“What happened here?” asks Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). His last memory was of being executed by the state for his crimes in 2003, but he has just woken up, confused and disoriented, in the barren, nuked-out America of 2018.
“Judgment Day happened,” is the answer that Marcus receives – and in a sense it is true of this film too. Flush with success from his relatively low-budget action SF The Terminator (1984), writer/director James Cameron was able to pull out all the stops for his sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), taking special effects to a new level. So high was the benchmark set by Judgment Day that it made the future of the franchise look bleak in more ways than one. Inevitably, Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003) represented a step backwards, both in terms of its SFX and its gender politics (with Linda Hamilton’s tough, independent single mother replaced by a soulless, demonised female Terminator).
With their apocalyptic themes and their messianically initialled saviour of humankind (John Connor), the Terminator films have always been informed by the ideology of the New Testament, and McG’s Terminator Salvation, from the second half of its title to its repeated placement of new (and born-again) character Marcus in a cruciform pose, is no exception. Yet when Marcus is heard repeatedly asking whether “people deserve a second chance”, one suspects that, beyond its obvious Christian associations, this plea for redemption is also coming directly to the viewer from writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris, after their earlier, flawed work on T3: Rise of the Machines. As it is, their ‘second chance’ here feels more like a stopgap than a return to the franchise’s past form.
Set after Judgment Day (when self-aware military machines began a preemptive nuclear war on humankind), but 11 years before the 2029 last stand of humankind that was glimpsed in flashforward in the first two films, Terminator Salvation looks more towards its potential sequels than towards itself (“I’ll be back” has a double-meaning here). There is an ensemble of new personnel, and an armada of previously unseen Terminator models, but the formula has been left largely unchallenged, with catchphrases (“Come with me if you want to live”, “I’ll be back”, etc.) and motifs (bland discourse about the difference between humans and machines, a climactic fight in a foundry) repeated from previous movies.
Terminator Salvation may flirt with idea of breaking all the rules, but in the end there is no radical cleaning of the franchise slate of the kind seen in, say, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), but rather just a series of episodes that fill in some gaps before we get all the way back to the future. The SFX set-pieces are impressive, to be sure, but there is nothing to match the breath-taking spectacle of T2. Sure, the all-CG Arnie resembles Arnie version 1.0, but that is largely because the real thing has always seemed like an artificial construct anyway. The newest elements here – the Shoah imagery transplanted to a sci-fi context and the movements of the large Hunter-Killer and Harvester machines – are in fact lifted respectively from Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds (2005) and Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007). Indeed, when seen back to back, the trailers for this and the Transformers sequel form a near seamless continuum, but for the Mad Max-style dustiness of McG’s dystopia.
With his success in Christopher Nolan’s 21st century Batman reboot, and now his starring role as John Connor in this, Christian Bale is becoming the go-to guy when it comes to filling the boots of dark iconic heroes. In a sense, though, his brooding presence here is pure window dressing for a rôle that has in fact been criminally underwritten. Given that Connor’s charisma is something we only ever hear about rather than actually see on screen, the willingness of others to risk everything, or even sacrifice themselves, for him becomes less and less plausible as the film goes on. Bale deserves much better than this.
The real protagonist here (if you can ignore the marquee) is Marcus Wright who, as the only character with anything like a story arc along which to develop, becomes the beating heart of the movie. Still, when it emerges that all he need do to resolve his inner conflict is pull out a plug, you know that this is a film utterly unconcerned with human (or even cyborg) drama. Which might be ok, if the action were not quite so relentlessly (and uninspiringly) efficient – like a sleek new model Terminator. Better to pull out your old copy of Judgment Day, and pretend this never happened…