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Terminator Salvation (2009) Review

Terminator Salvation was directed by McG (The Babysitter, 3 Days to Kill), written by John Brancato (Surrogates, Mindwarp) and Michael Ferris (The Game, Hunter’s Prayer) and stars Christian Bale (Hostiles, The Dark Knight), Sam Worthington (Rogue, Clash of the Titans), Moon Bloodgood (Falling Skies, Faster), Anton Yelchin (Green Room, Odd Thomas), Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World, The Help), Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Hellmington) and Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeny Todd, Dark Shadows). It’s about a small army of resistance fighters planning and executing an attack on a domineering force of robots run by a rogue AI.

The Plot: After the ballsy ending of Terminator 3, Terminator Salvation had little choice in direction if the creators wanted a direct sequel. So, they went for it. Kind of. Salvation has something of an IP problem in that aside from the robots being Terminators and the AI being Skynet, there’s not too strong of a connection to the franchise. Despite faulty linking, the writers do succeed in telling a solid post-apocalyptic story.

After Judgement Day ravaged the planet with hellfire and left only small patches of humans alone with the sentient Skynet, it’s up to the resistance (highly original name, I know), made up of soldiers like John Connor (Bale) and Blair (Bloodgood), general Ashdown (Ironside) and others like Kate Connor (Howard) found in the wastes to fight the robots. It’s after a data recovery mission that left Connor as the sole survivor (or so he thinks) that Ashdown finds out about a frequency that controls and allows the Terminators to communicate. This frequency carried a kill list, with Connor being a top priority, along with one Kyle Reese (Yelchin).

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The other survivor of Connor’s mission is Marcus (Worthington), who finds Kyle surviving almost by himself. On their way to the resistance HQ, Kyle is captured and Marcus makes it to the base without much fanfare. To make up for his loss of Kyle and to get to a former associate, Dr. Kogan (Carter), Marcus joins the resistance, and together they launch a last-ditch assault on Skynet to save Kyle and destroy the AI before the Terminators can kill the men.

There’s a lot of world-building going on in Terminator Salvation, and most of it is appreciated, even if some is a little questionable. It just seems as though the movie is contractually bound to being a part of the Terminator series if it’s haphazard weaving of the time travel element of the other instalments is anything to go by. Taken on its own, Salvation has a really cool story that explains its conveniences, but as a Terminator movie, it’s more or less fan fiction.

The Characters: There’s good work done with the characters in Terminator Salvation’s runtime, but it is notably one of those movies where one character is marketed and framed as the main character and, as it turns out, shares the spotlight equally with another. It’s John Connor and Marcus that make the fourth entry like the first with their initial feuding and eventual mutual respect and appreciation bearing many beats of the first two entries in a good way.

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John is a rugged survivalist that nails the tropes of the archetype. While there’s not much outward building, the writers include enough decisions for him to make and a couple of quiet moments where he ruminates on his own past and his mother’s (listen for a cameo in the form of recordings by Linda Hamilton) that frame his mindset well. He’s a good strategist and is single-minded, much like the John Connor of the first film, and acts as would be expected in this circumstance.

It’s Marcus who steals the scenes though. There are similarities between him and John that cause some butting of heads, but Marcus has a better arc. After finding out that Dr. Kogan is most likely dead and learning that no one aside from Blair, who he rescued after Kyle was captured, trusts him, he just wants to be left alone. His reluctant heroism hardly changes but he is the most motivated of the bunch with not one but two mice reveals that explains his initial survival.

Blair could’ve done with more development. As it stands, she falls a little too fast for Marcus, so the movie can usher him into action when spending a bit of quiet time between either her or John would’ve sufficed. She’s decent support but unremarkable. Kyle, despite disappearing for large chunks of time, fares similarly to John in that the writers did a good job at illustrating what he would’ve been like in this time. While the characters are pretty good, they all could’ve used just a few more minutes of dialogue.

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The Action: Terminator Salvation approaches thriller territory on multiple occasions but makes its switch to predominant action early. There are some great set pieces like the gas station sequence in which a sort of mecha-Terminator is unveiled, as are the “moto-Terminators” which are exactly what they sound like. The chase references the famous T2 truck chase but adds to it with its new enemies and with the truck being a modified tow truck, there are things to throw and a chain to attach that make for some great action.

The abundance of action does eventually detract from the final product, though, since some of them could’ve been scrapped with no real change to the story. That would’ve allowed for more character work to be done. There’s an escape scene that’s literally pointless and a chase scene that’s more numbing than exciting.

Terminator Salvation’s action is at its best when doing something revolving around the characters, like that gas station encounter showing Kyle’s skills with weapons, Marcus’s defence of Blair on their way to the HQ, and Marcus’s infiltration of Skynet which leads to a gut-punch of a reveal and a sick finale. If those two were the only major action sequences in the whole movie, it may have been better off, but thankfully everything else action-related is at least competent.

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The Technics: McG and the crew put together a great movie from a mechanical standpoint, with amazing prosthetic work from the inimitable Stan Winston (Aliens, The Exterminator) that still holds up just like almost all of his other work, fantastic set/production design, solid camerawork, and great sound design; this is a series that, while never reaching the narrative and character-based heights of the first two, never wavered in film making technique.

What does dent Terminator Salvation is the lack of atmosphere. Since the movie insists upon putting action scenes on display with regularity, there’s a distinct disregard for the foreboding tone or giddier moments of the first two (and some of 3). Not helping this is a rare middling score by Danny Elfman (The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Woman in the Window). While his rendition of the main theme is good, nothing else sticks the way Brad Fiedel’s music did. Thankfully, the movie itself sticks around in one’s memory for a little while.

McG’s entry into the Terminator franchise is hard to call the best aside from Cameron’s outings since it doesn’t feel like it needed to connect to them, but that’s the truth. It boasts some solid characters, a borderline great story and always impressive effects. Take it as a spin-off movie instead of a mainline entry, and Terminator Salvation will be even more enjoyable.

Terminator Salvation is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Brothers. It’s also available on a variety of Digital and Streaming platforms. You can check JustWatch to find out which ones are available in your region.

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