Terminator Salvation [T4] is actually a great topical example of how not to make a film within a tired franchise, because its genesis was unnecessary, its script was affected by casting issues, and the final product received more attention due to a tirade unleashed by its star upon the film’s cinematographer and director (dubbed Bale Out, and previously covered in an Editor’s Blog).
The original script reportedly centered around the character of Marcus Wright (Rogue’s Sam Worthington), a prisoner on death row who wakes up years later in a grungy underground Cyberdyne clinic after a major rebel assault led by John Connor (Christian Bale). As Marcus crawls up to the surface, he discovers the world’s gone to hell, and man has become a rodent which Cyberdyne’s rogue, automated military machines are exterminating to keep their dominion pure.
Now a partial amnesiac (he knows his name and early years, but little else), Marcus decides the responsible parties for his state must pay, and he heads towards San Francisco, where the Cyberdyne headquarters reside.
Folded into this workable premise are rebels seeking to destroy the machines using a weapon that takes advantage of a ‘back door’ resident in each man-killing robot. Meanwhile, Connor is determined to protect a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the man he sends into the future to protect Connor’s mum – Sarah Connor – from the Terminator, except the teenage Kyle has been snatched by the machines, and is slated for extermination in San Francisco.
When Marcus eventually meets up with John, they become instant enemies when John’s pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), a surgeon, discovers Marcus is a new machine hybrid, built with an indestructible, terminator-like skeleton covered in regenerating skin, and housing Marcus’ real brain and human heart.
Marcus eventually escapes with the aid of a rebel dissenter, Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), and manages to infiltrate Cyberdyne’s San Francisco complex and helps free Kyle, ensuring the young rebel grows into a loyal servant, and makes that date with John’s mum in James Cameron’s first opus, The Terminator (1984).
Reportedly, the original ending had John Connor reduced to a marginal character and dying at the end, with Marcus assuming Connor’s placement within the rebel faction by slipping on Connor’s skin like a big body-sleeve, giving Marcus a purpose after a dour criminal past, but creating a horrific irony in which the rebellion that Sarah Connor fought for was ultimately headed by a cyborg.
(A more “jet black” ending, as described by director McG and co-screenwriter Michael Ferris, had Marcus/Connor killing Kyle and Connor’s wife, and with the exception of an inner circle of confidants, is taken ‘face value’ as the real Connor.)
T4 went into a state of flux when the role of John Connor was expanded due to Bale’s casting, and the finale became more directly redemptive for Marcus: he rescues John from the clutches of other terminator units (including the T-800 series, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the prior films), and he offers to donate his heart to an ailing John so that the rebellion can succeed.
With Bale as John Connor, the role had to have some meat, as well as more scenes in which he’s related to the plot, but the expansion consists of fairly negligible scenes where Bale utters banal dialogue, pseudo-heroic speeches into a microphone, and looks really, really angry – either the result of Bale trying to give his limited role some gravitas, or channeling his frustration from being trapped in a bland production.
For all the intensity that Bale gives John, the character is merely a recognizable figurehead and franchise anchorpoint for audiences wondering why a feature film had to be created for an intro James Cameron managed to compact into the prologue of his first Terminator film. What’s unsurprising is that Marcus is the most compelling character in T4 – he’s a lost soul looking for justice/revenge/redemption in a world gone bonkers – but the final shooting script is riddled with all kinds of flaws and loopholes.
Early trailers reportedly revealed Marcus to be a cyborg, whereas the film keeps that revelation until the final act, where he meets John for the first time; that twist is what justifies all those scenes where Marcus jumps, tumbles, slams into space ships, and is brutalized like an indestructible, titanium-built James Bond action figure.
When captured, John initially treats him like a thing from hell, although he eventually must trust Marcus because he will forward info that will help the rebels find the young Reese, and save the kid from death – thereby allowing him to be sent back to 1984.
The problem is that while T4 is a marked improvement over Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), it's hampered by the bland Bale character, as well as the screenwriters’ complete lack of interest for any characters. Those issues are further aggravated McG’s focus on keeping the pace tight; while a snazzily edited film, McG has no feel for character or nuances. Dialogue scenes feel perunctory, and the action scenes - particularly some elaborate chases on vehicles - are cut too fast.
