The Terminator movies—especially the first two—have stood out in the action genre for their ability to engineer compelling human drama into the captivating action. I'll admit it: I still tear up at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day when Arnold gives a scorched thumbs-up sign to his friend John Connor as he sacrifices himself for humanity.
Furthermore, those films didn't just have a heart under that hyperalloy combat chassis. They also used their sci-fi juxtaposition of humans and robots to probe the human heart: What makes humans different from terminators? What makes them similar? Are humans' fates as programmed as the actions of their robot enemies? Terminators are trained to kill, but why do humans kill?
It's fitting, then, that the first film of the franchise's second trilogy thematically focuses on the heart as the difference between human and machine. Two problems with that: 1) That's about as deep as the thematic exploration goes, and 2) the constant references to this organ is the only heart that Terminator Salvation possesses. I certainly didn't get moved to tears this time. Or laughter—which is sad because of how genuinely joyful the other movies could be. In fact, I'm not sure I felt anything other than awe—and that was reserved for a scene involving a super-cool 80-foot robot. (Robot geeks, wait till you hear the noises this thing makes.)
So, the robots rock. And mostly, so do the special effects—though it's strange that the effects can make a 1991-era Arnold and a colossus robot come to life, but a helicopter crash looks like a cheap flight simulator at a carnival. And the action set pieces—one updating T2's semi vs. motorcycle chase—are pretty tight. That all combines to make this an acceptable summer popcorn flick ride. Many moviegoers will walk out satisfied. As purely a wham-bam standard action piece, director McG (We Are Marshall, Charlie's Angels) delivers.
But I want more from this franchise. With the depth of storytelling in the previous films—and even in the now-cancelled TV show—this is a disappointment. The thrills, scares, and triumphs all feel unearned and cheap. They don't naturally flow from the story. In fact, while talking a lot about the human heart, Terminator Salvation is told in a cold, mechanical fashion with somber, unfeeling efficiency.
We're in a film era of creative, faithful, and successful rebirths of familiar and well-loved franchises. Some films, like Star Trek, do it with joyful abandon and adrenaline. Some, like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, have brought their franchises a greater sense of grist, gravitas, and reality. The completely joyless and largely contrived Terminator Salvation does neither. With the expectations set by these other franchises, this average action film just can't compare. In fact, I'm not sure it really adds much to its own franchise. I remember thinking that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was OK but really was just a necessary passage to get us to the cool stuff—movies featuring the post-apocalyptic nightmare war after 2004's nuclear attack on humanity by Skynet. Now that we're there, this movie, too, feels like it's just biding time until the real story starts.
The movie faithfully continues the storyline of the previous three films. A fast recap: In Terminator, a robot from the future attempts to kill waitress Sarah Connor because her unborn son John Connor will lead a human resistance after a self-aware computer called Skynet nukes humanity in 1997. Ironically, the man sent back in time to protect her, Kyle Reese, ends up impregnating Sarah and fathering John. In T2, a terminator is sent back—this time to kill John as a teen. Sarah and John destroy Skynet and seem to have changed the future. But in T3, we learn they only delayed the nuclear apocalypse to 2004. John and his future wife, Kate, survive the devastating attack inside an old military bunker.
In Terminator Salvation, the dedicated—and even sweetly in love—couple (Christian Bale and Bryce Dallas Howard) live underground amid a post-apocalyptic world that feels like the two Matrix sequels combined with Mad Max. Connor is not the leader of the resistance; he's merely a grunt who does Franklin Roosevelt-like radio broadcasts to aid, encourage, and inspire surviving humans. "If you can hear this, you are the resistance," he says. Many look at him as a prophesied savior. Others call him a false messiah.
Whatever the case, John Connor is not the star of the movie; he's a supporting character. Much of the film revolves around new character Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). The movie begins with what appears to be his lethal injection in a pre-apocalypse prison. The next thing he knows, he wakes up in the nuclear wasteland of the American West. He has no idea how he's there or why. His encounter with a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin)—and the discovery of what happened to him—become key to the future of both the resistance and Connor.
The commercials have revealed that Wright is surprised to discover he's not entirely human. It's obvious this is a plot point ripe for hefty ideas of humanity. It would seem that Connor would have to reconcile his beliefs about humans and machines. But really, he just yells "WHAT ARE YOU?" a few times, mentions that his mom never told him about this kind of thing, and then seems to come to a vague understanding that the difference is the human heart. That's it. The same applies to why the movie has the word salvation in it: It seems to be connected to Marcus' opportunity of a second chance at both life and to do good—but it's a theme that doesn't go very deep.
This glossing over of ideas is par for the course as the movie rockets toward its ending with several coincidences and leaps in story logic. (When we do get some answers, it is through a horribly contrived scene of exposition that made me cringe—and it still didn't make sense.) We don't know why everything happens. It just does—and then stuff explodes.Discussion starters
- How do you interpret the film's talk about the heart? How does the heart make humans different from machines? What, to you, does the idea of "the heart" symbolize?
- What does it mean to "stay alive" in your mind? How about in your heart? When Reese says this, what do you think he's referring to?
- What is the movie trying to communicate regarding Wright's second chance? Why does he seem so resistant to the idea of a second chance?
- Connor makes a good point regarding the resistance's attack plan. What makes the plan similar to how machines fight? What would make a human's war methods different? Why do you think others listened to John's instruction over orders?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Terminator Salvation is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language. The movie is, for the most part, kinder and gentler than its predecessors in terms of blood, gore, violence, and language. There are still several uses of profanity, including taking the Lord's name in vain.
Photos © The Halcyon Company
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.