Released in 2009, Salvation arrived six years after the previous entry, 2003’s Terminator: Rise of The Machines which had performed well at the box office but struggled to match the critical success of director and writer James Cameron’s The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Salvation was the first film not to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger in a leading role following his self-imposed retirement due to his involvement in politics. The other main deviation from the established formula of previous Terminator films is that Salvation finally moves to a time which features the war between the human race and the machines. We had been shown glimpses in the previous films but only as set-up to the ongoing cat and mouse with Skynet’s attempts to prevent John Connor from becoming the AI’s fate.
Salvation brings John Connor to the fore. Until Salvation, he was a character who we had only encountered in his youth, with the prospective time-line being based on his involvement at some future date. The character was the perfect MacGuffin, the use of his very name in the first film brought images of a hero to mind without requiring the evidence to back it up. So there was real excitement to finally witness the fully rounded version of the character who had encountered as a teen in T2, and a young activist in T3. How exactly did John Connor become the leader of the rebellion, and the one person that Skynet would be so determined to be rid of?
Unfortunately we never really find out. Christian Bale took a break after the high of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight to bring life to Connor and he does it in full on gruff Batman-voice mode. The character plays at odds with his superiors throughout the film, and as a result, he is hard to like or admire. Having watched Bale play this part many times, it makes you wonder if the role changed to match the casting, or even if Bale would have more suited in the Terminator role.
Instead Sam Worthington steps into the titular role, replacing Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. This film was released at a time Hollywood was convinced that Worthington was the lead actor to cast in mainstream blockbusters following his success with Avatar despite a complete and utter lack of charisma. He’s is bland and forgettable in a film where his role as a partly human cyborg depends on finding a blend between the original steely eyed determinism of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator with a more human element. He is given plenty of screen-time and the film drags with every minute of it as we follow him on his road to the salvation of the title, uniting the warring factions of the rebellion against his creators.
McG steps into the director’s chair replacing Jonathan Mostow, and while neither are a match for Cameron in terms of spectacle, he does a fairly serviceable job. The film has a grainy, dusty look to it which fits in with the state of the world post-Judgment Day. He is a fairly easy target for derision but to be fair, if you hire MrG in the first place, you know what you are getting.
As a sequel, the film continues the established timeline of the previous films. The world is in disarray as bands of rebels fight against machines of various terrifying kinds. Giant robots, flying robots, every kind of robot you can imagine. The genius of the initial Terminator films was not showing too much of the future. Star Wars did the same thing by referencing the Clone Wars, without needing to show them. There is real drama in expectation, just allowing an image to gestate in the minds of audiences, that millions of dollars’ worth of CGI will never be able to match onscreen.
Schwarzenegger does eventually appear in the film albeit through the use of CGI and the film picks up with his small cameo. Arnie gave the film his blessing upon release, proclaiming that it was “a great film.” He has since readjusted his opinion to confirm that it “sucked” so perhaps we shouldn’t place as much faith in his opinion as we do his acting talents. In truth, it’s watchable in that it’s loud and there is never five minutes without an action scene around the corner. It’s also too busy for its own good. Robots jump out of the ground, they crawl round corners, and they grab people’s feet. If anything, there is too much on show in terms of the animated adversaries. But with Schwarzenegger’s iconic original, it never really feels like a Terminator film.
It’s not that film is bad, it’s not, but that’s not to say it’s in any way a good film. It’s just ultimately pointless. It doesn’t take the audience anywhere into the mythology of the story when it has the entire canvas to paint on. It’s obvious to see that they intended to take the film forward with follow-ups, as it finishes on such an uneventful note, but when viewed alone in hindsight, it leaves an audience disinterested. It was always going to be a hard sell following on from such high-points as the first two films, and it’s brave that they did at least attempt to find their own path. Ultimately, it’s a justified point at which the entire series deserved to be terminated.