I will start this article honestly. Ten minutes into the latest entry into the Terminator franchise, Terminator Salvation, I wanted it to be over. Now, I rarely feel that strongly about not wanting to continue watching a movie. Hell, I was curious enough to watch, like, half an hour of Ultraviolet on TNT one time. The only other time I remember being so completely over a movie practically before it had begun was Jurassic Park III. I was checking my watch twenty minutes in on that one. What do Terminator Salvation and Jurassic Park III have in common? Could it be that they’re both unnecessary science fiction sequels that absolutely no one clamored for?
Terminator Salvation starts with some douchebag named Marcus in a jail cell where Helena Bonham Carter, looking even more pale and decrepit than ever before, tries to get him to sign his body over to science before he gets the death sentence. He signs it on one condition: that he get to force himself upon her for a kiss. The prison guards apparently have no problem with prisoners going around sexually assaulting cancer patients. And then he has the gall to tell her the kiss tastes like death. Wow, what a guy. Why is the movie starting with this dude again?
Okay, flashing to the future, 2018 to be exact. John Connor isn’t exactly head of the human resistance against Skynet. He’s more like that loud, obnoxious guy in the room that the upper brass wish they could ignore. He and his squad infiltrate some lab or whatever and find out that Skynet is researching how to make a new breed of Terminator… the T-800, which you might recall from the first three movies. There’s no time to let this sink in, though, since Skynet nukes the whole thing out of existence while Connor is helicoptering away. Gosh, the future sucks! It was around here that I had decided to stop caring about the movie.
Why, you ask? Look, I realize it’s unprofessional and, more importantly, unfair to make up your mind about a movie that early in. But wow, this movie had absolutely nothing going for it during those first ten minutes and the next 110 were hardly an improvement. The reason I emotionally checked out of this movie so early on is that I know this manner of beast. McG, the auteur behind the modern Charlie’s Angels movies, directed Terminator Salvation and in lieu of honing his craft to deliver an emotional, affecting, exciting Terminator movie instead gave us two hours of inane dialogue and explosions. It’s not EVEN as smart or well-crafted as Star Trek. Or Transformers. Or even his FIRST Charlie’s Angels movie. That’s pretty damning, right there. This movie is completely middle-of-the-road mediocre popcorn action movie. If it wasn’t for the name of the franchise and the amount of money plopped into special effects, this would be a B movie, like Ultraviolet or, appropriately enough, Equilibrium. Maybe even a Sci-Fi Channel movie.
What exactly am I trying to imply is missing from this movie? Try even an iota of thought. The first two Terminator movies, inarguably the best of the bunch, were science fiction action movies on the outside, but what grounded them and gave them their chewy, nougaty center were the core elements to each story. The original Terminator had a bunch of high-falutin’ ideas about time-travel, destiny and the danger of artificial intelligence, but what mattered most of all was the humanizing, tragic love story between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. It was a love story more than anything else. T2: Judgment Day also had the distracting visual effects pizzazz and gobbledeegook about destiny, but it was also a poignant story about a boy and his dog robot. Terminator 3 wasn’t about much of anything and most people hated it. (Not me, though!) What is Terminator Salvation about? Second chances or some other glib bullshit like that?!
No, what this movie really is about is explosions and how cool they are. In the year 2018, apparently everything explodes, if you want it to explode badly enough. McG mistakes explosions and loud noises for exciting, thrilling action. What he forgets is that an explosion is just an explosion without the proper context to give it weight and meaning. You know that helicopter crash I talked about earlier? The reason that was the tipping point for me into not giving a shit about Terminator Salvation is that I realized I was just bored watching it. I didn’t feel that feeling in the pit of your stomach you feel when you watch something like that in a movie or TV show featuring characters that you care about, or a story that’s riveting you. I wasn’t concerned for John Connor’s safety. I wasn’t even impressed by the stunt, being the jaded 21st century moviegoer that I am. Remember the truck chase from Terminator 2? That’s STILL a tense and exciting action setpiece to this day. And it didn’t involve atom bombs or helicopters or CGI or any of that crap. McG relied far to heavily on action for the sake of action without stopping to think if the action would even be entertaining. You hardly ever feel like any character is in danger from what’s going on around them, it’s just eye candy. That’s sort of the same thing that happened to Aliens after the movie Alien. One alien vs. an untrained, unarmed crew? That’s scary. Scores of aliens vs. a well-armed, expertly trained elite soldiers? Not so scary. Same thing in Terminator Salvation. Hordes of robots aren’t necessarily scarier or more exciting than one. This becomes painfully obvious when the only part of the movie that feels exciting or like a Terminator movie at all is near the end, when John Connor has to face a T-800 by himself.
And then there’s the dialogue. Terminator Salvation is nothing if not a strong argument for silent movies. No one ever said anything worthwhile. Around the same time as the helicopter crash was the moment I realized I didn’t think I’d actually listened to anything anyone had said. Terminator Salvation contains no dialogue that is not utilitarian exposition or a ham-fisted attempt at drama. They certainly take a page out of Screenwriting for Dummies and have people repeat things in the third act of the movie that they said in the first act and call it clever writing. Perhaps this movie would be markedly improved if no one spoke. It’s certainly visually obvious enough that you don’t really need words cluttering up the place trying to tell the story. What was that old adage… show, don’t tell?
And all that is without even mentioning this stupid Marcus dick that I described earlier from the opening of the movie. He’s ostensibly the main character of the film, even more than John Connor. Marcus is a criminal from 2003 who was in prison because he killed his brother. Now he wakes up in 2018 with no memories of how he got there and (SHOCKER) he turns out to be part-robot. And he’s supposed to be our “good” Terminator for the film, helping John Connor take down an important Skynet facility. But his character so doesn’t work. From the very moment we meet Marcus, the film tries to sell him as a guy who’s made a few mistakes and has all the guilt in the world on his shoulders and likes it that way. If only he could forgive himself and rise to the occasion to be a hero! I mean, this movie seriously wants us to believe that underneath all the murdering and whatnot that Marcus is a good guy. Which I don’t buy for a second. HE KILLED HIS BROTHER, for Christ’s sake. And it wasn’t an accident, because he wan’t charged with manslaughter! I don’t care what kind of born-again he became in prison, that’s a douchebag who doesn’t value human life and I sure as hell don’t think he’s got the character to become the hero this movie seems to want to make him out to be. And worse than that, he’s this generic action everyguy type of character. He might as well have been played by John Cena or whoever the fuck that guy is.
Danny Elfman picked up his check for scoring Terminator Salvation, but it should’ve been stamped void. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing good about this music at all, apart from the fact that it isn’t actually physically painful to listen to. I think it’s become clear from his increasingly undistinguished body of work that Elfman has reached a point in his career where his name carries more weight than his creative talent. He’s not a hungry, ambitious composer anymore, surprising and pleasing listeners at every step with his signature style. You’d be hard pressed to figure out Elfman was involved with the movie at all if his name wasn’t in the credits. What in god’s name did they hope to prove by hiring him? Was Hans Zimmer all booked up? Did Harry Gregson-Williams not return their calls?
I can think of one final way to blast this movie: I currently have a painful sore on my tongue. It makes it somewhat painful to eat and drink. Going into Terminator Salvation, I was contemplating getting a snack from the concession stand. I love popcorn and my first instinct was to get a small bag of that. But then I reminded myself of how unpleasant it would be to eat salty popcorn with a sore on my tongue. Looking back on the experience, I think the more worthwhile experience would’ve been to have that salty popcorn on my tongue. It might’ve been painful, but at least it wouldn’t be boring and it’d have a pleasant, buttery taste to it.