McG, aka Joseph McGinty, the director of Terminator Salvation, was recently quoted in Entertainment Weekly saying that with Terminator Salvation, he’s ready to be judged by his work rather than his nickname. Of course, that’s exactly how he’s always been judged, it’s just that Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angel’s 2 and We Are Marshall made his nickname a really easy target. Unfortunately for McG, Terminator Salvation isn’t going to improve anything. With the latest Terminator installment, McG proves he’s a stylist, not a storyteller and Terminator Salvation, while chock full of incredible visual effects, production design and filmed beautifully on ethereal, silver-processed film stock, is simply a lifeless display of set pieces boot-stomped into the familiarities of Terminators gone by.
Just so I’m not accused of walking into Terminator Salvation expecting high-minded drama and epic character development, I’ll state right up front I expected lots of exploding stuff, airborne shell casings and a heaping plate full of robots who think humans are overrated. In short, I had every reason to like this Terminator iteration and all its apocalyptic war extravagances. But while there was never any expectation of character depth, I did expect a movie that didn’t feel like it took shortcuts through plot retreads, revisionist history and common sense.
Terminator Salvation hinges on the events laid out in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which, sadly, sacked Terminator 2: Judgment Day‘s best efforts at optimism and changed the series main theme from “The future is what you make it” to “Man, you can’t change nothin’!” In short, the world bites it nuclear style and future profitability of the Terminator franchise dictated it was time to show the future war and how John Connor (Christian Bale) became the leader he was born to be.
After a present-day introduction to mysterious death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), salvation picks up in the future with a genuinely thrilling assault on a Skynet base as the Human Resistance attempts to capture an ultimate weapon that could shut Skynet down once and for all. Unfortunately, the thrilling momentum doesn’t carry as John Connor inexplicably becomes the sole survivor (the missing scene explaining his survival, briefly glimpsed in an earlier trailer, has been completely cut). In the aftermath of the assault on the communications center, a naked, muddy Marcus Wright crawls out of a crater and sets out in search of… who knows. Probably a shower. He quickly runs into the last two inhabitants of LA– Kyle Reese (aka- John Connor’s dad in teen form as played by Anton Yelchin) and Star– a cute little moppet inserted into the story because what’s an apocalyptic setting without a moppet?
Chased by Terminators who seem to be more interested in collecting humans ala Battlefield Earth than terminating them, Kyle and Star are captured. In an aborted attempt to save them, Marcus meets up with a human pilot named Blair (Moon Bloodgood), who happens to have a soft spot for strangers and also enjoys lots of well shampooed and luxuriously styled hair. Apparently, Skynet was all about nuking the world, but was not all about nuking salons. Blair leads Marcus back to Resistance headquarters where an attack on Skynet central, using the new ultimate weapon stolen from the opening assault, is being planned. But roh-roh– Kyle Reese, John Connor’s future father, is being taken to Skynet central as a prisoner. At this point, there’s a few plot twists and story turns, but the quest is now clear: the assault must be postponed until Kyle Reese is saved or there will be no John Connor.
Terminator Salvation means well– it’s obvious there’s been a lot of attention and care taken with the aesthetics. But, held up against the greater whole, the enterprise falls flat against the story it’s trying to tell- a story fabricated without intent to deliver on the themes and characters it presents, but with intent to keep everything beholden to its plot mechanics. Instead of characters making organic decisions based on who they are or what they believe, the characters simply make comments and decisions based on an expectation that character A needs to say/do B to get the movie to sequence C. As a prime example, Bryce Dallas Howard, as John’s pregnant wife Kate Connor, brings nothing to the proceedings or plot- she’s simply there to fabricate an emotional connection to John with the audience. Terminator Salvation is full of similar black holes in plot and character, creating and overall impression that it’s only seeking to create a story where things can blow up really, really cool. Just like the Terminators themselves, there’s no connective tissue.
And that’s the frustrating part. The whole Terminator Salvation experience ends up feeling like it’s a game of paper dolls– dressing a familiar story in new clothes and playing in the Terminator sandbox. Director McG’s emphasis on the laundry list of sequences and action reels he obviously thinks the audience wants to see leaves the characters little to no breathing room beyond, well, moving and breathing. The result is a lack of life or connection to the story (despite McG’s overuse of extreme close ups to bridge the connection gap) which, incidentally, carries echoes of every plot point in the series to date: IE- one of three main characters is going to die and it’s up to humans, and a Terminator, to save him.
In the mean time, Terminator Salvation takes the long way around in getting to it’s preordained destination- introducing themes and ideas while just as quickly abandoning them (or worse, forgetting about them) with perfunctory dialogue explanations.
If there is an area in which Terminator Salvation really tries to rise above mediocrity it’s in the action which, at times, can be fantastic and dynamic. The effects are seamless and engrossing, with a hard-hitting tactility that virtually squares the action as close to your face as possible (a standout is a “continuous” shot where John Connor decides to take an ill-advised helicopter ride). Stan Winston’s Terminators look more alive than ever and McG’s admirable use of miniatures for more “reality” doesn’t go unnoticed. But in the end, all the clangs and explosions and crunchings feel hollow, and while the action sequences are constructed deftly and creatively, they don’t sustain themselves beyond spectacle—and even then you’ve seen their variations played out over a handful of action films that have come before it.
Some might argue Terminator Salvation is just a summer movie- it’s robots and explosions, so eat your popcorn and stop being such a snobtastic sour puss. But at this point, after two preceding strong summers where many rules of the summer blockbuster were rewritten, why settle? Transformers had life and energy despite being over-the-top, The Dark Knight delivered both character and action and this year’s Star Trek created spectacle and characters to care about. At this point, there’s no excuse for a story and setting so ripe as Terminator Salvation to be so dull.