vs. endoskeleton scenes. There’s an array of cyborgs in action, ranging from snake-like hydrobots to motorcycle Terminators that drive themselves to huge, seemingly steam-powered robots that grab humans by the handful and then pilot harvester ships away. There are hunter-killer ships and ghoulish T-600s — hulking endoskeletons wearing creepy Hallowe’en masks over glowing red eyes. It’s not so much an actioner as we’ve come to understand the term: rather it’s an adventure movie, filled with abyss-defying escapes and daring heroics.
McG has made much of how dark his movie is, and it does touch on issues of humanity and despair, but throughout the pre-release hype he’s undersold just how much fun his movie is. As a director he knows enough to get good actors and step out of their way: Christian Bale does exactly what you’d want Christian Bale to do as a battle-hardened Connor; Sam Worthington, meanwhile, struggles with his American accent as Marcus Wright, the man out of time, but otherwise makes a solid, if stolid, hero. With lead roles in Avatar and Clash Of The Titans to come, Hollywood seems to have decided that Worthington is the Next Big Thing, but while he has the looks and chops of a big-screen hero, he’s perhaps missing some of the warmth and charisma that goes with it. Perhaps there’s time for him to develop it.
Lacking neither warmth nor charisma is Anton Yelchin as the young Kyle Reese. Yelchin is the film’s secret weapon: while he may seem too scrawny, too young and too soft for the role, he’s actually perfect. His Kyle is a young man on the verge, and we can see the hints of Michael Biehn in him. Yelchin, in just a few scenes, goes from a smart but scared kid to a leader of men in desperate times, and he does it without glowering, frowning or growling. You believe every moment of it. Equally good is the gorgeous Moon Bloodgood. Like Yelchin she’s not given enough screentime, but she makes the best of a handful of scenes. Her character has the widest arc and the least time to sell it, but she nails the role of a tough combat pilot whose humanity peeks through.
McG’s other strong suit is the action. Mixing practical effects with CGI, he creates immersive and thrilling moments of danger and fun. From Moto-Terminators giving chase to our heroes to a final fight with a familiar face in the Terminator factory, McG borrows from the styles of his peers to make something that breaks few barriers but works well on a visceral level. Some have worried that the film, which is appealing to a younger crowd with a softer rating, would be a kiddie picture. The truth is that the nature of the action — man against robot — means he can wreak all manner of havoc on the bad guys without needing to shed a drop of blood. No punches are pulled, and the action is satisfyingly loud and explodey.
Terminator Salvation’s biggest flaw is that, just as it’s building
up a head of steam, it ends. Not satisfyingly, not dramatically, and not in a cliffhanger fashion; it just feels like they’ve run out of film and must wrap it all up in four quick minutes. Terminator Salvation is supposed to herald the start of a new trilogy, but the end of this one feels quite finished. Time travel is yet to happen, but the film hasn’t left enough open ends to make a sequel automatically compelling. It seems a strange critique of a film — it’s too standalone! — but this world, which had been marvellously opened in the previous 110 minutes, feels abruptly closed in the final five.
McG has sparked a moribund franchise back to life, giving fans the post-apocalyptic action theyve been craving since they first saw a metal foot crush a human skull two decades ago.