The fourth film in the Terminator franchise may not be on the same level as the first two directed by James Cameron, but it’s miles above the weak third film and actually feels like a legitimate follow-up to Cameron’s films and ideas.
Fourteen years after the nuclear apocalypse of Judgment Day when Skynet launched its attack on the human race, John Connor (Christian Bale) is a member of the resistance, but not yet the leader of it, when he becomes part of a mission that could destroy Skynet for good. He also learns that Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the young man who in eleven years will go back in time and become his father, is being targeted for termination by Skynet. Meanwhile, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), whose last memory is of being on death row fifteen years earlier, wanders into the wasteland of Los Angeles and is rescued by Reese, and after hearing an inspiring radio broadcast from Connor they decide to find him and join his group.
On first glance at his resume, director McG (numerous music videos, Charlie’s Angels, We Are Marshall) may not have appeared to be the ideal choice to direct a mega-budget serious science fiction action film, but he proves to be more than up to the task, showing a steady hand with both the action scenes and the actors. His efficient storytelling keeps the film moving ahead at a good pace, but unlike some other recent genre films it never feels like it’s merely rushing from one action scene to another, but instead takes some time for exploring the main characters and the themes of the story.
The screenplay is credited to writing team John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Catwoman), but also includes uncredited revisions by Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight), Paul Haggis (Casino Royale), The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, and CSI: Las Vegas creator Anthony E. Zuiker. The film is both a sequel and a prequel, and a few small plot holes aside, the story is solidly constructed. While there’s nothing really surprising about where the story takes us, it does a good job of advancing the overall story arc of the franchise and some of the humanistic themes found in the second film, but while the main characters are capably written, the secondary characters seem underdeveloped.
The film owes its distinctive look to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (Drumline, We Are Marshall), who uses harsh lighting and the bleach bypass process to visually construct a post-apocalyptic future that looks hard and monochromatic, and production designer Martin Laing (Ghosts of the Abyss, City of Ember) and costumer designer Michael Wilkinson (300, Watchmen) further add to that effect with their sets and costumes. The overall feel is more credible than fantastic. Composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Spider-Man) contributes one of his typically Wagnerian scores while also incorporating Brad Fiedel’s theme from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) capably oversees the work of several effects studios to create top of the line effects that seamlessly fit into the style of the production. The late Stan Winston, who provided the animatronic and makeup effects for the previous three films, died during production, but his studio completed their work on the film supervised by John Rosengrant (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Iron Man).
Christian Bale steps into the role played by Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the woefully miscast Nick Stahl in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, making it fully his own. Bale’s made a career of playing obsessed, psychologically scarred characters, and count this as another successful role in that vein. Bale brings some dramatic weight to the role, allowing us for the first time to really see John Connor as a hardened resistance fighter who inspires people to follow him.
Sam Worthington is a good counterpoint to Bale as a death row inmate who awakens in possibly an even worse situation, and then must find his place in a changed world where he’s apparently been given a second chance. Anton Yelchin portrays the younger version of the character played by Michael Biehn in the original Terminator, and much as he did as the young Chekov in the new Star Trek, he successfully re-creates a known character at a younger age that reflects the original actor’s performance while making it his own.
While the film lacks a paragon of physical feminism like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, Moon Bloodgood is credible enough as resistance fighter Blair Williams, minus one scene which can only be blamed on the writers. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces Claire Danes as Kate, a character introduced in the third film and now Connor’s wife, and although she has limited screen time, she radiates a quiet strength that redeems how the character was portrayed in the previous film.
The rest of the cast is generally effective, including Common as Connor’s right hand man Barnes, Helena Bonham Carter as a dying scientist whose research and experiments pioneer the Terminator cyborgs, Jadagrace Berry as an orphaned child named Star in Reese’s care, Michael Ironside as the leader of the resistance movement, and Jane Alexander as a compassionate woman who aids Marcus, Reese, and Star. Linda Hamilton has a voice cameo as Sarah Connor in recorded messages her son listens to. Roland Kickinger plays a T-800 Terminator, the same model played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the previous films, and Kickinger is digitally manipulated to look like Schwarzenegger.
I went in with low expectations due to the mediocre third film and television series (which actually takes place in a different continuity than the later films), but I came out feeling that the Terminator franchise has been redeemed. Terminator Salvation isn’t the classic the first two films were, but it’s a good film that successfully continues their story and themes into a new era without rebooting everything that came before or significantly dumbing down. It’s easily the best summer movie of 2009 so far.
[4 out of 5 stars]