Terminator Salvation

My guy friends tell me that a great action movie doesn’t need a plot. All an action movie really needs to succeed is a string of intense, adrenaline-pumping chase sequences, shoot-‘em-ups, etc. A cohesive story with well-rounded characters doesn’t necessarily hurt, but such elements run the risk of detracting from the action, thus bringing the whole movie down.

As a woman, I never quite understood this line of thinking. For me, a movie is a story, not just a visceral thrill ride. I love me some great action, but I also want to get invested in the characters and a well-told tale. The idea that you could have a great or even decent movie without at least one of these features seemed completely ridiculous to me. At least until I saw Terminator Salvation. Now, I’m suddenly seeing the potential wisdom in just leaving characters and plot off the table. Because, when it isn’t done right, it really does bring the whole movie down, despite some truly fantastic action sequences.

I wanted to like Terminator Salvation. I really did. I loved the first two movies and was excited by the idea of seeing a post-Judgment Day story. Christian Bale as an adult John Connor seemed like a perfect fit. I loved the movie trailer. I was very excited to see this movie. But, as open minded as I tried to be about it, I just didn’t like Terminator Salvation as much as I wanted.

(The rest of this review includes spoilers. Consider yourself warned.)

I think the movie worked from a purely “action movie” standpoint. It had a great, washed out, post-apocalyptic look. The action sequences were tight and intense, and the special effects were outstanding. Maybe if that had been all there was to the movie, I would have liked it more. But they tried to add in character and story elements, and they did it so poorly that whole thing left me pretty unsatisfied.

I think my main issue was that the movie never felt like it had a cohesive story or a clear “mission objective.” Terminator and Terminator 2 had simple, but very clear mission objectives to drive all the action. In Terminator, the T-800 was sent to kill Sarah Connor before she could become the mother of the future savior of mankind and Kyle Reese was sent to save her. In Terminator 2, the T-1000 is sent to kill John and the T-800 is sent to protect him. The Connor crew also tries to stop Judgment Day by destroying Skynet in its infancy. All very straightforward, and they balanced outstanding special effects and action with character beats that let the audience get invested in the characters and care about what happens to them.

In Terminator Salvation, the objectives felt all over the place. It was three separate stories (Marcus Wright, the latest resistance war efforts, John’s search for Kyle) that came together at points, and kind of got tied together in the end, but along the way it felt confused and unfocused. The “story” kicks off with a note about some thinking John Connor is the savior of mankind and others thinking he is a false prophet, but then it mostly seems like a tale about this Marcus Wright guy, a death row inmate who signed his body over to Cyberdyne. Who/what the heck is this guy and why do we care what happens to him? Why does he care what happens to Kyle? Why do people think John is possibly a savior? What exactly is his position in the resistance? Why doesn’t Skynet just kill Kyle immediately? I had so many questions along the way (many of which never got answered), and it just didn’t feel like a cohesive story.

To make matters worse, they spent so little time letting us get to know the characters, that I had a hard time caring about their trials and travails. Obviously, I cared about John and Kyle, but only because I “know” them from the previous movies. Most of the characters barely had enough screen time to make us care. Did most of them even have names? And Marcus Wright was shrouded in so much mystery that when he had his devastating revelatory moments (first learning he was a machine, then nothing more than a Skynet pawn), I didn’t have enough emotional connection to him to care. Plus, it made the ending where he sacrifices himself to save John just seem cheesy instead of powerful and resonant.

I will say that Terminator Salvation felt like it was meant to set the stage for better things to come. It gave us little glimpses of John’s post-Judgment Day life, let us kind of see how he became the leader of the resistance, and let us see how Kyle came into the fold. I may not have enjoyed this jumbled outing very much, but I’m very intrigued by the story possibilities going forward.

Other things to like ...

I really liked the casting. Christian Bale was a great choice for John Connor, although it felt like he did more action than acting. I know that’s par for the course with Terminator movies, but I was kind of hoping he’d get to do more than emote into a radio handset. I think I got spoiled by the television series, which spent a bit more time on character beats. When you've got a great actor like Christian Bale, you should play to his strengths. I’m hoping he’ll get to do more in the future movies they’ve got planned.

I especially liked Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese. I raised an eyebrow when I saw his name in the cast, since I just saw him as Chekov in the Star Trek reboot, but he was an excellent choice for young Kyle. He played the part well and really looked like he could be a younger Michael Biehn.

I liked that they gave John a wife, with a child on the way. (Bryce Dallas Howard was really beautiful. She looked radiant.) It was nice to see he had someone he could open up to about his horrible past and the tough choices he’s facing. I wish we’d gotten to see more of their relationship and that Ms. Howard had gotten to do more in the story.

The inclusion of the photo and the tapes that Sarah recorded for John was a nice nod to the established history.

Even though they weren’t clear until the very end, I liked Skynet’s new tactics. Both the use of the infiltrator model and the false radio signal were very devious. I couldn’t help flashing on The Hunt for Red October in that moment when the command ship gets blown up: “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed us!”

