The Most Infamous Terminator Movie Isn’t As Bad As You Remember

At least it’s not Genisys.

Warner Bros. Pictures
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Each story in the Terminator saga is tethered to one event: Judgment Day. In James Cameron’s early films, it was a nuclear Armageddon that could never be stopped, only delayed. As time passed, the franchise became less about preventing the apocalypse than embracing it. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines launched the series headlong into Judgment Day, setting the stage for a characteristically bleak sequel. Was there really anywhere else for Terminator to go?

The fourth film, Terminator Salvation, answers that question as definitively as it can. In a perfect world, Judgment Day would have been the first and only Terminator sequel. But because studios like making money, it made sense to show audiences a post-Judgment Day world. It wouldn’t be the most popular choice, but 15 years later, Salvation is far from the worst the franchise has produced.

Salvation brings us to 2018, over a decade into the battle between the self-aware Skynet and what’s left of humanity. John Connor (Christian Bale) is all grown up, but he’s not quite the savior of mankind he was supposed to become. Bale, fresh off The Dark Knight, is intense, making Connor a far cry from the laissez-faire tween of Judgment Day and the clueless young adult of Rise of the Machines.

That makes sense, given that the world has become a nuclear wasteland. A no-nonsense Connor might be exactly who the Resistance needs. But it’s hard to watch Bale bark out orders without thinking of his infamous outburst on Salvation’s set, which overshadowed the film itself. Even in front of the camera, Bale is missing the humanity that makes Connor an ideal leader in the fight against soulless machines.

Franchise favorites like John Connor and Kyle Reese get a late 2000s update... to varying success.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Bale’s John Connor finds an interesting foil in Marcus (Sam Worthington), an executed inmate turned into a T-800. Before Judgment Day, Marcus donated his body to Skynet’s corporate creator, Cyberdine. When he wakes up again decades later — stumbling through a matrix of mud like Frankenstein’s monster — the world has ended, and he has no idea he’s one of the machines.

On his quest for answers, he’ll cross paths with another franchise favorite, Kyle Reese. Played by Anton Yelchin, another late 2000s star, Reese is also unlike the character most fans knew. Here, he’s boyish and green, which forces Marcus to take him under his wing. There are other additions, but each is too poorly sketched to make much of an impression. Salvation tries to introduce romantic tension through Connor’s wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), a combat pilot who takes a liking to Marcus, but it falls flat.

Instead, the best tension lives in Connor’s partnership with Marcus. Through their dynamic, Salvation offers a new-ish angle to the franchise’s man versus machine argument. The only time Bale’s gruff, grizzled performance actually works is when it’s juxtaposed with Worthington’s. He’s playing Marcus as a Stock Action Guy, a reluctant hero who’s done bad things and is shouldering the guilt of it all, but he’s unbearably earnest in a way Connor used to be, and his selfless acts eventually remind Connor of the humanity he lost. Cue the irony of Connor learning from a machine.

Salvation offers a fresh look at man versus machine.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Salvation is hardly perfect, but it did push the franchise into surprisingly soulful territory. Its action sequences are kinetic, and they’re balanced with a handful of quiet moments that bring this dour dustbowl to life. The choices the film makes aren’t terribly original — most owe something to the genre trappings of the aughts — but it’s all deployed with restraint and finesse.

It’s also the first and only Terminator film set entirely in the “future,” which has to count for something. There’s little handwringing about time travel or causality, save for a few key scenes with Connor and Kyle Reese. And sure, you could argue that the franchise needs all that handwringing; that’s what sets Terminator apart from something like Mad Max. But Salvation shouldn’t be written off for trying something new. Its sequels reversed course to varying effect, but Salvation remains an interesting experiment for a saga that seems stuck in a loop.

Terminator Salvation is streaming on Max.

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