In Terminator Salvation, John Connor's voice carries over the radio waves, telling stories about the human spirit and how it'll triumph over our robot oppressors. As if the power of storytelling will save our future. So why is the movie itself so inept at storytelling? Massive, bone-crushing spoilers below.
Terminator Salvation clearly thinks it has a story to tell: It lays the groundwork for that story, with some arresting visuals and scene-setting. At the end of Terminator 3, Skynet launched its nuclear strike on the human race, and the aftermath is gray and washed out looking, with the wreckage of civilization all around. Skynet's machines are everywhere: in the air, in the water, and on every kind of terrain. McG has an eye for cool visual details, and it serves him well here. For example, the film both begins and ends with close-ups of intravenous tubes pumping liquid into star Sam Worthington, signaling that Worthington's body is becoming the battleground for the battle to redeem humanity as a whole.
It's over this post-apocalyptic wasteland that Connor's voice rings out, delivering those inspirational speeches you've heard in the trailers. Connor speaks to the last survivors of humanity over the radio, providing concrete robot-fighting advice, but also uplifting talk about the future. In turn, John listens to amazingly well-preserved audio cassettes of his mom, Sarah Connor, telling him about his destiny from beyond the grave. Stories, the movie seems to be saying, are how we survive.
And if you think about it, stories are the crucial element in Skynet's constant efforts to impersonate humans. "I'm a friend of Sarah Connor's." "It's your foster-mom." Etc. This time around, Marcus Wright (Worthington) is the main cyborg figure in the movie, and his story is also the most elaborate: He was executed in 2003, and suddenly woke up in 2018, naked except for some strategically placed mud. Marcus has to figure out who he is, and along the way, he becomes a crucial ally for John Connor in his battle to save Kyle Reese, so Reese can travel back in time and become Connor's dad.
So far, so good. But then, it all falls apart. I've seen very few movies that fail at the basic mechanics of telling a story quite as badly as this one does. The movie feels so jerky and disconnected, it seems to be making a case for determinism. That is, stuff happens because it's supposed to happen, not because anybody makes any choices. It's odd for a franchise whose motto is "No fate but what we make" to create a movie that feels so predetermined. Apart from a few blindingly amazing action sequences (mostly in the first half), the film feels like a choppy mess. In the preview showing I went to, a bunch of people started laughing during the serious parts towards the end.
I went into Terminator Salvation with high hopes: I'd bought into McG's grand statements about his film's ambitious themes of what it meant to be human. I was pumped for a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape, and a gritty war movie. I liked the ashen deathscape he'd managed to create out of a stretch of New Mexico, and the fact that he was using practical effects and real killer machines as much as possible. I actually thought it might give Star Trek a run for its money. And because I went into it with high hopes, I wound up being more disappointed than I was, say, by Wolverine or Dragonball.
So to some extent my goal, in this review, is to lower your expectations. I probably won't be able to talk too many people out of seeing this movie, but I can prepare you for suckitude, so you won't suffer the same crushing disappointment I did. In a way, I'm the opposite of DJ John Connor: he gets on the airwaves to tell people they can do it, and humans will one day triumph against overwhelming odds. I'm here to tell you it's hopeless, and prepare you for the worst. If you go into this film with low expectations, you'll probably enjoy it somewhat.
The frustrating thing about Terminator Salvation is, it wants to ask some huge questions, but it loses its voice. The story of Marcus Wright, in particular, is bursting with potential: He's a convicted murderer, who believes he deserves to die. And then suddenly he's reawoken in a trashed landscape, where he's one of the last people alive - and he's become superhuman. He wants to believe in his own humanity, but runs into more and more evidence that he's mostly a machine now. He's not quite a Terminator, because he has free will. But he's not quite a free human, either, because his upgrade comes with strings attached.
Unfortunately, we never pause long enough to consider Marcus' situation in any meaningful way. In fact, every time one of the characters has a conversation with another character, it feels as though it's taking place in shorthand, and the film is just trying to maneuver us past a plot point as fast as possible. Seriously, the people in this movie all act as though they've undergone severe head trauma a few times too many. Christian Bale, as John Connor, seems to be trying to imitate Timmy from South Park - he runs around, bellowing his own name at the top of his lungs, in almost every scene. "John Connor! JOHN CONNOR!!" I half-expected him to become the front man in a terrible punk band.
