Terminator Salvation – Spoilers

August 6, 2012

First of all, the plot, on reflection, I simply do not understand. The purpose of the cyborg Marcus was to lure John Connor to a Skynet base? Okay, apart from the basic coincidences and unlikely scenarios in that equation – of which, I feel, there are many. MANY. But still, apart from those: there are still at least three central problems with that, unless I am missing something:

1. The only reason John Connor follows Marcus to the Skynet base is because Kyle Reese is there. The only reason he knows Kyle Reese is there is because Marcus found Kyle in Los Angeles. If that was supposed to be Marcus’ programming, if that wasn’t coincidence, why didn’t Skynet just capture Kyle? It isn’t the element of surprise – they’ve already played their hand that they know who Kyle is by putting him on that kill list. So either the plan was for Marcus to randomly find Kyle and bring him to them OR he was programmed to find him and bring him to Skynet by the most dangerous and roundabout route possible.

2. The plan was to get John to a Skynet base to be killed. Okay. Not quite clear why he had to go to Skynet base – they don’t seem to have any intent to harvest his body and memories to turn him into an anti-Resistance hope-killer cyborg, like Marcus. That would make sense, but they never imply they are going to do it. But okay – he has to be gotten to a Skynet base, where he can be killed. The film STARTS with John Connor in a Skynet base that explodes – exploding exactly after he leaves it. They know he is there, the base is disposable to them and packed with Terminators. When he arrives at the base later? They send one Terminator. They don’t even give it a gun.

3. Finally – Okay, why kill John Connor? Why is he important? For a start, you literally have his father in your posession. The whole plot of the first movie was that you thought it was a good idea to kill his mother before John was even conceived, and, even if that failed then, this film takes place before the time travel of the first film, so you clearly think that is how time travel works. Why not kill Kyle, right then? I don’t know how you know who Kyle is, given that the events of the first film haven’t happened yet, but, if I’m to buy into your bullroar, this is the setup. Also, why kill John Connor anyway? In this universe, HE IS A USELESS IDIOT.

Let me expand on that.

We’re supposed to like Marcus. We, generally, do like Marcus. He is the amnesiac atoner wandering the post apocalyptic wasteland with a grab bag of extremely useful skills, extreme martial prowess and everyone wants on his team within moments of meeting him. He has all of the Terminator’s strengths, few of their weaknesses, and he is on our side. He is Jason Bourne meets Wolverine meets Tallahasse meets Blade meets Roland Deschain. He is, in short, the everyman mixed with male fantasy incarnate, the summation of that famous Snow Crash quote. It is so easy for one to place one’s self in his carefully vague heroic archetype. Also, he is the cyborg who silently desires to be human again which, like any Pinnochio-plot, flatters our vanity as humans as the aspired-to species. Sorta like how we like Ariel in Little Mermaid. Yeah, I went there.

In fact, why is Marcus a pre-apocalypse convict who gave his body to science? There are hundreds of captive humans ready to be experimented upon. Humans who people recognise, who have memories of key Resistance personnel, of this post-apocalyptic wasteland. Is it so things can be explained to Marcus? I think a whole-body brain transplant would explain amnesia. If you wanted him to be able to redeem himself, you could still have him be a survivor who made cold decisions prior to cyberisation. I honestly do not understand this motivation except that we could not like Marcus if he wasn’t from our period.

We even like his scrappy band. We like them less than Marcus, and they are rife with the worst type of stereotypes, but compared to Team Connor, they’re brilliant. We like Kyle because this is an origin story for him, and seeing his character grow knowing where it’ll go and his bittersweet ending. We like Star. Yes, she is the magical African-American mute, who lost her voice and gained a machine-sensing ability in her trauma. But the actor gives it her all, and she is rocking that sheriff’s star hat.

We even like Blair, who has perfect makeup and long flowing hair after a plane crash, who apparently can only walk a mile in uninhabited wasteland before her character is obligated to be a victim of attempted rape and to be rescued. Blair, who turns on the Resistance on a dime for a cyborg whose very nature implies dissimulation, and who gets really boring after she is recaptured.

