The year is 2003, and a death row convict with a chip on his shoulder and a guilt complex grudgingly does something seemingly good for humanity, and we can already guess that he probably has a heart beating under that tough, muscled exterior. Pretty standard fare. Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington, Avatar), at the prodding of a cancer-ridden, even more emaciated than usual Helena Bonham Carter, gives his body to science – in this case, the Cyberdyne Corporation. The crux of the film’s limited narrative centers around Wright’s heart – both physically and metaphorically speaking – and while Worthington at times succeeds in bringing his cyborg character to life, his performance, even with some skillful acting from Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) as Kyle Reese, just isn’t enough to save Terminator Salvation from itself.
Flash 15 years into the future and we meet John Connor (Christian Bale) all grown up, as indicated by his gruff, raspy voice and the constant yelling that must be written into Bale’s contract somewhere. McG’s intervention into the Terminator franchise places the story post-Judgment Day with the Resistance organizing a desperate strike against Skynet; this is a moment that many Terminator fans have long been waiting for. The future might have been better left a looming threat, however, its presence at once intervening in and haunting the present moment of the original films. To construct a narrative so strongly around what was previously a largely unseen future inevitably sets up any interpretation as potentially disappointing. Whatever you imagined 2018 to look like and however you expected the fabled leader John Connor to be, this film probably isn’t it.
The characteristic dark, blue-lit gloom of the original Terminators is noticeably missing here, at least half of the film taking place during daylight in a drab and dusty desert environment. While this certainly highlights the militaristic element of this moment in time, calling to mind as many recent action movies have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film loses the otherworldly, even creepy feel that the originals commanded. In the seedy shadow worlds of T1 and T2, at least, the unnatural silver gleam of the machines stood out more prominently. Cameron in the director’s chair was particularly adept at drawing attention to the uncanny in the terminators: Cameron’s technology was frightening; McG’s terminators are Transformers. In the bright of day and even in the night scenes in Salvation, the actors’ features are lost in shadow rather than contrasted, so that if there were any physical depictions of emotion to add to the often dull, 2D characterization, we’re not privy to them.
For a film weighing humanity against technology, there’s really not a lot to sink your teeth into with these characters. Connor’s superiors on the submarine serve only as contrast in order to heavy handedly reinforce the notion that John is the Resistance Messiah and all other powers that be should be defied. Likewise, with the exception of Wright’s quasi-love interest, Connor’s followers are, simply, followers. Moon Bloodgood’s Blaire is the only one to challenge Connor, but her role as the resident independent, bad-ass female is compromised by her relationship with Wright. When he saves her from her would-be rapists, I at least expected some sort of “I don’t need to be saved” shtick, but Blaire simply snuggles up to her cyborg crush for “body heat”. Right. Perhaps it goes without saying that we need a female character to recognize the human heart (literally) within the monster, just as Connor needs a bland woman to come home to; without these tick-in-the-box romances, where would our story be? Sarah Connor’s recorded voice serves only as a reminder of the fleshed out female (or male, for that matter) character that Salvation so sorely lacks.
And then we have the man who doesn’t know he’s part-machine. An opportunity for some true depth of character is wasted here; we spend a good portion of the movie watching Wright wander around showing impressive feats of strength, yet ignorant of what lies underneath his skin. The big reveal comes and goes far too quickly, though Worthington makes good use of the time he’s given, investing his character with more feeling and life than any other in the film – oh, the irony – but unfortunately that’s not saying much. Although Wright’s story is short-shifted, the viewer only vaguely aware that he did something and lost someone once, Worthington does manage to emphasize the strange triad that is Wright, Reese and Connor. Wright’s own loyalty to the kid reads as a bit forced at times, but the tie that Reese creates between Wright and Connor may be one of the few purposeful plot points in the film.
Wright’s stoicism allows a young Kyle to emerge as a spunky diamond in the rough, street-smart for survival’s sake but still with a spark of hope reminiscent of T1 Reese’s devotion to Connor, the Resistance, and Sarah. Yelchin invests Reese with just the right balance of an urchin’s independence and a childlike mimicry and hero-worshipping of Wright and Connor. Where Connor’s other followers feel like cardboard cut-outs, Reese’s reiterations of both Wright’s and Connor’s words and mannerisms highlight his need to be a part of something and have a cause to believe in and stand for. The world is barren, no sense of nation or family, the remaining pockets of Resistance scattered and paranoid, but young Kyle represents the true resistance – maintaining hope, purpose, and makeshift family. Yelchin pays true homage to Michael Biehn’s Reese; you can see this how this boy craving a scrap of hope latches onto the only figure that promises some semblance of unity – unfortunately, it’s John Connor.
At once the strongest and weakest aspect of the film may be Bale’s Connor – or more particularly, Connor’s arrogance. He cares about no one, and it’s hard to understand why everyone cares about him. If that’s what the film was going for, job well done. Where Wright is determined to rescue Reese, the lost little brother he won’t fail again, Connor, on the other hand, must rescue Reese or, as he tells his wife, “No Kyle Reese, no John Connor”. Sarah Connor certainly raised her son to believe in his destiny. Connor is completely absorbed in the part of post-apocalyptic prophet, machine-like in his own role as military tactician, despite the rousing radio broadcasts he delivers. Worthington aptly portrays Wright’s disgust with Connor’s self-importance, Connor assuming the only possible reason for Wright’s presence being to kill him. Somehow he has already forgotten the T2 Arnold Schwarzenegger, an even lesser hybrid of human and machine that almost learned to feel and a young John felt so much for. Is this what must become of John Connor? Saving humanity at the cost of his own? It may well be that the character is simply flat and certainly there is little actual story to the film, but unwittingly or not, Terminator Salvation may just have something here: this is war, and this is the leader we need. This is not the charismatic, passionate John Connor I had hoped to find; maybe this, at least, is a deliberate letdown.
The real problem with Terminator Salvation is that there’s no tension. There’s never a question of what will happen. I won’t spoil you for the end, though I can’t say there’s much to spoil for. Worse still, there’s not even an anticipation of what we know will happen – there is no real surprise or satisfaction to the film’s close. I can’t even say that the movie builds toward something and then just doesn’t deliver – it’s a fairly static trajectory from start to finish. And while both Worthington and Yelchin perform their parts admirably, it’s Bale’s Connor that makes the movie – for better or for worse.