In the drastic post-holocaust future, we can't afford verbs. Or nouns, really. Take the scene where John Connor goes to the Resistance HQ. In the IDW comics adaptation, it's actually kind of a cool scene that tells us a lot about Connor and moves the plot forward:
And then here's that same scene in the actual movie:
Actually, I think there's slightly more to that scene, on screen, than in the above clip. John Connor says, "What did we find down there?" and Ironsides says "We won't tell you." And Connor says "My men died for that information. Tell me!" And Ironsides says, "Okay, we'll tell you." In any case, my jaw dropped when I watched that scene in the movie - I've literally never seen a movie where the comic-book adaptation felt more fully realized and fleshed out. Usually, the comic book is like the Cliffs Notes version of the movie, but this almost felt like the other way around.
I apologize if that sounds nitpicky, but literally every moment in the film where two people have a conversation is the same way. Like we're seeing the shorthand version of a conversation. Later on, the Resistance captures Marcus Wright and realizes he's a cyborg. Then Blair (Moon Bloodgood) helps Marcus escape, but she gets caught. John Connor visits Blair in her cell and they have a conversation that goes like: "Why?" "Because." "Okay." I'm dying to see the DVD version of this movie, to see what ended up on the cutting-room floor: it's entirely possible that the dialogue all feels choppy because it got chopped up. The whole film feels like that. Like, for example, this crucial scene between Connor and the Resistance brass later in the film:
I've watched that scene a few times now, including in context, and I still have no clue what Connor is saying. "It's his fate." "No, it's OUR fate! JOHN CONNOR!!!!" This is really the first movie I've ever seen Bale in where he seemed so clearly bored and annoyed.
So at this point, you're probably rolling your eyes and saying: So it has weak dialogue and all of that talk about deep philosophical questions was just McG's come-on. So what? It's a summer action movie! Stuff blows up, right?
And yes, it's true. Stuff does blow up. As I mentioned, there are a couple of real stand-out action sequences early on, and some fun stuff later on. In fact, the action sequences are pleasingly free of jump-cuts. You have one sequence, where John Connor climbs out of an underground base just as it blows up, then he gets in a helicopter, and the helicopter gets smashed, and he crashes it upside down, which is all one continous take. And it's a really nice-looking sequence. The action towards the end of the movie is less impressive, but there are still some nice bits. As a pure action film, it's... okay.
The main problem with Terminator Salvation, as an action film, is that it's kind of lacking in urgency. You never really feel like the characters are in that much danger. Sure, there are a bunch of these nasty robots around, but they're mostly allergic to a bit of pluck. (Connor even explains early on that the primitive T-600 robots have a weak spot in the back of their neck, that you can jam a knife or something into.) The action sequences are infinitely more real-feeling than Transformers, but they have the same kind of theme-park attitude.
Sometimes, turning on a boombox is enough to attract the attention of all Skynet's minions; at others, though, you can light a big bonfire and Skynet won't see it. As Gizmodo pointed out, Skynet HQ all seems to be optimized for humans to use, including touchpads. And Skynet only seems to have a couple of Terminators to guard its entire HQ, although we see a whole bunch of them being put together in the Terminator factory. Seriously, you can see in this clip that Skynet HQ is weirdly deserted, and there's just one kind of sad Terminator to chase Connor and friends around. Skynet spent all its money on touchpads.
That's the other thing: The movie's ending is all kinds of underwhelming. John Connor and Marcus Wright finally converge at Skynet HQ, where Marcus gets treated to heaping plateloads of exposition, akin to the Neo-meets-Colonel-Sanders scene in Matrix Reloaded. It all collapses under the weight of its own self-importance.
For all that, though, you have to give Terminator Salvation some credit for being an ambitious failure, and at least it's still better than Wolverine, which came out a few weeks ago. Here's the difference between Terminator Salvation and Wolverine: If you don't understand any English at all, and you see Terminator Salvation without any subtitles, you'll think it's a pretty good movie. But even if you didn't understand a word they were saying in Wolverine, you'd probably still think it was idiotic.
That's really the frustrating thing. There's a good, maybe even great, movie here, and you catch glimpses of it from time to time. Maybe it'll be on the DVD, maybe it won't ever exist.
And maybe what I'm seeing as a failure of storytelling is actually a commentary on the nature of life in an A.I.-dominated world. Maybe everything in John Connor's bleak future is actually masterminded by Skynet, even down to the tense conversations among the humans. In any case, even with all of the film's shortcomings, I found myself wanting to spend more time in its horrific wasteland. Maybe if McG manages to take better control over the film's narrative mechanisms, Terminator 5 will deliver on this film's lost promise.