Movies, like much in life, reinforce the notion that more isn’t always better, just more. For every “Godfather II,” you get “Teen Wolf Too,” “Dumb and Dumberer,” and “Jaws: The Revenge.” With some ideas, better to cut your losses.
That question comes to mind with the new release of “Terminator Salvation.” Has the basic idea worn out its welcome? “The Terminator” came out in 1984 and became a world wide hit that propelled director James Cameron into a distinguished career. Arnold Schwarzenegger graduated from curiosity to movie star.
It’s now a bankable franchise. The basic idea of mechanized death traveling through time to alter the future carried three feature films and a now-canceled TV series. All rework the storyline to emphasize different aspects of a familiar fable. They succeed to varying degrees and set a high bar for whatever follows.
“Terminator Salvation” faces tall tasks in this Smackdown!: Does it succeed as a film on its own merits, while advancing the memorable elements set forth in “The Terminator?” Will you hear “I’ll be back” and wonder why?
The opening credits are pure Terminator, but the first few minutes of “Terminator Salvation” show something else entirely. A convict faces lethal injection at a California prison. A death row visit with Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) convinces Marcus Wright to donate his body to science. We are transported decades into the future and the scorched earth where a few human survivors strive to snatch control from the machines that rule the planet. Within the Resistence, John Connor (Christian Bale) is legendary for punching holes in the self-aware computer system, Skynet. He broods over an audio recording from his long-dead mother and her references to his unknown father, Kyle Reese. Out in the desert Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) reappears with little memory of his past and a big desire to find Skynet. The Resistence finds him first and makes an astounding discovery about Wright that is central to the action. Connor even learns Kyle Reese is a Skynet prisoner. This eventually leads to a big showdown — and since a fifth Terminator film is in preproduction, you can guess how this one plays out.
The Defending Champion
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) leads an unremarkable life in Los Angeles until women with the same name are brutally gunned down. In “The Terminator” she learns the truth before the police: The shooter is a skin-covered robot – a cyborg – sent back in time to kill her. Lucky for Sarah the Resistence sent Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) through the same portal to protect her from the Terminator (Schwarzenegger). Reese draws a bleak picture of the future and how Sarah’s future child – John – holds the key to leading the Resistence to victory. The machines, he explains, figure they can change the future by eliminating Sarah before before John is born. The ensuing chase builds one of the memorable sequences in film, and solidified a franchise still vital after 25 years.
“The Terminator” enjoys an impact far beyond its ambitions. The production spent its $6 million budget well on special effects whiz Stan Winston and the robot that walks like a man, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps the biggest asset is the script Cameron co-wrote with Gale Anne Hurd (with an on screen acknowledgment – following a lawsuit – to sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison). The script gives its characters dimension. The action moves ahead simply, even in presenting a head-scratching paradox (John Connor sending Reese into the past to save the woman and father Connor with her) that is a crucial plot element. Schwarzenegger created a persona that followed the Governator into public life.
The movie offers other lasting pleasures: The synthesized sound track, the Terminator’s grooming habits and that 80’s wardrobe, so dated and frozen in time. This film would never be a fan favorite without its edgy dramatic build and several false endings. “The Terminator” still delivers a quarter century later.
That’s a standard “Terminator Salvation” tries to overwhelm with a production budget estimated at $185 million. It follows the current movie style of being loud, heavily digitized, in your face. The production also carries more than a whiff of “Transformers,” “Aliens,” even “Road Warrior.” To its credit, “T-Salvation” steps out to be its own movie.
Here, we see John Connor fully grown in a ruined world where humans are the endangered species. We see the machines perfecting their capacity to dominate the earth. The tableaux is a nightmare and the stakes are truly life & death. Into this struggle Marcus Wright appears and we learn his critical secret and that of Dr. Kogan. The script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris plays to its strengths and the credits pay homage to the late Stan Winston, who supervised creature effects. And yes, we see the Governator again, in a digital cameo echoing the big payoff from “The Terminator.”
The original does much with relatively little. Can we decide whether the newest version – with its vastly deeper resources – can say the same?
Yes, it can. Like the earlier sequels, “Terminator Salvation” reworks the form
ula effectively to create a separate identity. Part of that can be laid at the director’s chair of Joseph McGinty Nichol, “McG.” This film will remind you of others, perhaps only momentarily.
Don’t expect strict logic in this movie, so leave your sense of disbelief at the ticket counter. Audiences will decide whether those lapses matter.
We’ll learn soon enough if a fifth Terminator movie is worth the bother. This version, “Terminator Salvation,” doesn’t need to outperform the original to survive the SMACKDOWN! It stands apart, yet advances the franchise nicely and earns its place in the DVD library.