Even in the wonderful leather seats at the Monaco theater in Huntsville, Alabama, Terminator: Salvation really let me down. I enjoyed the movie, don’t get me wrong, but there was just very little actually memorable about the film. I had read a snippet months ago about a spoiled ending where John Connor (Christian Bale) died and his skin was grafted into a T-800 who then took up his name to command the human resistance, which I thought sounded awesome. Unfortunately, the spoiler turned out to be false, and the movie’s ending, while adequate, left no part of me wanting more. My girlfriend, however, thought the movie’s ending was the best part, so I could very well be wrong on that respect; the ending could be fine. Maybe the sound of the spoiler had really spoiled something for me; I might have been expecting something that I did not get and was disappointed, which is why I generally try to avoid spoilers in the first place. Even not considering the ending, though. Terminator: Salvation falls short of my expectations for the franchise, but does not fall quite as far as Terminator 3.
I’m not going to spend as much time on this one as I would, say LOST or something like that because, in all honesty, there is simply not a lot of meat to the movie that I feel is worth noting. There aren’t a lot of ideas that were sparked by the movie. It was really a paint-by-numbers franchise movie, and I think that’s what disappointed me the most. It had huge potential to be poignant and philosophical, but in the end, the movie was okay at best, but the up side is that I caught it at a matinee, and I don’t really feel as though my money or my time were wasted.
My main gripe with the Terminator: Salvation is that its narrative was completely loose. There are lots of places in the film where plot could have been inserted to clarify a theme or give a little extra characterization, but those moments are squandered on clichéd dialogue like “You have a powerful heart; I love that sound.” The emotional resonance of the film, therefore, suffers because the elements of the film which are meant to pluck at those heartstrings feel tacked on. I could never feel sorry for the mute kid (Starr? Star? *shrug*). I never felt for the human resistance because every time I was supposed to feel anything for their plight, something new exploded and Christian Bale acted super-intense for no reason at all. Even the action scenes felt tacked on, which is unforgivable in an action movie. During a chase scene involving a helicopter and the new water-dwelling terminators, it felt as though the entire scene was just to get more of the “look! Robots in the water! Dangerous!” vibe to the audience instead of instilling any real panic on behalf of the characters. The movie had a pretty standard pattern for the most part: uninteresting dialogue, explosion, more dialogue, chase, a few lines of dialogue, explosion, yelling some dialogue, explosion. Unfortunately, the dialogue between explosions was clichéd and trite and did nothing to actually advance any empathy or sympathy from the audience, and because of this, the explosions and action sequences lost a lot of their effect. Action for the sake of action is worthless; action for the sake of advancing a narrative is genius.
During the robots-in-water scene, the panic is subdued toward the end, and two characters (one of whom is John Connor) are having a conversation. One character seems calm and relatively collected for the situation, while Christian Bale yells at him in a pseudo-gravelly voice, despite the need for secrecy and not calling attention to the pair. Bale does this a lot throughout the movie, and the parts of the trailers where he gave these rousing speeches which were broadcast to anyone who could listen were so rarely interspersed into the movie at such odd intervals that their resonance fell on deaf ears. I couldn’t care about him because I was never given an emotional arc to climb; there was nothing leading up to his speeches; the only human element we are given to care about is that his wife/girlfriend seems to be pregnant. I felt no compassion for his speeches which I had heard in the previews because the previews gave them better context than the film itself. On the positive side of Bale’s speeches and out-of-place gravel, there just might finally be a good Batman voice in the sequel to The Dark Knight. He finally seems to be able to pull that voice off semi-convincingly; too bad it’s a year too late, ya know? Maybe in The Caped Crusader or whatever they’re planning on calling the next one, we’ll get to hear him actually voice Batman instead of hearing Batman when I’m watching John Connor.
I can’t say the entire movie was bad, though. I had fun while watching it. The explosions were pretty if occasionally redundant, and the ending quarter of the film did have a very nice arc to it, even if it didn’t resonate with me personally. The special effects were nice, and the action sequences were easy to follow; I’ll give it that. I never felt lost or confused at what I was watching while things were getting hectic on screen. There are a few nice winks back to the previous installments through dialogue and visual cues (with one exceptionally nice one I had hoped for going in and was pleasantly surprised to see inside the Skynet HQ). Anton Yelchin was fantastic; that young man needs to have a fantastic career ahead of him. First he played the adorable Chekov in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek earlier this month, and now he’s playing John Connor’s time-travelling old man Kyle Reese. A complete 180 in acting style, and the great thing is that he pulls both of them off as completely believable. He’s one to watch for. I really hope having two summer blockbusters out at the same time this year helps his career; he deserves it. The movie really does take a more interesting turn once the setting changes to inside Skynet HQ, and the story actually gains more of an arc at that point. If you can sit through the first hour or hour and a half, then the movie gets a lot better only to end right when things get interesting. But hey, at least it gets better at some point.
All in all, it wasn’t a waste of money or time; it was just a waste of an opportunity for the filmmakers. It could have been done so much better if the movie had half the heart it talked about humanity having. The characters were two-dimensional, and I can’t remember anyone’s name but John Connor and Kyle Reese’s, and only those who because I’ve seen the rest of the series. There was no meat for viewers to bite into, only a few wispy pieces of skin hanging from an already gnawed bone. The movie hinted at philosophical depth, but gave no payoff for those looking for anything deeper than robots making humans go ‘splode. If Terminator: Salvation could have used the action in the film as a springboard for narrative control and emotional urgency, then it would have been a fantastic way to kick off the 2009 summer movie season; however, the action scenes mean nothing, and while the robots blowing cars and people up (sometimes at the same time!) are pretty, I had hoped for a little more to care about. If you’re really hankering for your Terminator fix, go watch The Sarah Connor Chronicles season one DVDs or wait on the season two set. I hate to see a movie that had so much promise be outshined by its trailer, but in this case, the trailer really was the best part of the movie, and it had a much better narrative flow than the film itself. Sad, but true.