Apparently McG cut a topless scene with her in the final edit, and believes that this makes a strong female character. A strong female character in Terminator is Linda Hamilton doing one-arm pull-ups and putting on the muscle. A strong female character is Sarah Connor using an attempted molestation to escape the psych ward. Blair Williams is not this. But yeah, we like her, compared to …

Team Connor: Kate Connor; This is the same character from Rise of the Machines. She is also Connor’s wife. I totally missed the former and barely picked up on the latter. I honestly … have nothing here. She exposits a bit about what Marcus is, and she has to do that transplant at the end, but I honestly felt nothing from her regarding her experiences with these machines, I felt nothing between these two romantically, and I felt nothing regarding her continued presence in the film. I honestly don’t know why they returned this character, beyond a continuity cameo, if they had absolutely nothing for her, for these actors to work with.

Then there is Barnes. He is Connor’s right hand man. We know this because John tells him to do stuff. Also, he lost his brother to Skynet at the start of the film, so, clearly, he is best person to leave with the captured cyborg. So he can torture it. Again, he has nothing else. Then there is Michael Ironside’s Head-of-the-Resistance character. We know he is supposed to be totally unreasonable because he doesn’t love John Connor. Still, the plot steam rolls right over that by having him tell John anything John wants to know, and not really trying to stop John when John does anything the Resistance does not want John to do.

I am sorry, I am truly sorry. I am being sarcastic here, and that isn’t really fair to the fans of this film and this franchise. But this the fourth rewrite of the last two paragraphs I’ve tried to write and that is all that is coming out. I really, really dislike how inelegantly they’re trying to manipulate me into cheering for these cardboard cutouts called the Resistance. And, as we come to John Connor himself, it only gets worse.

Christian Bale has proven, through his work with Christopher Nolan and others, that he is one of the finest damn all-round actors around. Drama, action, romance or tragedy, mystery, science fiction, crime or thriller – Bale can do it, and he can make it look effortless. I believe him, no matter what he does. So, I want to be clear that that is entirely separate from I’m talking about here. Here, in Terminator Salvation, Bale is trying, but has scant-to-nothing to work with. Y’know that male fantasy I spoke about regarding Marcus? John Connor is when that fantasy is fulfilled by a very basically unsympathetic character. Wesley Gibson in Wanted.

John Connor is the foretold son of the uprising, the destined leader of the Revolution. And he knows this. And everyone who gives HIM orders? That person is jealous, uninformed or shortly proven wrong – often in a way that John had no certain way to be right about. John has orders in a Skynet base – okay, but he has to look up this stuff first. He gets extracted from the destroyed base? Well, he has to be debriefed by Resistance command themselves, and he’ll jump out of a carrier and make them take him on board, even though the whole plot eventually centres around the risk posed to command if their base is discovered. Sometimes a film about a hero before he is a hero plays up how inadequate he or she is – Terminator, for example. This wasn’t that. This is assuming we all feel that John is the saviour of humanity. By his own admission, Skynet has outstripped where they were, technologically, when John was still relevant in the timestream. This version of John has been made redundant from destiny, and he still going on regardless.

And it goes on like that. Everyone who doesn’t worship the legend of Connor is wrong and everyone else worships him beyond reason. Even the radio transmissions are self indulgent. Firstly, again, the whole plot of the film eventually revolves around Resistance bases being tracked down by broadcasts. If Skynet wants to kill him, target that base when he broadcasts. Secondly, he may say that he is making everyone the Resistance, but he isn’t. He is making himself the voice and the story of the Resistance, and arbiter of who is and who is not Resistance. He doesn’t tell the stories of all the unsung heroes of the Resistance that he has known, and how you can be like them too – he talks about he knows about the machines and about he was always right about them and the fact that they’re going to make humaniform Terminators.

So, when he says for the Resistance fighters to hold off, he doesn’t do so because he doesn’t think the signal will work, or because he is that concerned about the human hostages (that isn’t what seals his decision) but because his dad, and therefore himself, is at risk. And, therefore, the itself Resistance is at risk. Forget the fact that he could be working on info from a cyborg who could have easily, easily, could have been programmed to lie about Kyle’s existence, location, and continued being-alive-ness. Forget the self-indulgent strategy of going in by himself, trailing after Marcus, which works because this is a trap, more than anything else. Forget even what the escape plan was supposed to be. This is John Connor being essential to everything and everything and everyone else radiating outwards from that premise. And it doesn’t sell it.

