There is no denying that The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are two of the most sacred texts in blockbuster sci-fi cinema. Action-packed, R-rated, full of wit (either of the warm or dark variety), incredibly imaginative in their use of special and visual effects, and boasting iconic performances from Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Robert Patrick, they are crown jewels in the filmography of James Cameron.
Unfortunately, the rights to Cameron’s work were not held by its creator, having passed from Hemdale to the producing duo of Mario Kassar and the late Andrew J. Vajna for the second and third Terminator films, and subsequently to The Halcyon Company for the fourth.
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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines may have been greeted with mixed reviews at best and a somewhat lukewarm response from fans, but it did achieve decent box office numbers and gave Schwarzenegger a box office hit with which to leave Hollywood for a while, to go into politics as Governor of California. It meant that when a fourth film in the franchise arrived in 2009, it would be the first to not feature its iconic star in the lead role (although a little touch of CGI would mean that we would see him in some capacity).
While the third film felt lazy and a retread of the second, albeit with a female antagonist, it did score some points for bravely ending on a downbeat note, with John Connor and his future wife Kate being duped into hiding in a bunker while Judgment Day began above them. It also meant that any potential follow up would have no choice but to embrace the future war that had thus far been used fleetingly in either establishing scenes or dream sequences.
John Brancato and Michael Ferris would return from the third film to script the fourth, while Jonathan Nolan and Paul Haggis would do subsequent uncredited rewrites, while McG would become the third director to take the reins of a Terminator film.
While McG had delivered brilliantly staged action in the Charlie’s Angels film series, there was a question of whether or not he could deliver the requisite character and plotting work that had made Cameron’s films such a success. Yes, they were action-packed, but they also had Cameron delivering brilliantly crafted character beats, emotional arcs, and themes that made them more than just robot-on-robot action movies.
Amazingly, the fourth movie was making its way into theatres a few months before Cameron’s long-awaited return with Avatar and even managed to grab its leading actor for a key role here, in the shape of Sam Worthington. In fact, a lot of the casting decisions here seemed to suggest something special, with Christian Bale, Bryce Dallas Howard, Helena Bonham Carter, the late Anton Yelchin, and Michael Ironside in the cast, with Bale having come off working with Christopher Nolan on two wonderful Batman films as well as The Prestige, suggesting that this might be a move back to the storytelling brilliance of films one and two.
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The obvious thing to get out of the way about Terminator Salvation is that it is a better film than Rise of the Machines. It takes the Terminator story in the direction it really needed to go, and for all gripes that many have about Sam Worthington as an actor, he is actually very effective as Marcus Wright throughout the film, even more than Bale is as John Connor who delivers his lines as if he’s still wearing the Batman costume, leaving the audience wanting to offer the actor a throat lozenge. In fact, Bale’s appearance in the film became the source of much notoriety after the public release of an audio recording of him berating director of photography Shane Hurlbut for walking into his eye line during a particularly dramatic scene.
There are issues to be had here. McG’s direction is somewhat glossy with emphasis on action and spectacle. There are some wonderful character moments, but it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t come from Nolan and Haggis’ contributions as opposed to those of Brancato and Ferris, and while it finally gives audiences a chance to spend an entire Terminator film in the confines of the future war, it feels different to what was established so brilliantly in the first two films.
In fact, it feels somewhat glossier than the darkly lit, horrific post-apocalyptic feeling depicted in the dream sequences and flashforwards of the first film. Nothing here comes close to the imagery of children catching rats to eat or watching a small flame flicker in the remains of a busted up television.
It’s a fun, entertaining Hollywood blockbuster featuring robots of all varieties fighting humans, complete with a Schwarzenegger cameo delivered via somewhat mixed levels of CGI. It’s not without entertainment value for sure, but it also leaves one feeling that it should have been a hell of a lot better.