WEST SPRINGFIELD — These past months have found me warring between my unfailing optimism for a new Terminator film and my absolute certainty that I will be disappointed. That more than anything reinforces the fact that “Terminator Salvation” is all about the expectations game.
How did you feel about the original movies? What are you looking for in a Terminator film? Does the concept of a Terminator film mean anything more to you than a couple car chases and a pithy one-liner or two?
Written by: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard
Seen at: Showcase Cinemas West Springfield
See, what made James Cameron’s two Terminator films such wonderful and enduring works of film was not the intense action sequences nor the cutting-edge special effects. It was, and always will be, the story. The emotional dynamic of the underdog human, the struggle, the fight against the cold machine is the foundation of the first two films. Central to the conflict was the question of fate, of destiny and most importantly of retaining your humanity even in the face of certain destruction.
“Terminator Salvation” seemed to try to incorporate those themes, but in large part it just didn’t quite work. For starters, with one notable exception, none of the humans seemed to really be human. They were tough, grizzled and war-torn fighters, but there didn’t seem to be any meaningful connection among any of them. Christian Bale’s John Connor was so far removed from the smart-ass, street-wise kid in “Terminator 2” that the only reason I knew he was John Connor at all was because he kept yelling his name at me very intensely.
Bryce Dallas Howard’s character was criminally underused and seemingly relegated to standing around looking surprised. The soldiers in John Connor’s tech-comm unit all seemed to admire and respect him, but there were never any reasons given why. Why like John Connor? Why respect him? Why follow him? There’s not a single moment of levity, foxhole humor or any other sign of a bond between the people who are fighting for humanity. The movie tells us that the faces on the screen have relationships yet any evidence of those relationships is nowhere to be seen.
The most we’re shown of the indomitable human spirit is when John Connor gives a couple of speeches over the radio and we see people huddled around their radios, like a kind of post-apocalyptic fireside chat. When John Connor asks them to do something (or not do something, as the case may be), they listen to him. But again I ask: why?
In short, John Connor is most certainly not the emotional epicenter of this film. He is as much a machine as the Terminators he fights. He’s marching ceaselessly into the future where he’s supposed to be the leader of the human resistance blah blah blah, and things must happen how they are supposed to happen, and he needs to be the leader just, well, because.
I found myself wondering, what happened to “no fate but what we make for ourselves?” Perhaps Connor is supposed to be Terminator-esque, like Sarah Connor was in the second film, but to what purpose? Without an accompanying character journey for Connor, it just doesn’t make sense.
But, as I said, there is an exception. Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese is pitch-perfect. He gives a performance where he is definably the character that the audience first saw in 1984 and yet clearly not quite. He is young, yes, but he shows us that he is the kid who will become the Kyle Reese that we know. But even Yelchin’s performance isn’t enough to give the film the kind of emotional weight a Terminator film ought to have. It’s nice to see the young Kyle Reese, and the scene where he and John finally come face to face is satisfying, but there isn’t enough emotional energy devoted to this moment.
In “Terminator 2,” the young John Connor says to the T-800, “I wish I coulda met my real dad.” It’s a quiet line, but it’s one that shows just how much of a boy John Connor is.
Where is that kid in “Terminator Salvation?” John Connor doesn’t want to find Kyle Reese because meeting his father is the moment he’s been waiting for for his entire life; it’s because otherwise things won’t work out the way they’re supposed to. Or something.
While there were moments where the dialogue seemed to matter, most of it just seemed like filler. John Connor’s superiors talked just to talk. They said things just to say things, and a good portion of the dialogue felt clunky and unnecessary. There were a few good moments — particularly one scene with Bale and Howard — but there were also a few clunkers. Moon Bloodgood’s lines about a strong heartbeat or something were almost laughably acted.
Newcomer Sam Worthington was a bright spot, however. The story begins and ends with his character, Marcus Wright. Back in the 2000s, Wright is a death-row inmate who signs his life away to a comically bad Helena Bonham Carter. He’s executed, and we fast-forward through time to see him stumble out of the ruins of a Skynet stronghold into the dark and stormy night in one of the best scenes of the film.
Worthington delivers an understated and subtle performance, and his was one of the only performances that drew me into the story. His character is internal and private and uncertain, and Worthington shows all that physically. Yes, his native Australian accent slips in every now and again, but the essence of the performance remains despite that. Marcus is, without question, the only emotional stronghold of the film and I found myself more invested in his story than any of the others by a mile, mostly due to Worthington’s excellent acting.
Worthington’s journey of realization and actualization is profound. Any scene with him in it was better for it. In a movie filled with face-melting action sequences, a simple hand-to-hand fistfight between Marcus and some lowlifes was the best fight of all. The audience’s knowledge of what he is gives his story some actual dramatic tension, and his character made me believe that director McG had tried to bring something new and interesting to the franchise thematically.
In the end, it was clear that McG had thought about the themes behind the two Terminator films, that he respected them and that he was a fan. But there simply is no homage to the themes that made the original films classics.
Yes, there are giant robots in this movie that blow stuff up and are scary and have great leitmotif sound effects. There are impressive, blow-your-socks-off action sequences (particularly one with a helicopter that was a continuous take, and WOW), replete with explosions and clever uses of vehicles.
But is it a Terminator film? Not really. It’s a film that tells us it cares about the human heart (quite literally so, and abusing the concept of metaphor to the extent that I’m not quite sure it even counts as a metaphor anymore), except that it doesn’t really SHOW us that it does.
I suppose my conclusion is this: Great action, but even with its ambition, promise, and Worthington’s excellent performance, the general lack of subtext and the mostly-missing character development forces “Terminator Salvation” to stay right where it is: great action.