Apparently this was supposed to end with John Connor’s flesh being grafted onto Marcus’ metal skeleton, continuing the myth, and that it was changed after fan outcry after a leak. In terms of PR I think if this had been made after Avatar’s release, with the added cache of Sam Worthington’s name, it might have changed the game. Still, that, in execution, is too heavy-handed. The film made the point that most people knew Connor by his voice. We know vocal reproduction is well within the range of some Terminators. Marcus takes on John’s voice. Easy-peasey. Still wouldn’t have made this film great. They would really have to dig into the plot of this film to fix it. Essentially? I have no clue of, no door into who John Connor is and what he is to others. I see worship and command and enmity, but I don’t see what it is built around. Pricking the mystique of who John Connor is, a central mystery to the first film’s temporally immacculate conception of the future’s hero, required a great plot to justify. This was not that plot. This was pretty tepid.

I think the central failure is that this is a movie set in a war for humanity’s survival, but this is not a war movie. This is an action movie. It isn’t on the scale of a war, it doesn’t have the stakes of a war and it doesn’t have the cast of a war. This film rotates around two characters who decide everything. This is supposed to be a world resistance; I am struggling to think of a scene where more than five people speak. Skynet central looks to be about the size of factory, and is a day-or-two’s travel from a resistance base. If this was supposed to evoke something bigger than World War II, it utterly failed. If WII was on this scale the whole Axis-Allies conflict would have take place in North America, and Winston Churchill, in Downing Street, could have mooned Adolf Hitler across the road in the Reichstag. Kill Resistance command? You could do it while boiling an egg – twice. No military strategy, no corps camaraderie, no exploration of resource issues, no exploration of population issues, no battles, no surgical strikes, no training, no damn casualties that mean anything. And yet the action movie plot doesn’t satisfy either. Resistance can’t win because the war can’t be over before a Terminator is sent back in time – we know this, so there can be no tension, in either the Resistance’s possibility of success or in the possibility of their total destruction. Because neither side has an achievable goal, neither can win out over the destiny of John Connor.

Also: nobody is smart. Everyone is an idiot, not just John. Resistance Command: apart from all my other criticisms; don’t broadcast the kill signal from your location. You apparently have many transmitters, given DJ Connor’s broadcasts. Skynet: apart from all my other criticisms; don’t make the control chip on your cyborg easily removable from the base of his skull. Resistance fighters: John Connor has been telling you for years about how Skynet will create robots that can impersonate humans. You know what you don’t do? You don’t follow the easily fakeable voice on the radio telling you to stand down when your superiors are telling you that you have one chance to end this war. Skynet and Resistance seem to have survived through mutual incompetence rather than competing brilliance. In terms of Michael Ironside battle-mentors, Starship Troopers outranks Terminator Salvation.

Finally: The reason I think this film is so wedded to being an action movie rather than a war movie is because that was what the original Terminators were. This outing has fundamentally changed the makeup of the classic Terminator attempt to stop Judgement Day by having had Judgement Day occur – but it still wants to use the same format as those films for a fundamentally different, dissonant story. If it wanted to create a new trilogy that side of Judgement Day, a trilogy where John Connor’s mystique is carefully unpacked, then they needed to choose a different format than befriend-a-stranger-against-Terminators, have a fight in a factory, blow up a thingy. That, and the references. They spent time putting a Terminator guarding a human in a truck evading a Terminator on a motorbike because it was the reverse of the scene in the second movie. They spent time saying ‘Come with me if you want to live’ and ‘I’ll be back’ for reference value alone. They spent time putting in a naked CGI Arnold trying to kill a Connor to refer to the first film. And then they game the reference by having it functional after doused in molten lava. ‘Cause it is serious now!

And, quite frankly, Skynet forces were only mildly visually interesting. Arrested in the Terminator model as ultimate predator, all we get are a few variations on motorcycles, troop carriers, insects and giant Terminators as a supposedly scary scale of Skynet warfare.

Like the Matrix sequels, the inability to change format when the story revealed a larger theatre of human involvement, instead continuing with an individual’s destiny and decision themes in a film where we’re all supposed to be at war against the machines and not a moment of it feels convincing due to out-of-place repetitions of and winking references to previous films which had fundamental story differences to this sequel. Who knows – maybe this timeline will be erased too?