#5 in my ranking of the Terminator franchise.
This movie is a mess. Reading a bit about the background, this movie was written and re-written endlessly, even on the set, all the way through production and even into post-production when they reshot the ending. There seems to be no guiding hand other than McG, the director, and he doesn’t seem to understand that in between the action scenes you need a story that’s interesting. He’s a set piece director who wants to put together awesome sequences in an order. That kind of director can make great movies. I’ve read that John Ford was along those lines, and Brian de Palma is definitely one of these kinds of directors. However, when McG is driving the storytelling, not just the visual action, we get a mismanaged, unfocused, poorly structured, and thin attempt at narrative.
The irony of this movie, to me, is that, in general, this was the right direction for the franchise to take. Abandon the time travel mechanics for a tale of war in the frightful future where machines rule and humans fight for control of the planet. The problems with the movie aren’t that it’s taking a new direction in the franchise, but that it does it so poorly. It’s obvious from the opening moments how wrong certain key elements are. Marcus Wright is an awful character, and he’s introduced in one of those awful early scenes where everyone speaks with deep importance, relying on relationships that have never been established at any point in the franchise, and referring to events that never get explained. The problem is the tone of it all. It’s far too seriously presented with characters we don’t know. In it, Marcus (Sam Worthington) is on death row for killing his brother and Dr. Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter, with her head wrapped up in a rag in case we need a sign that she’s dying that we can’t deny) trying to convince him to sign his body over to science through Cyberdyne. He signs after she, ugh, gives him a kiss. It’s a terrible opening scene.
The movie then jumps forward from 2003 to 2018 after Judgment Day has fallen, and we get a sequence that highlights both this movie’s greatest strengths and weaknesses at once. What I noticed very early on was the sheer amount of ADR going on. Additional Dialogue Recording usually happens well into post-production when there’s no money to do reshoots in order to provide auditory information to audiences in sequences that producers feel the audience needs in order to understand what’s going on (it’s used for other reasons, of course, but this is the important point for Salvation). I think the sequence introducing Christian Bale’s John Connor was supposed to be nearly wordless, but there’s a lot of speaking going on from people whose mouths we can’t see explaining things. The mission is to go to an underground machine base and retrieve some information that the Resistance leadership thinks is important. In there, he finds human prisoners and evidence of the machine’s attempts to build the T-800 model that Arnold played in the first film. Almost none of the ADR is necessary to convey this information to an attentive audience. Outside of that hammering home of plot information, we have Christian Bale giving a flat and intense performance as John Conner.
Bale played Conner all wrong, in my opinion. He’s humorless and one note intense. He doesn’t feel like a leader of any kind. Instead he feels like a psychopath, so when his late film appeals to humanity come they fall flat. It doesn’t help that he’s barely a character with any motivation to do anything other than defeat the machines. This is probably a result of the rewrites that turned him from a very minor character who appeared only late in the film to a main character with a dominant presence throughout.
However, having said that, still thinking of that first major sequence, it looks really good. I mean, it really does look kind of awesome. If McG had been able to trust the audience here to not need so much information explicitly, then it really could have been a standout series of moments to start the film. The shot of John descending down into the large space below ground is almost beautiful in framing, especially when you combine it with how quiet the moment gets. The extended special effects shot as John climbs up, takes a helicopter, gets blown out of the sky, and has to fight the top half of a nearly destroyed Terminator is visceral and kind of awesome. And that’s, in microcosm, the movie’s strengths. Its action is really quite good.
However, between all those action beats is Sam Worthington’s Marcus. Now, I’ve said that his character is awful, but let me explain. The filmmakers wanted pathos from Marcus, and they didn’t want to actually work for it. His background is a series of small hints that never gets fleshed out. His motives for moving from one place to another are questionable at best. He finds out that there’s been a nuclear war and decades have passed since his execution, and he’s determined to…find the doctor lady who was on death’s door fifteen years before. Little of his motivations make much sense, but it’s made all the worse by Worthington’s performance. I have no idea who thought that Sam Worthington was ever a leading man, but he’s wooden, the sort of actor you hire to play a stiff secondary character, not the lead in an action spectacular.
This movie’s problems with character extend to even secondary characters. Kyle Reese ends up being the focal point of the entire plot because the machines can…recognize his face despite having never been under machine custody and somehow know that he’s John’s father in the past? Sure, I guess. Anyway, Anton Yelchin plays him with energy, but he’s not all that interesting. He’s a kid looking to be a part of the resistance, and that’s kind of it. I imagine that his character got cut way down in rewrites, and that he was a far more prominent part of the earlier versions of the story. There’s a new character introduced at the halfway point named Blair Williams. A fighter pilot that Marcus rescues, they’re together for about fifteen minutes of screen time where they have no chemistry (because Sam Worthington is a wooden board in human form) before she decides to risk everything to free him from her own side after he’s captured.
The plot, as it is, is about John trying to implement a new weapon against the machines while the machines have tracked down and captured Kyle Reese (why they don’t just immediately kill him, I don’t know) and this Marcus guy shows up, brought in by Blair. The Resistance finds out that Marcus is some kind of cyborg, leading to his capture (and Blair’s sudden decision to let him go), and John lets him go after a chase that ends at a river, allowing Marcus to float away to go to the Skynet base and infiltrate it in order to save Kyle. The weapon that John found ends up being a ruse by the machines to gain the Resistance’s mobile headquarters’ position, but it doesn’t really matter to the overall plot, it seems, because whether the weapon existed or not, was used or not, or whether the headquarters was destroyed or not, the third act ends up playing out like the weapon had never been introduced at all. John leads some men into the base after Marcus brings down the defenses, and he frees Kyle. The final action sequence goes on for far too long, but it’s well done. The fight with the digital T-800 is intense and well executed.
There are some ideas played around briefly here and there, but they’re vapid forms of well-worn ideas. Humanity in warfare, the source of humanity when dealing with intelligent machines. There’s very little done with them other than some perfunctory acknowledgement here and there, but the movie’s obviously far more concerned with destruction other than anything else.
I’m not of mixed mind on this. Salvation is not a good film. It’s a bad film. However, it does have some interesting things about it. The pushing of the setting to the future after Judgment Day was a good choice. The action beats are universally pretty good at least. The problem is that nothing that connects the action scenes is worth the time, especially when you consider Bale’s uninteresting performance as Conner and Worthington’s dull performance as Marcus. That drags the whole affair down well below entertaining overall.