The Never Ending Story – Terminator: Salvation

It’s a little heartbreaking when a wonderful, low-budget film is traded for big budget superficiality. When it becomes labeled…(gasp!)… a franchise and bottom-line intentions become clear: this is meant to be a profitable venture. Already starting the transformation with the second film, Judgment Day cost over $100 million to produce in 1991, making it one of the most expensive films of its day (and also one of the highest grossing).

While it’s been six years since the last Terminator film, Terminator Salvation, like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, breaches the lineage as part of a next generation franchise far more than T3: Rise of the Machines. Neither of the film’s originators, James Cameron and William Wisher, were involved. For Salvation, the shift to next gen mode means stylistic obligations such as international casting and plenty of pretty faces, standard battle sequences, and annoyingly referential dialogue. It is, like most every big-budget action movie these days, organized around flashiness. Another revivalist summer blockbuster was guilty of this: Star Trek.

As the first of the Terminator films to be set in the post-Holocaust world that Sarah Connor envisioned, most of the grainy, bleak film looks modeled upon military-themed video games. Immediately thrusting viewers into the action, the opening sequences are riddled with dust-filled clouds and off-screen shouting. As the seemingly hopeless war against the machines continues, Terminator Salvation takes place just before resistance fighter Kyle Reese meets John Connor. Unfortunately, in the chronology of time traveling tales, there’s always the potential for plot holes. The most egregious occurred as early as the first film. There, Kyle Reese of 2029 wants to “meet the Legend” and selflessly volunteers for the kamikaze mission to be transported to 1984 to save Sarah Connor from assassination by a terminator. In that time, Kyle Reese fathers John Connor, the fearless resistance leader who was, paradoxically, his mentor back in the future. Terminator: Salvation, set in 2018, shows the adult John Connor continuously listening to the tapes his mother recorded before he was born, relaying what she’d learned from Reese in the hopes that she can better prepare him, the future warrior. The mentor and the apprentice reversed roles in a way.

But, the life of the future warrior doesn’t seem like one to be desired. John Connor is constantly forced to be on guard against potential assaults not only against himself, but those intended to protect him. While Kyle Reese indirectly protects John Connor’s life, he must now return the favor, because doing so ensures that all prior events still occur, namely protecting Sarah Connor, which suggests that the past is always occurring. If so, then there is always a possibility of altering them, and consequently, anything in the time line that follows. Eventually, the Hunter-Killers flying into the frame will have a “Same Shit Different Day” slapped to the back of it. (Did someone say Wayan’s brother genre parody?!).

Though, we’ve come this far with the Terminator, it seems that in fifteen years, four films, and a television series, Skynet is the ever-relentless foe. (And I distinctly remember even personally assisting in the mission to bring down the machines and save man kind). In both keeping with the concerns for big budget action film aesthetics and the “next-gen” mode for continuing the story, earlier villains were perverted, this being the film that revealed the origins of the Terminator revealed in the 1984 film: a mechanized skeleton hidden by flesh ala Blade Runner (even waxing philosophical in an almost identical finale). The design that eventually became the Terminator shown in the first film is introduced more discreetly here, although his physique is far more exaggerated.

In every iteration, Skynet seems to develop something more powerful than the last (how do so many remain unscathed in the Salvation battles?!). The T-1000 of Judgment Day seemed impossible to defeat, were it not for that one little chemical weakness. But in the end, not Kyle Reese’s pivotal transportation to the past, nor the infiltration of Cyberdyne Systems in the second film (disregard the pointlessness of the third film) had done much to alter Doomsday or even quell the wrath of the Machines during its aftermath. Perhaps, that’s to be expected when movies become big budget franchises – they need that lingering variable to justify sequels. Look at the Halloween series. Not even getting beheaded and set on fire stopped Michael Meyers from returning to bother his victims. The same is likely true of the Machines. Now, as a next generation action movie (though not a next generation breach in the narrative since it offers nothing new), John Connor and Kyle Reese’s future appears to be saddled with dull consistency, especially when the writers take such small leaps in the chronology.

Welsh actor Christian Bale, Hollywood’s Glory Boy, took the reigns as this year’s John Connor, having worked with director McG in the Dark Knight. Although viral exposure of being a real prick on the set may have generated early publicity for the movie, it was a far more compelling alternative to his routinely grizzly-voiced character. Perhaps its the limitations of the story, but Bale’s “hero” feels very obligatory and all other secondary characters, with the exception of Anton Yelchin who apparently received high accolades for a rather lively performance as the young and cocky Kyle Reese, are intentionally restrained. Sam Worthington’s character, Marcus Wright, is derivative to the point of trying to mimick Rutger Hauer’s role in Blade Runner. Bryce Dallas Howard has a small role as Connor’s non-existent pregnant wife. Common as the fellow soldier not conflicted by moral questions. And B-movie regular Michael Ironside is largely ineffectual as the resistance fighter working with John Connor to infiltrate Skynet.

Salvation didn’t seem to generate many positive reviews, whether by film critics or film viewers, and part of that might be out of expectations borne out of loyalties to the earlier films (I’ll include myself among this group). Given the unusual Thursday release, Terminator: Salvation was almost immediately knocked from the Number One box office spot by Night at the Museum II. Now that we have followed the characters this far into the future, what we have glimpsed of the whereabouts of John Connor and Kyle Reese doesn’t feel very significant in the end.


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