The Terminator franchise is finally catching up with itself. Consult your timelines, series fans: in 1984 the Resistance fighter, Kyle Reese, appeared from the future to protect Sarah Connor from the T-800, a cyborg from his time whose mission was to kill Sarah before she could give birth to the potential leader of the Resistance, John Connor. Ten years later, Arnie Schwarzenegger reappears as the re-programmed, child-friendly Terminator, sent by future John Connor to protect his younger self. He does. Then in 2004 Skynet, the artificial intelligence responsible for the future human vs machine war, sends the T-X, an ultimate killing machine, to kill Resistance members. It’s defeated. After all this, Judgement Day still happens.
Terminator Salvation takes place in 2018 when Connor (Christian Bale) is all grown up. This is 14 years after Skynet, in its first act upon activation, attempted to eradicate humanity by nuking all major cities. Fresh from the discovery that Skynet is experimenting with machine/human hybrids, Connor finds out that he’s on Skynet’s ‘to kill’ list, right after his dad-to-be, Kyle Reese.
The Command of the Resistance, meanwhile, is busy celebrating its recent discovery of a radio wave that will shut down all Skynet machines by planning to blow up their base. It’s then down to Connor to try to stop Command so he can rescue all of the human prisoners that the evil conglomerate has been collecting for nefarious melding purposes.
In the meantime, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) wakes up to a devastated landscape, 15 years after donating his body to science when he was given the lethal injection for committing murder. Wanting to know how he’s still alive, he stumbles towards Los Angeles where he finds 15-year-old Kyle Reese and his mute companion, Star. When Reese and Star get taken by the machines, Wright turns to the Resistance for help. This turns out to be a mistake.
Salvation is a hybrid vehicle of two leading parts. Bale was originally tipped to play the troubled Wright, but instead was cast as Connor. Hence a 50/50 split in the screen time. This results in a disjointed plot where Connor’s tale is fleshed out to match Wright’s. This doesn’t quite work, but luckily this is only really noticeable when the action dies down, which it rarely does.
Bale plays the ridiculously supped-up and battle-weary Connor. In the first few scenes alone, he survives nuclear attack and follows it by jumping off a helicopter into the sea to cadge a lift off a passing submarine. All the while speaking like a 40-a-day film noir Private Dick. Post-Batman Bale seems afraid that if he ever clears his throat, he’ll lose his allure. Worse, the rest of the cast seem to have adopted his guttural tones. Maybe it’s the apocalyptic dust, clogging the air.
Despite Bale’s bid for attention, Wright’s meatier storyline still gets the focus. It’s his, quite literal, inner conflict that stands out from the explosions and special effects, and his beaten eyes that provide this overblown vehicle with a much-needed human connection. With Bale in full brood mode, Wright also provides the humour, sparse as it is.
Directed by McG of Charlie's Angels, this was never going to be an emotionally sensitive film. McG likes his blockbusters big and loud. The action scenes are phenomenal and the special effects are crazily good. You feel the thrum of every bullet like a second heart beat. The wailing and grinding of metal is so close that you empathise with every bruise caused by the brutish machines. There are Terminator air crafts, Terminator motorbikes, even Terminator fish. If you’re going to try to carry off a name like McG, then you’d better know what’s cool.
You might wonder where the Salvation part comes in. When humans aren’t fighting off the latest version of the T-whatever, they’re busy trying to survive each other. In this post-apocalyptic world, actions are consequence-free. Highways are lost beneath the sand, fire still burns in the skeletons of urban wastelands and there is a real sense of hopelessness in the city’s empty streets.
There are faults with this version. Salvation doesn’t bother explaining the timeline, so non-fans might get a bit lost. Women are mostly sidelined: Connor’s wife, Kate, is reduced to being a pregnant bystander and Marcus’ potential love interest is lost in the whirlwind of action.
There’s still time to improve the model. McG’s Terminator 5 is already in production and consulting the timeline, the future-folk only have about a decade to get their time machines up to scratch to start preventing everything that’s already happened. Again. See this film if only for the CG-Schwarzenegger, circa 1984. Priceless.
Terminator Salvation (12A) is on general release now.