In the future, John Connor leads the human resistance against Skynet, a worldwide force of sentient machines hell-bent on destroying mankind, whom are viewed as mortal enemies. In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title role, as a cyborg who has been sent back in time to kill John's mother Sarah Connor; it is believed that eliminating Sarah would prevent John from being born and allow the machines to "win." A man named Kyle Reese is also sent back, by the humans, to protect Sarah; he succeeds, hence Skynet's attempt fails, and we find out that Kyle ends up being the father of the unborn John Connor. Terminator 2: Judgement Day focuses on another killing machine, the T-1000, as it is sent back in time to kill John himself as a child, to fulfill the same purpose. Yet again, the machines are met with failure.
Way back when I saw Terminator 2 for the first time, I remember thinking that the storyline was one of the coolest in any of the movies I had seen. That was over 12 years ago, when I hadn't seen many movies to begin with. Even today, T2 stands as one of the best ever; the action, acting, music, and even special effects stand the test of time and still blow me away every instance I watch. The Terminator, which I saw very soon after, filled in all the gaps and then some to a franchise that haunts me to this day. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines seems to be widely regarded as a critical failure and misstep in the series, a mockery of everything T1 had foretold and T2 had knocked out of the park: the antics of an aged Arnold Schwarzenegger, a "Terminatrix," and a seemingly bad choice of actor for John Connor's character. I couldn't disagree more; Arnie once again rocked, Nick Stahl pulled off a wonderfully believable John Connor, and the twist ending in my mind made for a more than worthy addition to one of my all-time favorite movie series. And then there was the sadly now-defunct Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series, also berated by many fans. I thought it was genius in every regard. If you couldn't tell, I'm a rabid Terminator fan.
Fast forward to 2009, where director McG has unleashed Terminator Salvation upon the world. I had been looking forward to this film for many months, not only because it's another Terminator movie, but because McG had a trump card: Christian Bale of recent Batman fame as survivalist John Connor. I was absolutely certain that both of these beloved factors combined would make for yet another masterpiece that would be treasured in the Terminator collection. And days after I've seen it, I'm still not ready to determine whether or not it belongs there.
The Terminator series, in my mind, were always more than just action movies. They were foreboding, horrifying windows into the potential dangers of technology and nuclear war. The state of the planet after Judgement Day, the machine-initiated nuclear attack, as illustrated by James Cameron in T1 and T2, was dark, menacing, bleak, and felt frightfully real. Terminator Salvation changes that, not necessarily on purpose, but because the film feels like a repackaging of the first two, wrapped in the pretty red bow of current action movie pap all too common in today's world of short attention spans. Salvation focuses on two main things: John Connor trying to find and save the life of Kyle Reese (who turns out to be his father), and on a man named Marcus who wants revenge on the machines for very different reasons.
Fortunately, Salvation does do one thing very well: keep the viewer on the edge of their seat with tons of action sequences and great special effects. Those expecting another deep, existential, philosophical twist relating to the Terminator mythology however, will be disappointed. This is really the paradoxical thing about Terminator Salvation: I honestly did enjoy the movie. But I can't seem to lump it with the other Terminator movies. Maybe it's Christian Bale, whom I worship; he just plain and simple is not a good John Connor. He acts his tail off, but I can't help but feel that he was brought on board for "star power." Maybe it's McG's illustration of the state of the planet; post-Judgement Day is that of a desert wasteland, akin to the most recent movie outages of Resident Evil and Final Fantasy instead of the perpetual blackness and skull-ridden world of James Cameron. Maybe it's the lack of emotive or relatable music short of the five-beat drum pattern synonymous with the Terminator series. The whole thing feels, well, like someone did a Terminator movie just to do a Terminator movie.
Those willing to overlook these nuances, though, are in for a treat. Ripe with action, Salvation rarely lets the action movie reigns loose. Vehicle chases, gun battles, and Terminator versus human hand-to-hand all brings the action part of the movie full circle. Every turn is met with another shootout, another violent combat sequence, or another explosion. The introduction of Marcus's character is a good one, too, adding somewhat of a branch to Connor's ongoing focus, and towards the end of the movie, secrets are revealed relating to Marcus's character that I found quite interesting. In a risky move, as opposed to the other Terminator movies, Bale's Connor is a full-fledged military leader, both giving orders and taking them, and participates in several action scenes, including the long, final one that also includes a surprise cameo.
As a stand-alone action movie, Terminator Salvation is quite good, but will let down the longtime franchise fan. You'll be entertained, as long as you don't want to leave thinking about where the series will go next. As for me, I'd just as soon watch another season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, ponder the events surrounding Judgement Day, and out of the corner of my eye see Terminator Salvation sticking out of my DVD collection waiting for a rainy day.