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Set in post-apocalyptic 2018, John Connor is the man fated to lead the human resistance against Skynet and its army of Terminators. But the future Connor was raised to believe in is altered in part by the appearance of Marcus Wright, a stranger whose last memory is of being on death row. Connor must decide whether Marcus has been sent from the future, or rescued from the past. As Skynet prepares its final onslaught, Connor and Marcus both embark on an odyssey that takes them into the heart of Skynet’s operations, where they uncover the terrible secret behind the possible annihilation of mankind.
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The Terminator franchise has been with his for quite a while now – 25 years this year, I think. Usually when a series gets to be that old, and starts trotting out 4th and 5th sequels, the filmmakers only have a few real options. One is to try and repeat the formula that worked so well the first time around as much as possible, regardless of all sense or logic (e.g. the upcoming Saw VI). Another option is to go hog wild, doing something never done before and with only slight relations to the earlier material (but really, you're taking your life in your hands with that). There's the increasingly popular reboot, which is really just a cheat, but it can create some entertaining movies for a while, at least until the conditions that necessitated the reboot in the first place return. And then there's the prequel, usually a complete repudiation of any sort of forward motion for the story in exchange for some extended navel gazing into the mechanics of the back-story, the sort of thing that's usually directed at core fans, and somewhat shrugs its shoulders at everyone else.
Luckily for the Terminator films, the time travel element allows them to have the best of both worlds, giving them the opportunity to boldly move forward away from repeating the same story over and over and into the mechanics of its back-story.
As we rejoin the action previously in progress, it's the year 2018, some 15 years since Judgment Day finally arrived at the end of "Terminator 3." John Connor (Christian Bale) has finally become the man we've been told he was since "The Terminator" way back when. He's bold and confident warrior, a leader of men (not THE leader he was supposed to be, because Hollywood doesn't believe in action films where the hero isn't butting heads with a superior, but whatever). It's not quite as far in the future as flashbacks from earlier films have shown, but it's far enough that the robots all but taken over the wasteland that's left, herding humans into smaller and smaller enclaves as they try and fight back with what ever weapons they can find.
There's some fantastic craftsmanship at work, especially in the film's opening and closing action sequences, as John Connor leads a team into an underground facility Skynet has been guarding in the Nevada desert, and then later sneaks into Skynet itself. Unfortunately, the middle of the film is a bit dodgier.
It's always a question when the original author leaves a series, especially when it’s the writer-director who leaves, leaving it in the hands of producers who really interested in the business potential, not the story telling. We've already long since less left behind who the films were originally about—Linda Hamilton—as they gradually became about Arnold Schwarzenegger being emotionless and tough. But to be fair, that started under Cameron's watch. Now we don't have Schwarzenegger any more, either, and you could be forgiven for expecting the producers to just try and reproduce as many moments from the original films as they could within the framework they've got. And they have (right up to a return of the Guns 'N Roses song that was so prominent in Terminator 2), but it would be too easy to say no real thought has gone into it.
In a lot of ways, quite a lot of thought has gone into it. Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris certainly get the theme of the human heart besting cold machines; in fact they're pretty literal about the idea. They understand how the emotional beats of Connor's character should play out, what Skynet's plan is, and especially how the climax (which is, luckily, the strongest part of the film) fits in to everything that's come before. The problem is, that's only true for one of the films, because "Terminator: Salvation" is actually two movies.
You could have done it as a new story with a brand new character that we're meeting for the first time. Or you could have done it as a continuing story in the saga of John Connor. Trying to do both is begging to have a muddled focus, which is pretty much what we get. It's really two movies, one about John Connor, and one about Marcus Wright (Same Worthington), and they don't connect very well. Marcus isn't a bad idea - a Terminator from the past coming to the future, sort of - but the story as presented isn't his, although it takes the movie itself an awful long time to realize that.
A convicted murder on death row, Marcus leaves his body to science on the eve of Judgment Day, only to wake up 15 years later in the same lab Connor was examining at the beginning of the film followed shortly by some a Road Warrior-y action across the California wasteland and as he a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) try to find the mythical John Connor.
The idea of Marcus isn't too bad. Thematically, he fits right in with the "Demon with a Glass Hand" inspiration that lead to the original Terminator. The thing is I don't give a shit about him. Why should I? He's just a generic macho guy doing generic macho guy things. All the emotional inertia is with John Connor. He's the person these stories have supposedly been about, how he saves the world from the machines. Throwing a brand new person into that mix and trying to say he has equal weight in this story is a pretty tall order, I don't care how many people he beats up. No matter how many scenes he has with Moon Bloodgood, who does make a good action heroine, his story is ultimately heartless.
It doesn’t help that Worthington is hopelessly bland as an actor. Schwarzenegger got away with it because he was supposed to be emotionless (which, really, played to his strengths). Marcus isn't supposed to be emotionless; he just comes across that way.
They really should have decided to do it as one or the other, but trying to both is just muddled, and the movie drifts aimlessly until Bale actually gets to do something. It does look great although it is a bit desert heavy; ILM has done another stellar job, as has Shane Hurlbut. There's a fantastic bit of trickery early on as a cameraman walks up to a helicopter, hangs onto the side of it as Connor flies into the air, whips out to look at it as it flies out of control before rushing back into the cockpit as it crashes, all in one take. There are also a number of excellent action sequences, especially the finale as Marcus finally learns how he came to be and John Connor goes toe-to-toe with a T-800 with a very familiar face.
Actually, if the last 30 minutes weren't as strong as they are it would probably be a much worse film, but a strong ending can make up for a lot, even if some of the final fight does go on a bit long. Yes, the Terminator's are unstoppable killing machines that just keep coming and coming no matter what you do to them, but there comes a point where that sort of thing stops being scary and starts being ludicrous, and McG goes screaming right past it.
It's a lot better than it probably should have been, but having too leads the way they have is a horrible albatross about the neck. It can work, but it does require both characters to be equally important, and that's just not the case here. Maybe if they'd both spent a lot of time together, but they actually only get a few scenes, and that's not enough to convince that Marcus Wright is worth rooting for or caring about.
Good action sequences will satisfy the adrenaline junkies and lots of throwbacks to Terminator films of yore will make the Terminator fans happy. There are actually parts of a good movie in here, but the focus is in the wrong place. It really needed some more thinking about how all the parts would fit together. Still, it's better than the TV show.