Let me begin by saying that Terminator Salvation is not as bad as you may have been led to believe, nor is it nearly as good as it could have been. The film sports some of the best big screen action of the year but suffers from a screenplay that fails to take off and seems to have had large chunks removed from it to keep the action moving. Taken as just an action film, it plays quite well; however, should you look at it as a Terminator sequel, things begin to get a little dicey. Still, I would be lying if I said I was not entertained.
Terminator Salvation takes us to that future time that fans of the series have been waiting for ever since Arnold first asked that fateful question: "Are you Sarah Connor?" This is the war waged between Skynet and the human resistance in the time immediately following Judgment Day. However, before we get there, there is a very important cog that needs to be put in place from the past, so we begin in the past — 2003 to be exact.
We meet a convicted murderer just before he is to be put to death. His name is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) and he is not a nice man. Prior to execution, he is convinced to donate his body to science by Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter). Jump forward 15 years and the story picks up with John Connor (Christian Bale) heading a team into Terminator territory in search of crucial information needed for their war.
Of course, this mission goes bad and the movie is underway. Skynet sends its Terminators out to, well, terminate. John listens to the tapes his mother made incessantly, searching for clues as to how to defeat Skynet, and Marcus climbs out of the bombed out hole resulting from that initial disastrous meeting.
What follows is a two-pronged story. One side has John, knowing bits and pieces of what is to come, attempting to locate Kyle Reese, who we know to be John's father from the original Terminator. The other has Marcus trying to figure out what happened, who he is, where he is, and how he fits into this world that has left him behind. All of this is going on while Skynet continues its path of destruction of the human race as the artificial intelligence seeks out John Connor.
As portrayed in the movie, the story is that simple. As I sat there, awed by the explosive action that came with stunning regularity, I waited for the story to take off. It never does. The action never stops and is, for the most part, stunning and is the reason to see the movie. The story has potential; there are plenty of ideas strewn throughout with which we can build our own story, but there's not enough to make a good movie.
This movie had so much potential. The opportunity was there to take this franchise to the next level. Unfortunately, it fell prey to rewrites and severe editing. It is clear that a lot of footage was left on the cutting room floor. The editing is horrendous as scenes end and begin with a certain lack of flow, as if conversations were cut out. This lack of character content is explained, somewhat, by director McG's claim that over 30 minutes of footage was cut. Hopefully we will get some form of an extended cut down the line.
What really steals the movie, aside from the action, are the performances of Sam Worthington and Anon Yelchin. These two really save the narrative side of the film and I would have been happy if the entire film had centered on them. Worthington, in particular, brings some definite emotion to his performance. He has a lot going on behind his eyes that adds much to the story. As for Yelchin, he brings a grounded humanity to Kyle Reese. He has moments, such as hearing John Connor on the radio, that point to a bigger picture, one that helps to paint the legendary John Connor spoken of in earlier entries of the franchise
Terminator Salvation is a terribly frustrating movie. The action lifts it up just as the story drags it down. It is almost like they rewrote the movie as they went along. Combine the cut footage with the novelization writer having to rewrite the book due to all the rewrites the script underwent. It certainly sounds like a messy project.
I have read that Christian Bale was originally being lined up for the role of Marcus, but that Bale wanted to play Connor. The problem is that originally Connor was only in the film during the final act. This necessitated beefing up the Connor role, which in turn made the structure a bit messy. Much has been written about an earlier version of the script and the changes made, including Bale's involvement over at CHUD. It's a must-read to understand what changes were made and what pieces can still be seen in the finished film.
Technically, the film looks spectacular. It may have editing issues, but when it comes to the framing, the action, and the effects, it is hard to find fault. The movie is downright explosive. Director McG may lack the big vision of a James Cameron, but he makes up for it in knowing how to stage solid action. He is like a lesser Michael Bay in that respect. As for screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, it is hard to judge based on the choppy product here, but I have to believe that better work could have been turned in.
Bottom line. I like the movie, it is a fun action film, but it still plays like a Mad Lib. There are holes and half-baked ideas that are just enough to give you something to work with, but do not always make sense within the context of the film. Worth checking out for the action and the ideas, just do not expect the greatness we all wanted.