Terminator Salvation is not not half bad. For those of you confused by the double negative, that means… it’s half bad. Which is a shame, since in order to accomplish that, director Joseph McGinty Nichol (McG to us) had to not not ruin what was one of the most promising new characters the summer blockbuster season has yet produced. Franchise resurrection is no simple endeavor. In fact, over time, you might have expected Hollywood to have learned something about it, given the number of half-ass resurrected abominations they’ve unleashed upon viewers. Yet you have to give it to them. Like a Terminator, they simply don’t know when to quit.
Terminator Salvation takes place in the year 2018, and for anyone familiar with both the original Terminator films and the paradoxes of time travel, you’ll know that we might find John Connor (played here by Christian Bale) in one of three realities: 1.) a future in which John Conner had no foreknowledge of the mega corporation Skynet, yet had somehow managed to lead a resistance movement against them; 2.) a future in which he had grown up listening to tapes of his mother telling him about the Terminator that had traveled back in time and had nearly destroyed her before he was even conceived; and 3.) the future in which not only did he have tapes of his mother, but in which he himself had been both hunted and protected by dueling Terminators from the future. Terminator Salvation resides firmly in reality #2. If the first Terminator (made in 1984) showed us anything about our society, it showed how scared shitless we were of computers. By that same logic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, made seven years later, reflected an America a bit more comfortable with the machines. Maybe they’re not out to replace us! Computers are our friends! Or, as Sarah Connor so poetically stated in the film’s last voiceover, “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”
Now that we’re living in a time when computer implants are giving the deaf hearing and performance artists are turning their bodies into Internet portals, it’s only fitting that Terminator Salvation toy with both our fascination with and revulsion of all that modern technology seems to portend. As the film begins in the year 2003, we’re introduced to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death-row inmate preparing for his final meal, seeking no reprieve and asking only to pay for the crimes he committed. Skipping forward to a post-nuclear-holocaust Los Angeles in the year 2018, we find that same Marcus miraculously crawling out of a hole that had just been atomized and which John Conner narrowly escaped. It’s not long until we discover that (unbeknownst to him) Marcus’ body has been replaced (save the heart and brain) by a cybernetic construct not unlike the original Terminators.
Given this setup, it’s worth noting that Christian Bale’s dreadful, non-dimensional performance as future resistance leader John Conner surprises almost as much as Australian Sam Worthington’s magnetic role as the human terminator. In fact, given that John and Marcus’ stories run parallel throughout the entire film, we could view the “Salvation” not as a battle between humanity and Skynet, but as a battle between compelling character development (Marcus) and a groan-inducing action-hero cliche (John). Can Marcus save the film from the overbearingly simplistic machinations of a John Conner reduced to gruff platitudes and slack-jawed stares? Or will the entire experience collapse beneath the weight of Hollywood’s over-reliance on CG? At one point during the film, John Conner melodramatically asks, “If in the process of fighting this war we become as cold and calculating as the machines, then what’s the point?” I might melodramatically add, “If in the process of unleashing the power of computer imagery in our films, we lose all that made film worthwhile, then what’s the point?”