A prime example is the car chase between Marcus and Reese in a gasoline truck, and robot-driven motorcycles. A car chase, even in a Michael Bay idiocy like Bad Boys II (2003) - is a sequence where a pursuit is supposed to be kinetic and prolonged, weaving through various nuances, instead of slamming from shot to shot, and conveying zero feel for the power for the machines themselves, nor the humans riding at a deadly speed. The sequence is only one third spectacular, because most of it’s overtly CGI, and there's the inclusion of what's essentially a Transformers robot that was worked into the script.
Whether the device that smashes homes and scoops humans into cattle cages for 'processing' back in San Francisco was in the original script is unknown, but the walking, humming menace against humanity looks awfully Transformer-like and suspicious, given T4 was released the same summer as Bay’s Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen.
The effects are largely solid, as is the superlative sound design, and most surprisingly, Danny Elfman's score. Perhaps an unlikely choice, it's actually easy to forget Elfman wrote a number of punchy synth scores (Wisdom) early in his career, and his rendition and use of Brad Fiedel's industrial Terminator theme is nostlagic as well as dramatically solid.
Also a plus are some amusing in-jokes, such as the use of Guns N’ Roses' "You Could Be Mine" which the younger Connor used to initially flee from the T-800 in T2; in T4, the song is played by John on a boom box to lure one of the robo-cycles down a road towards a trip-wire. Once the cycle is flipped over, John plugs a hacking device into the panel (much like the ATM gizmo he used in T2) and is able to control the vehicle and travel to San Francisco and rescue Reese.
A lesser in-joke is the mute character of Star, the little girl who follows Reese and eventually befriends Marcus; in Cameron’s Aliens (1986), Ripley befriends a mute girl/ragamuffin named Newt, and like Connor, she must travel to the nest of the film’s villains (Mama Alien) to rescue Newt.
Parallel story elements from T2 have also been worked into the T4 script. Just as the young Connor befriends the protective T-800 (Schwarzenegger) in T2, he must trust Marcus, a cyborg who also aims to protect key members of the rebellion, including co-rebel Blair (Bloodgood), with whom Marcus develops a fondness.
The dilemma of a cyborg having feelings for a full human isn’t really addressed in T4, which is a shame because scenes with Marcus and Blair seem to have been built towards some kind of interaction.
In the DVD’s Director’s Cut, the main additions are some minor scene extensions, a bit more violence, and a scene where Marcus and Blair rest at some abandoned desert tourist attraction. As it starts to rain, Blair takes off her top to rinse her breasts from the soot of the day’s fighting. Marcus watches from a distance, never seeing any nudity. Blair is eventually surrounded by some horny thugs, but before anyone can fully accost her, Marcus beats them back, and the unlikely couple sit quietly by a fire, with Marcus remaining disinterested in his potential girlfriend.
Now, even when broken down to its bare essentials, the restored scene is idiotic, and exists purely for semi-graphic boobery. Why would her breasts be the chief body parts that would need washing from desert combat? Why not do it in private? And as a related query of the scene’s immaculate idiocy, if Marcus isn’t sure at this juncture in the story that he’s a cyborg and no longer human, wouldn’t he wonder why he’s not getting a woody when a beautiful girl whose boobs he saved from desert scruffigans is resting against him?
T4 feels like a series of rewrites that were greenlit before anything had been refined, and while a glossy production with some decent action sequences, the movie’s wholly unnecessary. Moreover, much in the way Paul W. Anderson (Resident Evil) revealed a severe weakness for characters and storytelling in Soldier (1998), so too does McG in T4; Charlie’s Angels (2000) wasn’t a fluke, but it was an example of the right elements at play.
As much as T4 will please home theatre fans on DVD or Blu-ray, the film adds nothing to the mythos introduced by Cameron in the first two films.
Perhaps due to the Bale Out, there are very few extras on the DVD, and while McG is seen in some Blu-ray exclusive, interactive featurettes, the lack of any participation from cast infers there were a lot of temperaments that adversely affected the film’s pre-release publicity.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan