Movie Review – Terminator Salvation (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
It is not necessary to see the three prior films in the “Terminator” series to follow and enjoy Terminator Salvation. Salvation, directed by McG from a script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, is first and foremost a fast-moving, thrill-a-minute action movie with great special effects and chases, firefights, and hand-to-hand fighting galore.
The action unfolds against a finely realized backdrop of post-apocalyptic desolation as the hero travels from a Los Angeles in ruins through an abandoned countryside dotted with rusting cars and hulking relics of the industrial past to a San Francisco reduced to rubble. Most of the battles are between the good guys and machines with killing intent. There are also a few battles between good guys and men with evil intent and one where there are good guys on both sides of the fight. Additional variety comes from the great range of terminator models; it’s not just humanoid robots anymore.
It is not necessary to see the other “Terminator” films to follow and enjoy Terminator Salvation, but it helps. It helps especially to have seen the original film The Terminator. Thanks to time travel paradoxes, this entry is both prequel and sequel to its predecessors. The story is set ten years or so before Kyle Reese (the teenaged Kyle appears in Salvation played by Anton Yelchin) was sent 45 years into the past by John Connor to protect John’s mother Sarah Connor from a terminator in The Terminator, but after the main events detailed in that film and its first sequels. Thus, the John Connor (Christian Bale) of Salvation-time, joined by the series fan, knows the past, the future, and how what happens now has the potential to change both. While there is dialogue in Salvation to refresh memories or bring new viewers up to speed, there is a definite learning curve for the uninitiated. Salvation takes its place in the timeline seriously.
The first scene of Salvation is a brief pre-apocalypse prologue introducing hero and new character Marcus (Sam Worthington), a Death Row inmate who donates his body to medical science at the request of a Cyberdine researcher (Cyberdine being the company that will create Skynet, the artificial intelligence attempting to eradicate humanity). He awakens years later at a Skynet terminator research facility, external appearance unchanged and memories intact. The audience knows immediately what it takes Marcus some time to realize: he is now a cyborg, machine inside except for heart and brain.
Nir observed in his review of The Terminator (read it here) that the story creates time travel paradoxes that seem to make sense while you’re watching, then afterward gets you thinking about how it all fits together. The same cannot be said of Salvation.
Paradoxical elements that fit into the series arc make sense (at least while you’re watching), but the plot points surrounding Skynet’s creation of Marcus do not, either in the course of the film or on further reflection. I can more easily forgive the general lack of sense– a failure to make sense comes with time travel territory– than I can the clunky exposition scenes that serve to “explain” Marcus’s existence.
I was happier with Marcus’s existential dilemma and quest for redemption in his “second chance” life. Marcus, as cyborg and in his character arc, is the main expression of the film’s concern with what it means to be human. Next to the Connor family history, it is this theme that most closely ties Salvation to its predecessors. The film is neither subtle nor nuanced in its treatment and could easily have become ridiculous. That it does not is a credit to the conviction of the actors’ delivery and the primal appeal of the man vs. machine(-man) story.