The problem with Terminator movies is that they keep coming back.
“Terminator: Salvation” is not a terrible movie, it’s an unnecessary one. It’s the movie that John and Sarah Connor fought to avoid in “Terminator: 2: Judgement Day,” the best action movie of the 1990s.
By contrast, “Terminator: Salvation” is just another two-star summer movie with a lot of gunfire, explosions, and skull rattling sound effects. The filmmakers could have imagined their own post-apocalyptic future, but rehashing the Terminator franchise brings in the kind of brand recognition that trumps innovation in modern Hollywood. Heaven forbid audiences get a chance to see an action movie this summer that doesn’t rely on characters introduced in the 1980s – or earlier.
(I’m looking at you, Transformers and G.I. Joe. “Star Trek” gets a pass for actually being entertaining and part of a long running series, instead of just a way to capitalize on Reagan-era toy nostalgia.)
“Terminator: Salvation” features John Connor (Christian Bale) as a guerilla commander in 2018 who is part of a Southern California resistance force fighting against an army of terminator robots controlled by Skynet, the military computer program that decided humanity was a threat to its own existence and decided to wipe homo sapiens from the face of the earth..
During his fight, John Connor encounters Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) a remorseful murderer who (guess how) comes back to life after being executed for his crimes in the present day and a teenaged Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who despite being born after John Connor, is John Connor’s father.
(John Connor is conceived in the original “Terminator”, when an adult Reese is sent to 1984 Los Angeles to protect Sarah Connor from the killer T-800 robot portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was sent back in time to kill her and prevent her son from being born.)
Previous Terminator movies made it clear that John Connor would lead the human resistance, and in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” it seemed as if he was assumed that mantle at the end of the movie. Instead: “Terminator: Salvation:” shows Conner under the command of military brass who fulfill the action movie tradition of being the hero’s needlessly obtuse supervisors.
If viewers thought the FBI guys in “Die Hard” – otherwise a terrific film – had poor tactical judgment, wait until they get a load of a general who is willing to accept heavy noncombatant human casualties in a war being fought to save humanity itself from extinction.
This is the first of the series to deal exclusively with the future war. John Connor, previously portrayed as a child assassination target in T2 and a confused young man in T3, is now an adult with a pregnant wife, an M-16 and a lot of responsibility. He has to save his father before he is born, so if he fails, he never exists and Schwarzenegger doesn’t get to fight on the heroes’ side in T2, thus preventing him from becoming governor of California.
James Cameron, who directed T1 and T2 made it clear that the events of T2 prevented the future war against Skynet. Unfortunately for humanity, stopping the war would have made it impossible to make money off future Terminator sequels.
T1 and T2 provided glimpses of the future war. When Cameron directed the Terminator franchise, the humans carrying plasma rifles fought a guerilla campaign against a seemingly endless army of advanced terminator robots.
In the new movie, director McG shows the humans using conventional small arms, probably because firearms are louder than energy weapons. The organic side also takes to the air in A-10 Thunderbolts that not only survived a full-scale nuclear attack, but are somehow fueled, despite the fact that Skynet controls industry.
“Terminator: Salvation” doesn’t really address what it’s like to live in its world, except to show that it’s hard. There’s not much in the way of character development, and not enough time spent between fight scenes to see how characters relate to each other or reveal how they survive in a post-nuclear world.
The heroes don’t have to worry about nuclear fallout, and although we don’t see any cancers or post-war mutations, we do learn that the survivors can perform surgeries outdoors.
It’s good that humanity retains its smarts. Although the technologically superior Skynet does trick humanity in a major plot twist, Skynet does not have the insight to attack resistance airbases or to actually terminate major characters when it has a chance. Or chances.
The first two Terminator movies were thrillers first and foremost, but they also showed Sarah Connor’s growth from a frightened waitress who was suddenly targeted for assassination to a woman who could handle assault rifles and shotguns to protect her son from Skynet.
The man versus machine angle wasn’t just a way to create a scary villain, but a way to contrast nurturing, protective family relationships to the cold, calculating mentality that creates Skynet.
Humanity, may never actually end up at war with robots, which incidentally, are becoming increasingly integral to military technology, but T1 and T2 suggested that people could lose their humanity if they they allow technology – to dominate their lives.
In the real world, military robots could reach a point where it’s possible for a technologically advanced country to wage war without taking on the risks of doing so. The upside is protecting a nation’s own troops, but can war become so easy that we become fond of it?
“Terminator: Salvation,” gives John Connor a chance to say that the resistance does not fight like machines. But as far as ideas go, the movie spends most of its time on its case that explosions and fighting look cool on the big screen.