The Week in Film by Robert Mann – Week Starting 5/6/09

Terminator Salvation ****½

Back in 1984 a little known film director by the name of James Cameron directed a low budget sci-fi movie called The Terminator. While not a big box office success in its own right it kicked off one of the most successful sci-fi movie franchises of all time and turned Cameron into one of the most successful and critically acclaimed directors. In 1991 Cameron followed it up with a big budget sequel in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a film that was, at the time, the most expensive ever made and that raised the bar for visual effects higher than ever before. 2003 saw the long awaited release of the third film in the series with Cameron-less Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, directed by Jonathan Mostow. Despite a generally positive reception by critics, however, many fans weren’t very impressed with that film, many criticising it for being too soft when compared with its predecessors and for essentially rehashing many elements of the first two movies, even though it did at least allow fans to see Judgement Day come to fruition at last, with the machines finally taking over, paving the way for the actual war between man and machine to be shown, which, after all, is what the fans really have really wanted to see all this time. And now, six years on, fans have finally gotten their wish of seeing the war that was promised since Cameron’s original movie, although, if early word of mouth is to be believed it may not be quite the wish fulfilment that fans have been hoping for all this time. Since Terminator Salvation entered development it has faced constant criticism from long time fans of the Terminator franchise with a lot of negative word of mouth spreading, particularly with regard to the choice of director – McG. Best known for his quite fun but extremely forgettable Charlie’s Angels movies, the announcement that McG would direct this fourth entry in the franchise has enraged fans who have been constantly adamant that his involvement would ruin it even after footage was released suggesting that he may not be that bad a choice after all. Aggravating fan opinion even further is the decision to make the film a US PG-13 rating (as opposed to the harder R rating awarded to the first three films) in order to maximise the potential audience, or, in other words, make more money. Poor reviews and disappointing box office numbers from across the pond appear to confirm the worst fears of the fans, although there are certain things that still suggest that this is a film with a lot going for it, particularly the announcement that Christian Bale, fresh off his success with last year’s The Dark Knight would be taking on the role of John Connor. Bale is known for choosing quality film projects and his involvement is certainly a good omen. So does this film continue his winning streak or is it his first big mistake? Read on to find out.

In 2003 death row convict Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is executed shortly after signing away his body to Cyberdyne researcher Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) for some kind of experimentation. In 2018 the world has been decimated following the events of Judgement Day in which most of the human race was annihilated in a nuclear holocaust triggered by the artificially intelligent Skynet and now the survivors struggle to survive with their only hope coming in the form of the Resistance movement headed by General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) and General Losenko (Ivan G’Vera). A major figure within the resistance cells of California is John Connor (Christian Bale), who has been destined to lead the resistance since before he was born, and at his side is his wife Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard), who keeps him going even in the face of hopelessness. John Connor thinks that he knows the future but the future he has been led to believe in by his now deceased mother is altered when Marcus Wright shows up, his last memory being of his experience on death row. Unsure of what Marcus is or whether he can be trusted, John finds that Marcus may be his only hope when he learns that Skynet has captured Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the man destined to travel back in time and become John’s father, and with the resistance about to carry out a massive assault against Skynet’s base of operations in San Francisco, despite the fact that countless people are being held prisoner, John, along with co-fighters Barnes (Common) and Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) must rescue Kyle and all the other prisoners before the future is changed forever.

Right from the outset it is clear that Terminator Salvation is a very different machine to its predecessors. Whereas all three previous Terminator movies, as well as TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which exists in a parallel continuity to movies three and four), were set in the present day and revolved around terminator being sent back from the future to wipe out the resistance before the war has even begun, this film instead shows us the actual war itself. As such, it is a completely kind of film, taking the route of a war movie rather than the chase movie formula of the first three films. And right from the start Terminator Salvation is a full-on war movie. Following the opening scene involving the execution of Marcus Wright and a textual back-story (the film doesn’t get bogged down in what has come before) we are taken straight into the action with an intense battle sequence. This is where the film really succeeds – the action. Even with the lower rating awarded to this film the action is still quite brutal with the action sequences having a very gritty feel to them that really heightens the realism, giving it all the look and feel of a real war movie. Much of the effect can be attributed to the effects which are excellent in every regard. Both CGI and practical effects are used, being combined effectively to create machines and environments that look real, even down to the sounds they make. A wide variety of different machines are featured in the film, each impressively realized and each serving its own unique purpose. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into it and, despite many so-called fans panning the film, fans should be receptive to the inclusions of models such as the T-600s referred to in the original Terminator movie as well as the origins of the T-800 (including a [sort of] cameo appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger). There is also excellent costume and set design with the look of a post apocalyptic world being perfectly captured. The post apocalyptic landscapes of both Los Angeles and San Francisco are rendered impressively and convincingly, and if ever there were an apocalypse this is how I imagine everything would look afterwards. The raw, gritty feel is also aided by the drained palette, with everything having a grey tint to it that truly emphasises the grim, gloomy nature of the world in which the film is set. At times you might wish for a bit of humour or lightness but ultimately it would likely lessen the impact of the overall film. From a visual standpoint director McG handles the film extremely well but there are some flaws in the plot department, with certain plot elements letting the film down a bit. The narrative is somewhat lacking meaning that many sequences just feel linked together without a true purpose and the fact that we are just thrown straight into the action many years after the end of Terminator 3 means that there is a burning feeling that we have missed out on something. A lead-in from the last movie would really have made the plot flow better as it would have allowed for more developed character introductions and we could have seen the development of the resistance rather than just being thrown in at the deep end.

