Empty Vessels: Terminator Salvation

[Spoilers, if anyone cares]

I wanted to be a smart-ass and write that, as a cold and heartless film, Terminator Salvation was akin to the killing machines it depicts.   ‘Has McG made a metafilm’ I would offer, hilariously. But that’s the easy way out.

Salvation is foremost an action film. It does give some time to its characters – notably Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright. However, the script and Worthington’s acting abilities mean that there’s little development there. Marcus goes from tough guy to rebel robot but nothing changes about his demeanour. Worthington was actor of the moment when Salvation was cast; he fits the tough guy silhouette, but there’s no nuance to him. He could work well in the Arnie role of cold, detached killer-machine, but as a robot that thinks its human, he doesn’t fit.

As John Connor, Christian Bale fails to find humanity to the role.  Bale is a good actor but never seemed to bring any reality to the role.  Is that his fault, the script’s, or do we put it down to McG failing to get the best out of his talking props?  Or a combination?  Regardless, Bale is disappointing here.

The story sounds good on paper. The robots are delightfully crafty, deceiving Marcus so he would bring John to Skynet while simultaneously feinting so those at resistance HQ reveal their location. But for the film to be engaging and memorable we need at least one interesting character arc.

Who are the people who enjoy blatant references in films? Go on, put your hands up. Okay, now punch yourselves in the face. There must be market research somewhere that suggests viewers would enjoy hearing a teenage Reese saying “Come with me if you want to live” or John saying “I’ll be back”. What is wrong with you people? To me, all these references do is kick to pieces my suspension of disbelief. I’m in this fictional universe, then BAM!, an overtly referential line throws me back out. The only nice throwback moment I noticed (which I think was a reference) was when Marcus fights off the men attacking Blair (Moon Bloodgood). One of them punches Marcus and he turns robotically, Arnie-like, to retaliate. It’s a rare subtle moment in the film and a hint at Marcus’ true nature.

Marcus arrives at a petrol station in the desert, much like the one Sarah stops at in the last scene of T1. My enjoyment of this reference soon gave way to annoyance when a 250ft robot somehow manages to sneak up on a group of resistance fighters. In the middle of a desert. During the day. I accept that in this universe a terminator will sometimes move quietly to give the film drama and surprise, but this was taking it too far.

John very much believes in his destiny as resistance leader (as evidenced by his “Our future’s in Skynet” speech when he intends to save Reese). Yet he’s always willing to put himself in harm’s way and be point man during any battle. The film could’ve addressed these seemingly contradictory aspects of his character, but chose to ignore them.

The ‘Arnie’ scene is another one that shattered the grasp this world had on me. Why even broach uncanny valley territory, with viewers thinking about how much the T-800 does or doesn’t look like him? Apparently if Arnie hadn’t agreed to his likeness being used in the film, John would’ve shot the cyborg’s face before we saw it. That would’ve been a more fun scene as we gradually figured out by the body that this was an early T-800 model. In forgoing subtlety to show the power of CGI the film failed on what could’ve been a cool moment.

I hate the ending of this film. In the middle of a desert, with limited supplies, John’s wife manages to perform a heart transplant. With Marcus’ heart in him, John is already recovering by the time the film ends. In a film about self-aware robots killing humans, this was the most ridiculous part. I get it, Marcus realised he wasn’t human but did the humane thing and saved John’s life, sacrificing himself in the process. And, yes, the man leading a war against robots had his life saved by a robot, and now in has a part of a robot inside him. Blah blah blah. There wasn’t a better way to do this?  We had to end up with a rushed heart transplant in the middle of nowhere with almost no supplies?

Ultimately, Salvation is a passable action film, but underneath the battles and the killer robots there is little of substance. With a script more interested in character development we might’ve had a better Bale. With someone other than Sam we might’ve had an interesting tale of a man realising he’s not as human as he thought.  Salvation isn’t an awful film, but it is a let-down, there’s potential there but it’s all squandered in a mist of bullets and metal.  Without a beating heart Marcus is of little consequence, much like the film itself.

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