Memory can be a funny thing. Memories can be changed and distorted by time, an acknowledgment of your own biases, and even the testimony of others. For example, when I saw Terminator Salvation back in 2009, I enjoyed it, but as they years have gone on I’ve grown to mistrust that memory. My taste in movies back then was wildly different than it is now, and the overwhelming consensus is that the film is an irredeemable piece of trash. After all it’s directed by McG (LOL) and that ending is such a clumsy misfire. Surely if I were to re-watch it, I’d have a very different experience with it now than I did six years ago.
Imagine my surprise when I did re-watch the film and found most of it to be incredibly solid. Not only that, but of the now four sequels The Terminator has been burdened with, this is by far the most interesting.
The Terminator is not a film that demands a sequel. It offers an interesting premise, it carries that premise through to its logical conclusion, and then it ends. It was inevitable that when any sequel finally arrived, it would utilize the old “same but more” formula. For all the superficial wrinkles T2 adds, it’s essentially just going through the same beats as the original film. In fact, the film’s big twist relies entirely on recognizing that it’s doing the same thing as the last one. If you break down the beats of both of these films, they are virtually identical.
That’s not to say that T2 isn’t a lot of fun – in many ways T2 is the best possible version of that “same but more” style of sequel – but it doesn’t do much to push the story in new directions, instead just offers a different spin on the original. And that would have been fine if T2 was the end of it, but the Hollywood franchise machine demanded more and both T3 and Terminator Genisys go to increasingly absurd lengths to keep remaking the same movie, each time to diminishing returns (at least in terms of quality). They all feel like they’re coming from a place of “oh, let’s make another one of these” rather than truly considering how you could push the story forward into new and interesting places.
All of them, that is, except for Terminator Salvation.
Instead of making another iteration of the same basic story, Salvation actually has the ambition to progress the story, rather than infinitely rehashing it. It says, “okay, all of this has been leading up to the end of the world, but what happens after the world ends?” There’s no time travel and it’s not a chase movie, instead it zooms in on a few specific characters and explores how they’ve each been affected by the end of the world. It takes this world we’ve gotten glimpses of in the other films, and throws us into it head first. Suddenly this is uncharted territory where anything is possible, and McG, of all people, does a genuinely great job bringing this world to life.
It’s incredibly easy to make fun of McG. He’s best known for the silly Charlie’s Angels movies, he works under an obnoxious nickname, and he just looks like a total dweeb.
But whatever else you might think of him, his work on Salvation is fairly remarkable. This is a very well directed film. Instead of merely aping what James Cameron did, he creates a wasteland that is inspired in equal parts by Cormac McCarthy and George Miller. It’s a world of bleak desolation populated with desperate people, but it’s also soaked in gasoline and filled with weirdo mechanical contraptions. McG conveys how grim this world is for the people living there, but also realizes that doesn’t mean the film itself can’t be fun. Each new type of Terminator we see is introduced with a sense of playfulness, without the movie ever resorting to being jokey like T2, T3, or Genisys.
Beyond that, the action in the movie is top-notch, with consistently clear staging and geography as well as a progression of events motivated by characters’ decisions. The Harvester’s attack on the gas station in particular is a terrific sequence, moving effortlessly from a siege to a chase to an attempted rescue. McG allows the camera to really capture the action and give us a sense of the events that are unfolding rather than trying to hide it behind rapid-fire editing and extreme close-ups. He even uses a handful of long takes to set up the scale and geography of the action taking place.
All of this is good stuff, the movie is ambitious, it’s well-directed, and it has strong action, so why is this film so violently despised?
Part of the problems is that the script is an absolute mess. The script in question was extensively rewritten for a number of reasons, but there are a few things that really changed the nature of this picture. First, and most significantly, Christian Bale was originally offered the role of Marcus Wright (eventually played by Sam Worthington), but Bale had his heart set on John Connor. The only problem was that John Connor was barely in the movie at this point. He was a voice on a radio, someone who motivated the action but was not directly tied into most of it. With Bale insisting on playing John Connor, Jonathan Nolan was brought on board to beef up the role, but the rest of the script wasn’t changed to reflect that. The story is still about Marcus Wright, but the film keeps cutting away from him in order to give John Connor more screen time, screen time that is largely wasted. This also means that Marcus’ story ends up being shortchanged and aspects of his arc are ignored, which is a shame because his adventure with Kyle Reese are the best parts of the movie.
Despite these problems, the first hour and change of the movie manages to sustain this juggling act. Looking back on it, you realize just how meandering and unfocussed this all is, but in the moment it works. The action is exciting, the direction is compelling, and the film conveys a sense that this is all building to something. Unfortunately, they never figured out what that something is.
The last 30-40 minutes of the film is where everything goes off the rails. The moment where the film tries to reveal what it’s supposedly been building to, and the answer is thudding stupidity. Skynet’s plan doesn’t make a lick of sense, and unlike the rest of the film which manages to trick you into thinking there’s a greater point to all of this, the reveal is delivered in the most nakedly expository way possible. After that it goes into another tedious fight with a Terminator in a factory (a clear sign that this otherwise unique entry in the series has just given up) and then has a saccharine, half-hearted conclusion that paves over the only thing that might have made the ending worthwhile*. It’s this last half-hour where the juggling act fails, the bubble bursts, and any goodwill the previous hour and 20 minutes generated evaporates.
That’s the thing, I believe that the last half-hour of a film is largely what defines an audience’s reaction. A bad movie with a killer ending can generate a great deal of enthusiasm, while an otherwise good movie with a lousy ending will leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. But Salvation doesn’t stop there, it breaks the cardinal rule of endings by failing to deliver on a promise. This is why, in spite of everything else, people loathe this movie, because not only does it have a bad ending, but it has an ending that betrays the film’s earlier indication that this was all building to something. It reveals the film as a fraud, and there is nothing people hate more than a liar. Comparatively T3 and Genisys are both terrible – objectively worse, even, than Salvation – but they are upfront about their badness. People would rather have something that’s bad all the way through than feel as though their trust was betrayed by the story (see also the violent hatred aimed at the finale of Lost and the ending of Mass Effect 3).
But is that fair? Is it fair to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and ignore everything this movie gets right? Especially in light of another Terminator sequel that chooses to, once again, be nothing more than a rehash of the original film. The movie ultimately collapses under the weight on an unfinished script, but on the road to getting there it’s an ambitious, well-directed film that actually seems to give a damn. What does it say about us when we get angry over the film that tries, but give a resigned “eh, what did you expect?” in response to the latest example of franchise masturbation?
Terminator Salvation is not a great film, or even a very good one, but it is the most interesting and ambitious entry in this whole silly series, and I think it deserves more than the reputation it’s thus far been saddled with. We can’t stop the insatiable hunger of the Hollywood franchise machine, but we can at least stick up for the films that try to give us a little bit more than reheated leftovers. Or, you know, we could keep throwing money each time Hollywood drags out the decaying corpse, savor the stench of rotting flesh and say to ourselves, “well, at least it’s better than that time they tried something new.”
*Originally the plan was to kill John Connor, but graft his skin onto Marcus Wright to carry on as a symbol of hope for the resistance. It would have been a ballsy move and made for an interesting thread to follow in future sequels, but once this part of the script leaked online, fans revolted. The idea of killing off the series’ central character and grafting his skin onto a Terminator seemed like an absolute betrayal, but in the context of the finished film, it is the correct ending. I’m especially irritated now that Genisys ended up stealing the idea, but executing it in the dumbest, most obvious way possible.