As far as the characters are concerned we know enough about the primary protagonists to care (at least if you have seen the other films) but some of the secondary ones aren’t nearly developed enough. This doesn’t reflect on the quality of the performances, however. Christian Bale easily makes the lead role his own taking the reins from Nick Stahl, who played John Connor in the previous film. Connor’s gritty, gravely portrayal is perfectly fitting for a character whose situation is as desperate as the one he plays here. Despite the strengths of Bale’s performance, however, he once again gets out-acted by one of his co-stars (after Heath Ledger’s scene-stealing turn in The Dark Knight) with Sam Worthington being the real stand-out of the film. Worthington has been touted as the next big thing for some time now and it is easy to see why. He shows himself to be a very capable actor, perfectly capturing the inner conflict of his character when he learns what he really is. He is certainly a star to look out for in the future. Another star of the moment Anton Yelchin (who also appeared as Chekov in Star Trek) also delivers a great performance, in the role of Kyle Reese. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over from Claire Danes (from Terminator 3) in the role of Kate Connor, delivering a performance that captures both of the sensitivity and toughness of her character, although it is a shame that there isn’t more time spent on exploring the relationship between Kate and John. Helena Bonham Carter is also excellent in her all too brief role, about which I won’t give away here. The remainder of the cast get little chance to really impress with Moon Bloodgood, Common and the always excellent Michael Ironside only being given very small roles to play. Overall, Terminator Salvation is a film that really cannot be compared to its predecessors. However, on its own terms it stands a terrific action movie that is bolstered by some strong performances even if it is lacking a bit in the plot department. It may not completely satisfy some of the Terminator purists but most fans should find it an enjoyable viewing experience that is definitely worth watching even if it doesn’t quite live up to the extremely high expectations many have had for it.


Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Avatar
    Owain Paciuszko 5th June 2009

    I feel very differently about Terminator Salvation (ou est the colon?), though I cannot fault the effects work I found the script and the actors and the direction to be generally bland in the extreme.

    Bale’s Connor had no depth, and seemed far removed from the smarmy youth of T2, the slightly edgy rogue from T3, and though – obviously – a large burden is being shouldered by Connor as ‘prophet’ of the resistance, Bale did little more than shout and scowl in a wobbly accent. There was no investment in the character, and it seemed slightly implausible that he couldn’t conceive of the machine’s doing any good (seeing as he saw Arnie as father figure in T2 and 3), so his extreme distrust of Marcus was a bit strange.

    Worthington as Marcus had no charisma, his opening scene with Bonham Carter (who I found to be quite woeful in both her scenes, especially the second!) was such a flat exchange, when it instead should have been a strong grounding for the character and his demons. He played some of the later moments – coming to terms with his fate – rather well, but for the most part had either little to do or was too busy getting upstaged by Yelchin as Kyle Reese, unfortunately Reese had a mute moppet strangling his charisma and a ropey script like an albatross round his neck. Still, the scenes with Marcus and Reese were the film’s strongest.

    The terminators themselves though well realised have however descended into cartoon villainy, with none of the unstoppable menace of before. One terminator that just walks by the hiding Connor even did the cartoon guard double-take, and later Terminators seemed more content to throw people around rather than actually terminate them. The huge skill of T1 and T2, even T3 to some extent, was that you felt that if a Terminator caught its prey there would be no hesistation; the only times a terminator would pause would be if they were using their current catch as bait.

    Elsewhere the score was poor, the supporting cast bland, the script riddled with questionable plot developments and character motivations (the excuse that they’ll solve it in sequels is flimsy at best) and there was no sense of weight to any of the big moments in the film nor was there a climax, instead the film just ended.

    I am not a Terminator obsessive, I think T1 and T2 are both milestone action thrillers, perfectly balancing smart sci-fi with intense chases and a soupcon of dark humour, whilst T3 has its problems it still manages to deliver some effective moments here and there. Of course, as a future war movie Terminator Salvation has to take a different stance to its predecessors and can’t simply be a cat and mouse, but to just throw a load of action at the screen with little regard for characters to invest in and a coherent narrative is pretty bland.

  • Avatar
    Sledge 5th June 2009

    Yet again, a great review.
    And some great comments there Owain.

    I enjoyed it, although the cheesy references to the past films annoyed me a bit. So did the fact the Resistance used USB. I dunno why…


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