How do you follow up the sheer cinematic greatness of T2: Judgment Day?
This question has confounded scholars, scientists, and film producers for 20 years as attempts to unlock the secrets of James Cameron’s success have largely failed time and time again.
Across film and television, five major undertakings have been made in hopes of eliciting the same thrills that Cameron provided in his first two Terminator films. We’ve seen the franchise attract some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and put newcomers on the radar. We’ve seen heavy appeals to nostalgia, but also sincere efforts to move in a new direction.
For a franchise synonymous with the phrase, “I’ll be back,” we’ve never really had to worry about seeing more Terminators.
In 2009, a film came along that – surprisingly, given that it had been six years since the previous Terminator – didn’t attempt to reboot the franchise, instead staying the course laid out by The Terminator, T2, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
If you’re expecting me to tell you that this film, McG’s Terminator Salvation, is the best post-T2 Terminator film, don’t hold your breath. That distinction goes to Terminator: Dark Fate. But films don’t always need to be evaluated along metrics of best and worst. Sometimes, films are simply “pretty good.”
And while reactions to Terminator Salvation at the time weren’t all that favorable, and the film has since been lost in a wider conversation around the direction of Terminator, I’ll hold to the notion that McG delivered a respectably solid entry in this franchise.
Terminator Salvation picks up 15 years after Terminator 3’s shocking conclusion, in which Judgment Day (though delayed) still arrives. Its dystopian future, where a grown-up John Connor (Christian Bale) is the leader of the human resistance against Skynet, isn’t the permanently nocturnal and aesthetically cold setting that Cameron introduced audiences to, but rather a dry desert wasteland of scorching heat and machine oil. John’s fight to save humanity is expedited when a factory raid tips him off on the schematics for the T-800, the machine he knows will ultimately travel back in time to change the course of his life — as well as those of his mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, only appearing via voice), and father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). But Skynet’s plan has changed.
Newly aware of the importance Reese holds to humanity as John’s father, Skynet launches a plan to kill Reese and Connor within the same timeline, eliminating the resistance altogether. To achieve this objective, Skynet uses a human-Terminator hybrid, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who believes he’s human, to infiltrate the Resistance and kill John.
It’s a solid set-up, and McG does bring a distinct visual flair to the proceedings. Special effects-wise, Terminator Salvation looks awesome, and there are a bunch of nifty new Skynet baddies to populate the action sequences. Credit where credit is due: McG is the only director to take the reigns of the franchise who doesn’t just attempt to mimic Cameron’s approach, instead making it his own. The film doesn’t all work, but I can’t help admire that big swings were taken while making it.
While it’s difficult to get invested in the Resistance characters, outside of John’s wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), it is fun to see familiar genre actors like Michael Ironside, Common, and Moon Bloodgood fill out the ranks. Hot off the success of The Dark Knight, Bale doesn’t do a lot with John Connor, and there are only glimpses of the more interesting character Edward Furlong introduced us to, but he’s nevertheless a solid presence on screen.
Similarly, Worthington, who would make history later that year with Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar, doesn’t infuse Marcus with much personality, though he’s still effective in the role. It’s the late Yelchin who steals the show, channeling Michael Biehn to inject a contagious energy into his Kyle Reese, and into the film.
Cameron’s Terminator films were known for their simplicity, effectively laying out the rules of time travel and establishing end-of-the-world stakes. Even the third, while attempting to go bigger, maintained an easy-to-follow plot. Salvation is full of moving pieces, which allows the film to feel distinct from the previous three but also creates hindrances to understanding what’s going on.
The film never picks a leading man, splitting its time between John Connor, Marcus, and Kyle Reese, and not enough time is spent building emotional connections between them (as was done with Sarah and Kyle, John and the Terminator, and John and Kate in the previous three films). As a result, all these characters’ arcs feel somewhat truncated and emotionally stunted.
It’s clear that rewrites softened Salvation. One of the original endings considered would’ve seen John Connor killed and Marcus adopting synthetic flesh with Connor’s appearance, slipping into his skin to become the legendary leader established in the first two films. It’s such a ballsy twist that I wish they’d gone in that direction. Instead, we get something closer to franchise formula that lacks the right amount of emotional payoff.
Even so, Terminator Salvation is a film truly committed to pushing its franchise forward. We’d never seen a story set entirely during the war between the Resistance and Skynet. And on that front, Salvation delivers. There is a sense that a war for humanity’s survival is being fought in the future, and it’s a war I would’ve loved to see completed with a new trilogy.
As much as I enjoy Dark Fate, I can’t help but wonder if confusion over what the Terminator franchise “should be” that followed Salvation could have been avoided if the franchise only committed to moving forward with Salvation’s story — instead of again changing the timeline and ignoring sequels.
Terminator Salvation isn’t a well-oiled machine, exactly. But dammit, there’s just something about it that works.
TERMINATOR SALVATION IS CURRENTLY STREAMING ON HBO MAX in the U.S.