A lot of good movies come in threes. For Example, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix films, and Pirates in the Caribbean. As we were walking into the theater, and I asked my wife how many good fourth movies she could think of. Her answers were Harry Potter and Episode IV. We disqualified episode IV since it was actually the first movie in the series. You can think of just as many series that really should have stopped after three movies. Star Wars, the old Superman films, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Alien, and others.
I am a huge Alien fan. The original is probably my favorite movie of all time. None of the sequels were very good, but the fourth one, directed by a french music video director, was a complete embarrassment. When they announced that McG, who is a music video director I have never heard of, was directing Terminator Salvation, that tempered my expectations a little bit. In addition to videos, McG also directed Charlie's Angels, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and We Are Marshall- three undeniable piles of crap.
So despite the incredibly good trailers out there, I tried to walk into Terminator Salvation expecting disappointment. I walked out happy and anxiously awaiting the 5th film in the series. T4: Salvation isn't perfect but it is a good summer action flick and captures some of the compelling themes of the series very well.
So how was it?
Judging T4 purely as a summer action film, it was great and I would give it a 5/5. The action scenes are well done, believable, have good pacing, and don't feel CGI, although they probably were.
Judging T4 as a continuation of a great sci-fi storyline and as a character driven tale of humanity's struggle against impossible odds, it gets a 2.5/5. The film really fails to capture the emotional connection established in the first two terminator films, where you cared about the human characters from start to finish. T4 also fails to present a compelling post-apocalyptic survival story. Although this was probably intentional, the survivalist nature of a post apocalyptic future would have added a lot to the film, and aside from a few scenes, T4's representation of the post apocalyptic genre was half-assed at best.
Overall I liked the movie, but it wasn't perfect.
Actors: The Good
Sam Worthington stole the show as Marcus Wright. Don't go in expecting to see a film about John Connor because Worthington takes a difficult part as Marcus and really nails it. This is a character that is dealing with a lot of guilt over what he had done in the past, and is given a second chance, only to find out that life isn't what he thinks it is. His emotional struggles regarding his own dual nature and his guilt resonate strongly- Worthington has you really rooting for him, even in the parts of the film where you aren't sure if he is a good guy or a bad guy. This was a really fantastic performance, the only exceptional acting in the film. Hopefully Worthington gets more shots in big hollywood productions, because he is a fantastic actor.
Christian Bale turns in his usual solid performance as John Connor. Bale has a knack for making characters seem much more believable than they should be (Patrick Bateman, Bruce Wayne) and he does it again here. Bale's John Connor is the leader of a pocket of resistence fighters but not the leader prophesized by Kyle Reese in the first Terminator Film. Connor is confident in himself but frustrated in his inability to control the events happening around him. The only thing more difficult than being expected to do great things is having someone from the future come back and tell your mother all the great stuff you did. Talk about having a lot to live up to! I wish they would have put a little more time into giving us Connor's background, because as the film continued, I found myself not giving a shit about his character, which is just wrong. This should be the character that we care about the most, as he is the central character to the entire series, tying all four movies together. Bale does a solid job, and I expect that in the next film his character will be much more central, but I can't help but feel that they missed out on a chance to really develop his character and force the audience to give a shit about him. My one little gripe with his acting is that a few of his lines seemed forced, mostly where they were going into trailers. (WE ARE ALL DEAD).
Anton Yelchin's Kyle Reese and Moon Bloodgood's resistance fighter Blair are also very good. These are minor characters, but the acting is excellent and the characters are believable and dynamic. Kyle Reese is a teenager living with a small kid in L.A., and his scenes provide the film with most of it's post-apocalyptic survivalist feel. Blair goes through some tough situations that show some of the difficulties faced by women traveling across the countryside in a post apocalyptic future. She also has some complicated decisions to make regarding her relationship with Marcus Wright. Both of these side characters were bright spots for the film.
Actors: The Bad
Common really stunk it up as John Connor's sidekick, Barnes. His lines were more robotic than the film's antagonists. He seriously could have been reading off a teleprompter the whole time. It didn't help him that his character had nothing interesting to do throughout the entire movie, but he could have at least put some life into his lines. One scene has Barnes exacting some revenge on a robot for his dead brother who was killed by the machines. He might as well have been picking his nose because he showed absolutely no emotion or grief or anything. The robot terminators showed about the same emotional range as Common's character. Common's performance was uncommonly bad. I'm hoping he is replaced by a real actor before T5, or just rewrote out of the story.
Bryce Dallas Howard (the blind girl from The Village) does an OK, but uninspired Kate Connor. I am glad Claire Danes turned it down, but Howard doesn't do much here. She has few lines, no character development, and a minor role in the story, so I guess this can't be blamed on the actress, but I found her presence to be pretty worthless. Connor's radio is a more important character. Kate Connor is also responsible for the biggest plot hole in the movie. At the end of T3, she is a young and inexperienced veterinarian. Ten years later, she is performing complex organ transplants in a tent in the middle of the desert with nothing but an IV pole and a scalpel. Are you telling me the machines killed every surgeon in California? Really? I guess I'm blaming a lot of stuff that was out of her control on Howard, but she didn't impress me here.
Visual Presentation: The Good
The machines looked great. I was worried we would see too much of a "transformers" look after the success of that movie. The machines are futuristic without being silly and unbelievable. Aside from the unrealistically human looking T-600, most of the machines have an almost utilitarian look to them. They look alien and strange, but not so futuristic that they are unbelievable. The CGI also looks remarkably good- nothing has that "CGI look" you see in movies like transformers. For a gritty film like this one, that would have taken away from the effectiveness of the bad guys, and I am glad the CGI was done the way it was.
