The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The Peril of Pinging Pleasure Centers: Terminator Salvation

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

McG's return to the universe James Cameron created isn't bad, but is it just a bunch of clever references?


ImageI think Terminator Salvation is a worthy addition to the venerable sci-fi franchise, although it’s plagued with bewildering plot holes and peppered with enough shout-outs to the original movies to make me wonder if modern filmmakers think everyone from my generation is trained to start drooling when they see a cultural reference.

McG’s brawny war movie follows two storylines:

In storyline A, a convicted killer (Sam Worthington) is executed in the modern era and wakes up in the post-Judgment Day era to find that he’s a new, more advanced breed of terminator.

In storyline B, human resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) learns that the evil computer system Skynet has targeted his future father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). The killer from storyline A holds the key to Reese’s location.

There’s a lot to praise here. Bale delivers another flinty, intense performance that shows off how much preparation he put into another pop-culture icon, and I appreciate how seriously he takes roles like Batman and Connor, even if he might lose perspective on set.

I also appreciate how seriously director McG took this movie. In interviews leading up to this movie’s release, he sounded like he had a lot to prove, and for my money, he earned his stripes as a compelling orchestrator of mayhem. Salvation features several extended-shot sequences, including one memorable scene shot over Bale’s shoulder as he tries to make an emergency exit in a helicopter only to get shot down.

Furthermore, McG went back to the gritty core of the Terminator experience, starting with his opening credit sequence, which reproduced the original movie’s opening credits almost verbatim. As in part 1, the movie’s title slowly creeps by in the background as computerized text lists the principal players.

But here’s the thing: As much as I liked seeing the original opening credits reproduced with such fidelity, it sent up a red flag, because I’ve seen this done before, specifically in Bryan Singer’s flop of a superhero epic, Superman Returns. It took me a long time to figure out that Singer’s movie is a failure, and I invite you to read my original “positive” review, in which I say the movie’s good while spending the whole review dissecting everything it does wrong.

To wit, let’s check out the opening credits to Singer’s movie:

Make no mistake: Those opening credits fooled me into liking this movie for a long time.

I’ve discussed ideas like this around this site before, but let me review: I like it when movies or TV shows pay homage to the original mythology laid down in a franchise. It’s not only respectful and satisfying, but it can lead a filmmaker to make some pretty great entertainment. On the flip side is Superman Returns, which aims to reproduce the experience of Richard Donner’s classic movie – and fails.

McG certainly doesn’t fall into this trap. He’s dealing with an entirely different cinematic landscape than Cameron was in his original movie, but all the same, McG takes care to spoon-feed images from the original movies that fans will eat up, such as:

• Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor, who we hear on a series of tapes that she left for John. Fans will remember Sarah recording the first of these tapes at the end of part 1. McG’s movie is the first to refer back to them.

• John Connor uses a boombox to lure a terminator to its destruction. The boombox is playing the Guns ‘n’ Roses track “You Could Be Mine,” which the young Connor was listening to in part 2. It’s probably the same damn boombox.

• The movie’s climax plays out in a terminator manufacturing plant, echoing the industrial climaxes of parts 1 and 2.

• And the kicker: A fully digitized Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to do battle with John Connor. For the record, it’s an astonishing effect and easily the most impressive use of this kind of movie magic I’ve seen.

Don’t get me wrong – all of this stuff made me smile, but I suspected that McG and his creative team were merely pinging a pleasure center in my brain to distract from the movie’s shortcomings. To that end, I redoubled my efforts to notice what this movie does wrong. Here goes:

I could see the vestiges of an older script. The filmmakers spoke openly about the original drafts of the script, which focused on Worthington’s character and only featured John Connor briefly. When Bale got involved, he worked with the filmmakers to expand Connor’s role.

Now, I think Bale was right to lobby for a larger role for Connor. I love the idea of a Terminator movie that uses Connor in the background, but frankly, it sounds like an arthouse movie – the kind of creative, daring Terminator movie a film student might conjure up to get noticed. I’m not sure if it would work on a mass scale.

But when I watched Worthington’s character, I sensed the absence of a lot of connective tissue from his storyline. He begins the movie on death row and ends it by donating his heart to John Connor. That’s a great arc for a character, but we didn’t get to see it.

Skynet’s plan didn’t make any damn sense. As in all of the previous movies, Skynet continues its war against the Connor lineage by targeting John’s father, Kyle Reese. Fair enough. But Skynet succeeds in capturing Reese early on – and they never kill him. It turns out that they’re using Reese (and the Worthington character) to lure Connor into Skynet City to kill him.

OK, buckle your seat belts, because I’m about to go from zero to geek: I always figured that once Judgment Day passed, Skynet’s primary target would cease to be John Connor. If that’s not the case – if Connor remains their main prize because he’ll lead humanity to victory no matter what – that’s fine, but why wouldn’t they kill Kyle Reese as soon as they captured him? Wouldn’t that wipe Connor from the timeline retroactively?

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me offer more praise:

If Sam Worthington’s the next big thing, we could do a lot worse. I can only presume that his commanding performance at the center of a big action franchise will guarantee the presence of his name on marquees for years to come. Fine by me.

I admired the hell out of this movie’s level of invention. I loved the giant human-harvesting terminator and the whole action scene centered around Worthington’s escape from it. The sound design radiated menace with an everpresent mechanical whine from the bowels of the giant machine, which also commanded a fleet of motorcycle terminators. Great stuff.

More important was Worthington’s character – a human that Skynet had transformed into a terminator. In three movies and two seasons of the wildly inventive TV series, we hadn’t seen a terminator like this, and it made a dark kind of sense that Skynet, in its desperation, would risk building one of its operatives around a CPU – the human brain – it hadn’t originally built.

That’s all I’ve got. I’m still digesting this one. I look forward to seeing how this movie ages, and I invite everyone to kick my ass in the forums.