I’ve been a fan of the Terminator series for as long as there’s been a Terminator series and at the conclusion of each of the films there’s been a steady theme to my wonderment: When is John Connor going to fulfill his destiny as the savior of humanity? Unfortunately, my near-famous question remains unanswered once more in Terminator Salvation but before we get into all that, let’s explore the nitty-gritty, shall we?
The film represents the fourth full-length motion picture release in the Terminator franchise and the first of which is notably missing T-800 Model 101 portrayal by iconic actor-turned politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger (although there is a segment so well done in his absence that I’m actually going to have to look up how they did it).
For years now we’ve seen glimpses into the future via brief sequences in each of the films, video games, television series and so on. It’s almost always the same: Black skies behind a global junkyard just littered with human skulls for the advancing robotic exoskeletons to crush with their feet and tank treads. Humans cower behind rubble while taking potshots at the seemingly invincible mechanized armada before them, armed with brightly flashing lasers and odd hovering aircraft. It’s pretty bleak but then again it’s pretty tough to imagine a friendly scenario when describing an event labeled “Judgment Day”. Here’s the thing- for as long as we’ve been fed these disturbing post apocalyptic images, we’ve been given the promise of hope in one man; a man so influential in turning the tide against the machines that they have attempted his assassination (unsuccessfully) across three full movies and two seasons of network television.
Set in the post Judgment Day timeline, Terminator Salvation has been perhaps the closest in potentially allowing the lead character to begin displaying the sheer omnipotence that will eventually be the machines’ undoing (save for a few brief seconds at the end of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) but alas, the film makes it clear pretty early on that this is more a Kyle Reese survival tale and an excuse to introduce a new mechanized hybrid (Marcus Wright) then it is John Connor’s coming into his own.
The setting is bleak, but not near as bad as the scene we’ve been teased with all these years (I’m assuming that’s because those shots must have represented the moments directly after the robot-induced nuclear war). It’s 2018 in Salvation and the world has been pretty much handed over to the machines. Small human outposts are scattered about but the “Resistance” isn’t nearly as well defined here as has been hinted to throughout the franchise. Rather, both a military and civilian presence coexist amidst the mechanical mayhem.
Connor is as a member of the military effort here (along with his wife Catherine “Kate”) though his portrayal this time around is closer to that of a low-ranking stereotypical loose cannon than a natural born leader. In the film’s defense, by the end an opportunity for Connor’s rapid advancement through the ranks is presented, though there is little along the way that hints to exactly how John Connor’s going to inevitably turn the tides once and for all (you’ll think it is explained early on, but that thread is a bit of a dead end by the film’s conclusion as well).
One of the coolest elements of the film’s timeline is that it allows for a nice intimate look at some of the weapons and mechanized beasties that the machines have built in effort to keep us lowly humans in check. Love or hate the influence computer-generated imaging has had on movie making in recent years, there is little doubt that the sheer scale and complexity of many of the sequences here would not have been possible when the earlier films were dazzling movie-goers.
Among the mentionables are a single-shot helicopter crash sequence that certainly harkens back to some of the finer techniques used in Cloverfield and a robotic sentry that’s absolutely terrifying due to it’s sheer size and firepower. I will refrain from gushing over the motorcycle-piloting droids (“Mototerminators”) that dislodge from the large Harvesters to give chase, the slow, methodic machine-gunning of the T-600s, or the very Matrix-esque “Hydrobots” that patrol the waterways. The point is there is far more going on in the land of the machines than simply mindless marching metal skeletons.
And speaking of the Matrix, it would be wrong to skate through this review without at least mentioning the apparent influence the series had on the Terminator’s prose. In all fairness Terminator did it first but while the T-movies were typically set in contemporary time frames with classic horror elements driving a very human emotional chase, this is the first opportunity for the franchise to shift into true science fiction mode. And I’m pleased to report that it does that well. Everything from hand-to-hand combat, futuristic weapons, human-mechanical hybrids, to radioactive fallout make their presence felt here. Couple this to the typical tension-laden Danny Elfman “Terminator” sound score and you have yourself a heck of fun thrill ride.
Surprisingly, however (especially considering the swing to science fiction), there is really absolutely nothing to do with time travel in this one. It is mentioned in the dialog and the back story of John Connor attempting to keep young Kyle Reese (his father) safe so that he himself may exist, pays homage to the time-twisting prose of the prior films, but nowhere here is the concept solidified. So much so is it’s avoidance that it leaves viewers wondering such things is how the technology will be discovered, by whom, and so on.
Maybe it’s for the best such things were left untouched considering the sheer amount of continuity discrepancies already taking up server space just in arguments stemming from the time travel in the first three movies and the Sarah Connor Chronicle TV series.
Other minor complaints include an impromptu heart transplant (in the most non-sterile environment imaginable) and a John Connor with an absolute disdain for mechanical organisms (despite, as the other movies/ TV shows have led us believe, having practically grown up around those that protected him as well as tried to destroy him). Small nit picks, sure, but long time fans of the franchise will surely pick up on these things.
In all, and despite what my review may have you thinking, this is an enjoyable film from beginning to end. If this seems hard to believe considering my abundant criticisms, rest assured that the Terminator pictures have rarely stood up well to scientific scrutiny. The point is they exist to entertain and Salvation, just like the others, doesn’t disappoint in that area. The action is intense, the pace nice and brisk, and the visuals quite spectacular throughout. The acting is solid and even the science doesn’t require absolute suspension of disbelief (usually a prerequisite in scifi). At the end of the day it’s a fun popcorn flick that manages to make up for its lack of intricate story structure with sheer style. 3.5 Stars for that alone (rounded up to 4). Just don’t go in expecting to finally understand why the robots of the future have made it their number one priority to eliminate John Connor even if they had to invent time travel to do it… It’s one of many Terminator discrepancies best left to debate on the fan forums.