Loved the inclusion of the original T-800. Was that actually Arnie or special effects? Because it looked more like young Arnie than current Arnie. If it was special effects, it was incredibly well done.

Danny Elfman’s musical score was great. Especially the phrases that evoked the musical themes from the previous movies.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5. Not a terrible movie, but it didn’t work nearly as well as I would have liked. It had great action and fantastic special effects, but I’m hoping for a more cohesive story with a better character-focus in the next outing.

Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.

16 comments:

Josie K said...

Thank you for reviewing this, Jess. I was on the fence about whether or not to shell out for a trip to the theatre, or to just Netflix it in a few months. Netflix it is.

I wanted this movie to be incredible. A sort of Dark Knight for the machine world. Alas.

Billie Doux said...

Ditto. I loved the first two movies because of the strength of the story. I still want to see it, but it can wait for the DVD.

Thanks, Jess.

Jess Lynde said...

I feel kind of bad that people may not go to see the movie because I gave it a mediocre review. You may like it better than I did. Perhaps the character and plot things that bothered me wouldn't be an issue for others.

I encourage everyone to judge for themselves. The special effects really are outstanding, and it looked great on the big screen.

And if you saw it and had a radically different opinion, by all means, comment away! I'm always interested in other points of view. Especially on this one, because I really wanted to like it.

Miguel said...

I really wanted to like this movie, but alas, I did not.

Like Jess, I thought the special effects were outstanding. There were definite moments where I mouthed the word "wow" and the scene when Kyle and Marcus were running from the big transformer-like terminator had me on the edge of my seat.

Unfortunately, I thought Christian Bale did a horrible job. I thought he and the actor that played Marcus just grunted there way through the entire movie. I did not like either of their characters. The only person I really liked was Kyle Reese - it seemed like everyone else was devoid of a real personality. Most of the characters seemed very one-dimensional, which kept me from getting emotionally attached to them and the story.

That's just my 2 cents, though. Not a bad movie, it did keep me entertained and the two hours did fly by, but it was mediocre and I couldn't help but expect more.

Serena + Pumpkin said...

I agree with everyone's comment here (as usual) - I expected more, but coming from a completely different experience. I've actually never watched any of the Terminator movies nor the tv show.

So I don't have anything to compare it to, from a movie to movie perspective. However, I knew enough of the Terminator concept (who doesn't) to be disappointed. There really was no light shed on the characters or the mythology. Nothing in the movie was a game changer. In fact, the movie left me wanting to watch T1 and T2, because I felt so unsatisfied by what I got.

I think I was also disappointed b/c I expected so much more out of Christian Bale. Public rant or not, he's a phenomenal actor, and what he did with Batman was amazing. I don't think it was his acting, I think it was the material. Which I guess also surprised me, considering how much input he supposedly had on rewriting so that the movie had more "meat".

Marcus Wright was also sort of problematic. I actually liked the character, and I was rooting for him. But his American/Australian accent was distracting - I couldn't figure out what he was supposed to be. Anyone who hasn't been under a rock and has seen the trailers knew that he was a machine, but I still liked how he struggled with it.

Another reviewer on RT mentioned that one of the problems was the lack of clear villain. Anyone who has read my comments on this blog knows that I am all for ambiguous villains and anti-heroes. Unfortunately, that doesn't work as well for a movie - or at least for an action movie. I think that if we'd had more time to develop the Marcus characters, and maybe some of the blackness of John Connor, like over a tv arc, it would have worked. It was just too ambiguous for 2 hours though.

I can definitely see Billie's point of it being a set up for something better. But truth be told, I'm just plain sick of the set up episodes, after being frustrated by BSG, Dollhouse and Fringe, in particular. Chuck has managed to set up an arc without having it feel like a prologue, same as Lost. Actually, I think its just BSG b/c I patiently sat through the set up, and was horrible disappointed by the non-payoff.

That being said, I enjoyed the movie, maybe because I couldn't compare it to the originals. It was a standard summer action movie - not as bad as the arm-chewing dialogue of the Transformers or Star Wars prequels, not as fun as Independent Day, and not as deep as Batman Begins/Dark Knight.

Serena + Pumpkin said...

*Sorry, correction. I meant Jesse's point.

Dimitri said...

I suspect the fact you want story with your action has less to do with your being a woman and more with your personal nature, Jess. After all, romantic comedies are targeted at a female audience, and they can be as brain-dead as the most adrenaline-charged action film and still rake it in. Also, I'm a boy, and I'm the same way as you.

Having said that, I'm not sure "story" is the problem so much as "character intimacy." I find it fitting that Miguel only liked Kyle Reese in the movie because Kyle is the only character who's allowed to show vulnerability. The other men and women just grunt and do tough things because they're tough people. Aren't we missing, at this point, the difference between humans and machines?