The post-apocalyptic landscape was very good. The scenes in L.A. looked great, with rubble everywhere and decaying cars and buildings. The scenes taking place in the desert had a definite Road Warrior influence, as did the few stops that were made in the desert. My only complaint was that the random fires burning everywhere were a little over the top. We get it, the world was ravaged by nuclear weapons. That doesn't mean patches of brush stay on fire for years!
The fight scenes and car chases were excellent. One chase scene in particular paid tribute to a scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, with a massive truck barreling down a highway littered with abandoned cars. The fight scenes were not the stylized, super fast fight scenes you saw in Watchmen, but a slower, more deliberate, and more realistic style that made the film feel more like a documentary on the iraq war than a sci-fi flick. This was one of the film's high points.
Visual Presentation: The Bad
There isn't much to say here. McG's background in music videos really shows, because he absolutely nails the visual presentation of the film.
The visual presentation of the actors was naive. In the grim darkness of a war-torn future, no one has scars, stubble, or a zit, and everyone looks like a model. What happened, did Skynet miss bombing the set of America's Next Top Model and now those people have formed the resistance? I didn't want them to cast John Goodman as John Connor or anything, but gimme a break! This is a post apocalyptic future without running water! Put some dirt on somebody. These resistance fighters battle terminators on a regular basis, but no one was missing a limb, or scarred up, or anything of that nature. They had a really easy way to show the audience how difficult life in the future is, without using any precious time from the movie to do so. The director really dropped the ball here.
Of course, the central theme to the film was Man vs. Machines. In the world of 2009, technology seems to advance faster and faster every day. Although this should make our lives easier and make things more convenient, it seldom actually does so. Getting email on your cell phone sounds really convenient until it is memorial day and you find yourself checking work emails when you should be socializing with your friends and family. Many of us are slaves to technology that was supposed to make life easier and more convenient. Our technology rising up to overtake society has always been the most prevalent theme in the terminator series. T4 does an admirable job of making you realize just how similar we are to the machines while still portraying the machines as something totally alien.
I do wish that the film spent a little more time developing the characters and humanizing them. The whole man vs. machines thing doesn't really have the effect it did in the earlier films when zero screen time is spent humanizing certain characters. We get some humanization time with Marcus (ironically), Kyle, Blair, and Star, but there isn't really any background or development on John Connor, Kate, or Barnes. As a result, you don't really find yourself rooting for their characters and the film lacks that emotional anchor that you saw in T1 and T2 where you rooted for the connors and really felt the same fear that they did when being pursued by the machines.
The movie falls woefully short in the post apocalyptic survival theme. This has never been what the terminator series was about, so I guess I should not be surprised. When T4 was in production, I recall reading that McG, the director, had asked the cast to read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The Road is a fantastic post-apocalyptic novel which has received much praise in the F:AT book recommendations thread. I was hoping to see a little more of the grim survivalist future in T4, but we didn't really get any aside from a couple of the early scenes with Kyle Reese. Apparently the resistance found millions of bullets, tons of food, drugs, vehicles, fuel, etc. and doesn't really have to worry about the things most people need to worry about in a world destroyed by nuclear holocaust and giant evil cyborgs. Maybe I am asking for an apple to be an orange here, but T4 really failed as a post-apocalyptic film in my opinion.
One common sci-fi meme that I didn't expect T4 to cover was self-identity. There was recently a discussion in the trash talk forums here on the site about whether or not Deckard from Blade Runner was a replicant or not. Deckard's own possible realization at the end of the movie that he might be a replicant is one of the most fascinating ideas in sci-fi. Asimov had several short stories that dealt with this concept as well. This was spoiled in the trailers, so I don't feel bad spoiling it again here, but Marcus Wright's journey of self-realization as he learns he is a cyborg is absolutely fantastic. Worthington steals the show as Marcus, and this subplot really steals the movie away from the Terminator series' trademark Humans vs. the Machines conflict. The scene (used in trailers) where John Connor releases the chains from Marcus's forehead and Marcus looks down to see that he is no longer human is the best scene in the movie in my opinion. Marcus' reaction is realistic and believable and the reactions of the other actors (Blair especially) shows just how confusing the muddy line between man and machine is in the movie. This subplot was my favorite part of the movie.
Another surprising theme was analogies to 20th century wars. I didn't expect this out of T4, but it was there and was done very tastefully. A few scenes have a very distinctive WWII concentration camp vibe going on, and several other scenes have definite war on terror parallels. The scenes where the resistance leadership were making decisions definitely can be related to the decisions made by modern political leaders in the war on terror. I don't want to discuss this too much and turn the comments section into a political flamewar, but you can definitely see the undercurrents of modern military political conflicts in a few places in this film. The nice thing is, these undercurrents are just that- undercurrents. They aren't shoved down your throat like political messages in many films are. If you are just there to see a good sci-fi action flick, you can easily ignore any connections to current events and modern day politics. So many movies that try to allude to politics do it so ham-fistedly that it comes off as crass and forced. T4 manages to do it in a way that is pretty smooth.
I thoroughly enjoyed Terminator Salvation. I give it 4 stars out of 5. It is not getting great reviews online and it certainly could have been better, but if you are looking for an escapist action film with some solid sci-fi roots, you can't go wrong here. If you are looking for a smart post-apocalyptic story with tons of interesting characters, this probably isn't the movie for you. There are a few plot holes, a handful of uninspired performances, and a number of missed opportunities, but the movie also nails the fight/chase scenes and has at least one compelling performance. So, while this movie isn't going to be all things to all people, it is a very good summer action flick you can't go wrong seeing.