Review: Terminator Salvation (2009)
The Golden Gate Bridge (and Anton Yelchin) both feature prominently in this summer's reboots of popular sci-fi movie series, first Star Trek, and now Terminator Salvation. In Star Trek, it gleams in the background at the Starfleet Academy, where humans learn to use machines to conquer space. In Terminator Salvation, it looms deadly over Skynet Central, where machines learn about humans by rounding them up as prisoners for research on how better to destroy them. (Yelchin is less emblematic, but pretty good in both.)
The Bridge sort of tells the story for both films. Star Trek portrays the optimistic far-future, while Salvation is a bleak, blanched, claustrophobic actioner in the Mad Max mode, and set in 2018 (so there's time still to clean it up for the Starfleet Academy groundbreaking).
I think I watched about three minutes of Charlie's Angels when it was released, and went home and went to sleep. So the name "McG" in the credits as director of the new Terminator did not heighten my anticipation for the latest installment in what has been a pretty solid series, which includes one great film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and two slightly lesser efforts, which are pretty decent action movies in themselves.
From the first scenes of Terminator Salvation, I was nervous that this was really going to be a bomb of the first order. It opens with the execution of a condemned murderer, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), including a needlessly weird interlude between Wright and the needlessly weird Helena Bonham Carter. After this sequence, the film takes off and doesn't let up until the last second. It's all action. It's tight, efficient, exuberant, even semi-profound, and lots of fun.
It even made me sympathize with Christian Bale's now-famous profane rant when some crew member wandered into his shot. With so much crap flying around in the air (even though lots of it is probably digital), I also would not want to have to repeat such tightly choreographed scenes any more than necessary.
Bale plays John Connor (previously memorably played by Edward Furlong in T2 and less memorably by Nick Stahl in T3), a leader of the Resistance who's stuck in a time-travel loop which complicates all of the movies. He knows certain things about his future, and others are more mysterious. For the purposes of this film, he seems not to be the same John Connor who's lived through T2 yet, but the events of the first and third movies have had an effect on his life. I just realized that typing this, it's not very important to the story.
Again, the most important things to this story are the action sequences. We get mushroom clouds, assaults on Skynet installations, helicopter jumps to submarine rendezvous, Terminators in the familiar forms, as well as in the form of huge ships, enormous human-shaped walking transporters for human prisoners, mini-satellites, eel-like hydrobots, intelligent motorbikes, and a few more I won't spoil, all handily signaled by the now-familiar and still quite effective T-klaxon.
Bale is excellent in the film, though some similarities to his Batman may make some think otherwise. I thought he was quite effective as Connor, and he serves the story well. The real breakout star of the film, though, is Worthington as Marcus Wright (his name is a hint), who's awakened from years-long slumber by a raid Connor's unit makes on a Skynet facility to capture a universal shut-off signal for the machines for later use in a larger assault. Wright proceeds to make his way through a totally unfamiliar new post-nuclear landscape for mysterious reasons.
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms which could be made about the film in terms of logic, depth, etc., but on the whole I think it is very successful. Its deus ex machina (which I won't reveal) is persuasive and fits this incarnation of the series quite well. The action is first-rate and fun. The acting is surprisingly good, especially from Bale, Worthington, Yelchin and Moon Bloodgood as a hot, kick-ass Resistance fighter, and clichéd characters and symbols, though present, aren't given much room to ruin things. I even found some questions that get raised about the "logic" of the killer machines more persuasive because the machines are not perfect, they are machines, formidable but limited by their own capacity to utilize vast resources just as efficiently as they can, and no more efficiently. This idea excuses lots of seeming plotholes, and, for me, made the film more interesting and "believable" on its own terms. I'd call it the second-best Terminator, after Judgment Day. I already watched it twice.
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