At a certain point in Terminator Salvation, John Connor pleads for the resistance commanders to stop making cold, calculated decisions when it comes to fighting the machines. After all, what’s the point in survival if they’ve sacrificed their humanity to attain it? The scene stands out for two reasons. One, it’s one of the few scenes with any genuine emotion, and two, it raises an idea that the writers, director and actors should have been following while making the picture. With all the grandiose talk about maintaining what makes us human, it’s surprising that the filmmakers would have used such cardboard characters to stand in for what should have been people.
Here’s the simple synopsis:
Judgment Day, a massive nuclear strike perpetrated by the self-aware computer network Skynet, has come and gone. Left on Earth are a large handful of survivors who are fighting back – led by the iconic John Connor (Christian Bale). Connor has known his whole life that these events would unfold, that he’d lead the resistance, but the discovery of one of the machines’ prisoners, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) shakes his understanding of his role. Soon, Wright becomes Connor’s best hope for infiltrating Skynet and saving his father.
A more honest synopsis would be three pages long and include every convoluted half-detail for the set up and process of the story. John Connor has to save his 13-year old future father from being blown up so he can later send him back to the past to have sex with his mother, Sarah Connor. Also, Marcus Wright, a convict who died several years earlier, is alive again and has been made into a super-advanced non-self-aware cyborg by a group of machines that just then figured out how to graft machine guns onto themselves.
With the continuation of this decades-old franchise, the filmmakers had the choice to either make a movie that would set up further sequels or make a good film. They couldn’t do both at the same time, and they sadly went with door #1.
The Terminator series has never been a thinking man’s action series. Even so, Salvation carries the weight of so many other logical fallacies and adds a healthy number of its own to the pile that it becomes a Rubik’s Cube with several blocks missing. It looks like fun, but it’s impossible to solve. On top of that, the action sequences weren’t exciting enough (or at all) to save my mind from having to think about all the mismatched pieces. Over all, it’s clunky and poorly scripted, leading to a complete waste of two hours and the potential of a compelling war story.
Starting with the writing (from the writing team that brought you Catwoman!), it has far too much exposition. Characters are explaining what is happening on screen, speaking like no actual humans talk, and spouting out the host of cliches that first-year writing teachers warn students about. A solidly emotional scene between Wright and Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) is wasted when he looks down and asks, “Do you think everyone deserves a second chance?” straight out of whatever soap opera the line was lifted from. Basically, any genuine moments of compassion are trashed by gag-worthy lines. As far as the story, it’s never clear what the objectives for the characters are, never any focused momentum. A little bit beyond the half-way point, they finally give the ultimate goal as infiltrating Skynet (which is conveniently located in one complex instead of, you know, being everywhere like T3 hinges on) on a rescue mission, but by then there’s no thrust behind it.
This lack of story is made worse by a lack of characters. I’ve already mentioned any that have real story arcs. Meanwhile, Connor’s wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) exists for basically no reason, as does resistance fighter Barnes (Common). The acting is good, but the characters play no role in pushing the action. The movie could have been made without them and would have been exactly the same. Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) is a likable enough character, and actually has some great development scenes, but the film is almost all Connor’s and Wright’s. Which is a problem.
The tone is also a major problem. It’s completely flat throughout, never really elevating the stakes realistically or explaining the importance of the actions to the audience. There’s too much to explain, too many plot devices that need shoving into the action. Instead of dealing with them, McG and company avoid them completely which saves on a ton of boring discussions about time travel but abandons explaining why certain characters are all that important. The flick hobbles along from action beat to action beat with almost zero life, and McG’s shaky execution of that action was enough to make me start respecting Michael Bay. There is never a battle between tension and relief in them so that even some of the larger fireballs come off as yawn-worthy. It’s always cool to blow something up, but it also helps the devastation if I’m worried about a major character I feel for losing their life in it, and it’s really hard to care about any of these characters.
Even John Connor. The film assumes that you’re already rooting for him because you know him from the other films. His introduction is lame, despite the fact that a scene later on in the film where he deftly takes down a motorcycle-bot and hotwires it would have worked well to introduce us to a futuristic badass. He also doesn’t do much of merit in the film to really warrant being on his side – other than he’s inexplicably an icon for the resistance movement (the reasons for which are also never touched on). Basically, if you haven’t seen the other films, you’re going to be in the weeds. Even if you have, McG and company should have known better than to hope you’d be rooting for a character that you’ve never seen in adult form before, a character that has only been a scared boy running away from killer robots, a character who has never been shown as a capable military leader.
To match the flat feeling of the film, Danny Elfman’s score is at the same level (as is the sound editing) throughout, creating no change between intimate moments and fight scenes. What’s presented is a bleak world that lacks any real humanity. On top of that, the score itself is really uninspired, lifeless, and heard-before.
On what seems like a nitpicky note that’s actually fundamental to how frustrating the movie is – there is no respect for how anything truly works within this film. Physics is left by the wayside. I’ve talked with friends a lot (my friend Anand first brought this to my attention) about how the world of The Matrix adds and elevates that film because the speed of the humans and the speeds of the programs are constant throughout. The need for bullet-time was to express the speed that had been seen in other ways throughout the film. But it didn’t alter how fast each entity really was. The physics might not be how things work in the real world, but they stayed consistent within that universe. Salvation is the opposite. Sometimes a machine will be stronger than another machine, other times the strength is flipped. The same machine that can snap a thick titanium neck, can also do only nominal damage when punching a human. It’s absurd, and seems like minutia, but it speaks to the cardinal virtue of adhering to your own rules within science fiction. A metal arm with serious force is going to cave a human skull in. Simple as that.
But perhaps most importantly, the movie lacks any real humanity. There are a few scenes that hint at how humans live – Kyle offers Wright some two-day old coyote meat, and the crew gets some carrots (that were, somehow, perhaps grown in the dessert?) at one point. But other than that, there’s no insight into the people of this world. It hit me after several hours of thinking about how to talk about it, but I realized that no one ever smiles in the whole movie. There’s no breadth of emotion – only war. Not only is that unrealistic, it’s insulting and furthers the detachment to the characters. It’s as if the filmmakers were worried that if someone smiled, you’d forget that there was an Apocalypse going on. But people just can’t be serious all the time, even during war. People need to vent, to celebrate small victories, to feel human. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few worthwhile scenes (Wright and Blair make a decent connection, and Kyle Reese brings at least some liveliness to the world), but the drastic majority of the movie is one note of despair struck on the piano and held for two hours.
Despite my major misgivings about how time travel is dealt with in the series (which I’ll probably be writing about soon), I liked T1, I loved T2, and I actually enjoyed T3. But Salvation is just a total mess. In fact, it’s such a mess that I plan on writing a spoiler-filled extension of this review (in Open Letter style) to delve deeper into the many, many plot holes and absurdities of it. So for now…I’ll be back…and come with me if you want to live through all the plot holes…