Home | Review Archive | The Bucket 'Blog | Screening Log | Film Festival Coverage | Contact Danny


  Terminator Salvation

Starring: Christian Bale, Anton Yelchin, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood

Directed by: McG

Produced by: Derek Anderson, Moritz Borman, Victor Kubicek, Jeffrey Silver

Written by: John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris

Distributor: Warner Bros.

     J.J. Abrams’ superior craftsmanship of Star Trek convinced me that it was possible for the “fill in” movie, an emerging species of Summer 2009 sequels that use time-travel to embellish on established stories rather than linearly furthering them, to work. Not two weeks later, I saw this film, best described as hack director McG’s assault on the beloved Terminator series, and my opinion on the new narrative concept returned to what it would have been had you asked me pre-Trek. Let’s hope the two movies don’t signal a trend, because the structure seems like the most pitiful excuse for cash-in franchise-additions to date. That is, it does in hands less competent than those of Abrams, who has already established himself as a film and TV wunderkind.

     Time travel is nothing new in cinema—in fact, the first three Terminator movies all used the device—but before this summer, the concept was something a given team of filmmakers built their narrative around, not a mere convenience. Star Trek, compelling as it ultimately was, and Terminator Salvation seem to just use the concept because it’s an easy excuse to reboot or makeover a franchise without immediately betraying the fan-base. In other words, the fabled old actors and stories still exist; they just aren’t present in the new alternate realities created by time travel. This, I suppose, is where the main distinction between the legitimacy of the gimmick in Star Trek and Terminator Salvation lies: the former series was in desperate need of change, whereas the latter wasn’t broken to begin with.

     The year is 2018, after Doomsday, and a young Resistance is engaged in the franchise’s staple battle with machine behemoth Skynet. John Connor (Christian Bale), not yet Resistance leader but a key player in the movement, is preparing to test a secret weapon that could blow the opposition to smithereens. Meanwhile, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the (currently very young) man who will father John in the future, roams a desolate Los Angeles. He teams up with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who unbeknownst to him may actually be a machine. (In the film’s first scene, Marcus is executed after conceding rights to his body in exchange for a kiss from the female experimenter petitioning him in his last hours.) But Kyle is soon captured by the machines and Marcus, behaving with fully human characteristics, must find John, the only person with a vested interest in saving Kyle knowing what his existence means to the future of humanity. If this doesn’t make a lick of sense to you, you either haven’t seen the original trilogy or you’re just plain dumbfounded by the ludicrousness of it all.

     Was Terminator Salvation doomed from the start due to its unnecessary nature? Perhaps, but director McG (Charlie’s Angels) exacerbates the premise’s problems because he is unable to craft a cohesive, epic story arc. In the one-time music video helmer’s hands, the film becomes utterly mechanical and devoid of any sense of rhythm or build-up. Repeated, soulless action scenes merely occur in sequence and do little for the grander story but emphasize just how cool explosions and gunshots look. This harms Terminator Salvation more than it might another movie because its lack of a concrete villain—the only real bad guy is the nondescript entity that is Skynet—leaves no pre-existing emotional arc established by the process of the viewer rooting for protagonists struggling against a conventional opponent. And as if powerful artificial intelligence turning against humankind wasn’t cliché enough, McG makes the experience all the more treacherous because he turns it into a videogame, episodic and purposeless. Given the clunky nature of his direction, one assumes this is because he’s unable to achieve anything more complex in terms of narrative. (Up to this point, he was able to get away with his inadequacies because the Charlie’s Angels films practically required empty, isolated action sequences to succeed.)

     Then again, screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris were, after all, the ones who staged all those action scenes in the first place. McG is surely responsible for the action’s mundane visuals and flawed pacing on the screen, but its sheer abundance—one of the film’s biggest problems—is a feature of that uninspired, purposeless script. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that even original Terminator filmmaker, the genius James Cameron, would have had a tough time making sense of all the booms and bangs. It has been reported that both Paul Haggis and Jonathan Nolan worked on the script in the early stages of its evolution; even if fragments of their labor still appear in the final cut, they should consider themselves lucky to be uncredited.

     As if its poor script and over-his-head director weren’t enough, the film’s actors also lose track of all coherence. As John Connor, Christian Bale mainly just yells at the top of his lungs and acts frantic. Bale’s apology for his infamous fit against D.P. Shane Hurlburt on the grounds that the scene was “very intense” and he was trying to remain in the character is not substantiated by his one-dimensional performance. Anton Yelchin fares slightly better and makes for a serviceable Kyle Reese, but his comic turn in Star Trek was far more compelling. Relative newcomers Sam Worthington and Moon Bloodgood are as blank as white walls, although in Worthington’s case that may have been intentional given subsequent revelations about his character. The usually delightful Bryce Dallas Howard barely registers. The bottom line is that the cast is just as aimless as the action itself, probably because they couldn’t make sense of the spacey plot.

     Many may apologize for Terminator Salvation’s shortcomings by deeming it an acceptable “summer movie” because it’s so filled with the genre-standard CGI indulgences and booming sound-effects. But moviegoers should be smarter than to have such low expectations. While summer movies need not be incredibly smart, they should at least—like all other movies—offer well-tailored arcs with captivating build-up, climax, and resolution. Putting out a haphazardly-connected series of dull action sequences under the guise of a widely respected and recognized franchise-name is about the laziest, most reviling thing studio Warner Brothers could have done to rip-off the hardworking movie masses. Hopefully, said masses will realize this and borrow Twisted Sister’s appropriately immortal chant: “We’re not gonna take it, aaaanymoreeee!”

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 5.20.2009

Screened on: 5.18.2009 at the Edwards Mira Mesa 18 in Mira Mesa, CA.


Terminator Salvation is rated PG-13 and runs 115 minutes.

Back to Home