Think of how tired and desperate Kyle looked as soon as he came to the 80s in "The Terminator" or how damaged Sarah was in "T2" in spite of her tremendous strength of spirit. Not only did these movies have better, more human characters (strangely that includes the villainous robots), they were also about something beyond just robots beating up people. The first film is about Kyle’s unwavering resolve, how it was inspired by John’s own strength of spirit and passed on to Sarah who will, of course, teach it to John so he can inspire everyone in the future: a circle of humanity’s greatest trait, hope. The second film is about a traumatized woman who learns to let go of the violence and in so doing reconnects with her son, and together they save humanity. What is "Terminator Salvation" about? Men being the best because they’re macho and can shoot stuff real good? Urgh. I thought we left that nonsense behind in the 80s.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s an awful flick. I think your review is spot on. The special effects and action sequences are indeed a hoot, and the broad strokes for the story and the characters are all perfectly fine: I kind of like that--SPOILER ALERT-- John avoids death and inherits the resistance because he actually cares about human life and wants to minimize collateral damage--END SPOILER--and I wish "Terminator Salvation" had elaborated on that. It’s just hard to care about a movie whose general spirit is a complete vacuum.

Jess Lynde said...

You're absolutely right, Dimitri. It isn't really a Mars v. Venus issue. I know plenty of men who also want to see a good story with multi-dimesional characters that do more than grunt and "shoot stuff real good." :)

I just happened to be discussing the action movie issue with my co-workers recently, all of whom are men. As the lone female and only representative of the "give me a good story dammit!" perspective, it ended up feeling like a guys v. gals issue. Apologies for the generalized stereotyping! No gender disparaging intended.

Also, thanks for the extended comments, everyone. I'm enjoying reading some more thoughtful perspectives on this movie.

Billie Doux said...

These comments have inspired me to quote Buffy, "Graduation Day Part 1."

Anya: "Men like sports. I'm sure of it."
Xander: "Yes. Men like sports. Men watch the action movie, they eat of the beef, and enjoy to look at the bosoms."

Anonymous said...

The movie left me wanting more, too. Maybe my expectations were too high because I've really enjoyed the other movies and also love Christian Bale's acting. I was kind of surprised so much focus was placed on a character, Marcus, that we'd never heard about. To me, the movie was more about him than anyone else.

By the way, did you ever see Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines from 2003? It shows you how a 20 something John Connor, played by Nick Stahl, met his future wife, played by Claire Danes. It wasn't the greatest movie, but it does provide some additional background info for the characters.

Nomad said...

Christian Bale is good but that new guy, Same Worthington, was great... in fact he pretty much stole the show

Billie Doux said...

Even Arnold liked T2 better.

http://scifiwire.com/2009/05/arnold-speaks-what-does-t.php

Taylor401306 said...

Loved the inclusion of the original T-800. Was that actually Arnie or special effects? Because it looked more like young Arnie than current Arnie. If it was special effects, it was incredibly well done. That was Roland Kickinger, who has made a career of following in Arnold's footsteps. He previously played Arnold in a TV bio-pic. The super-imposed Arnold's face on his physique.

Ben said...

Hey I completly agree with the review as well. I mean how long have we all wanted to see the actual war? That is why I didn't much like the inclusion of this Marcus guy. Okay sure it was a nice touch opening the movie with him but it was definately more his movie. This would have been fine had we not had 3 previous movies firmly establishing John Connor as the main charactor; the one we invest in and want to see more of. Marcus changed the entire story (he was a much more advanced model than the T-800 in terms of thinking and passing as human, so it makes you wonder why Skynet bothered to create Arnie at all?) and died at the end anyway so what was the point? Was slightly dissapointing. Hopefully the next one will be better. They may have had the photo and the tapes but it didn't really feel like a follow on to the other movies. It was the same story but... differenent.

Josie K said...

I'm months behind, as usual, so I finally got around to seeing this movie. Everyone is right.

Basically:

Sam Worthington: those soulful eyes did more than the script ever dreamed of.
Christian Bale: good but a bit wasted.
Young Kyle Reese: I hope to see more of him.

The Arnold special effects were incredible, and even though I knew there was a CGI cameo, I wasn't expecting it when it happened, so it was a satisfying surprise.

Maybe the focus on Marcus was to shift the attention away from two otherwise lukewarm plot-points: we already know that John Conner is an awesome badass savior, and we know that SkyNet isn't dead yet. So Marcus's redemption story gave us some sort of narrative arc, even if it did make me worry for a while that the whole thing was just a Jacob's Ladder daydream by a Terminator fanboy on Death Row.

But this is definitely a movie for large screens. On my 28 or 32 inch screen, the opening information was too small to read from about 8 feet away, and many of the impressive crane/helicopter shots were rendered less impressive by the fact that I couldn't tell what I was supposed to be looking at. It's a 'big' movie. Or maybe I'm just used to watching TV.

Billie Doux said...

I finally saw this movie, and Jess, your review was spot on. There was about half an hour of story, most of it concerning a character we didn't care about, and over an hour of pulse-pounding top of the line action, explosions, and special effects sequences. I never became emotionally engaged, and didn't care how it ended, and I love the first two movies with a passion. I like Christian Bale, too. It's really too bad, because all of the elements of a terrific Terminator movie were right there. Damn.