This Is John Connor, Not That Anyone Cares
After the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (a film that proved to be a moderate success that no one cared about soon after it left the Box Office) the decision had to be made as to where to take the franchise moving forward. If the thrilling chase motif were to be maintained then, due to the ending of the third film, that movie would have to be ignored. That's the direction Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles went with the franchise, but after a propulsive start that series failed to light the world on first. It's easy to understand the decisions behind Terminator: Salvation, then: keep the cool machines but ditch most of the trappings of the franchise to create something new. And, interestingly, it almost works.
That's not to say that Salvation is somehow a good movie. Far from it, in fact, as this fourth film in the franchise pretty spectacularly misses the mark. But, deep down, there's a version of the film that works if only everyone on board could have actually produced it. Somewhere along the way, though, the film lost its footing, and I honestly think all the blame lies at the feet of John Connor.
The film starts off well enough. The opening scenes are set before Judgment Day (the version of the event presumably depicted in the third film) where we're introduced to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death row convict looking at his last days on Earth. Dr. Serena Kogan (a clearly slumming it Helena Bonham Carter), a representative of Cyberdyne, convinces Marcus to donate his body to science. And then, like that, he's killed by lethal injection. Except, years later, long after the fall, he wakes up in an underground base, digs himself free, and has to learn all about the war between man and the machines. On his wanderings he meets up with a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a teenage warrior surviving in the wastes (John Connor's future-dad). Eventually these travelers are attacked by the machines. Reese is captured and taken prisoner by a giant, mechanized prison transport, leaving Marcus to try and find a way to save the boy.
This then puts him on a path to find the Resistance, lead by John Connor (Christian Bale). However, a new problem soon arises: Marcus isn't human, but a human/machine hybrid (not that he knew), and the resistance doesn't trust him at all. He has to gain their trust and find a way to infiltrate the big SkyNet base where Reese is being held. Meanwhile, Connor has to decide if trusting the machine is a risk he can take, especially since the fate of his future (and that of the resistance) is now on the line.
The film is really broken into two halves. On one side we have Marcus's quest for redemption in this future hellscape. His attempts to save Kyle are so he doesn't feel so terrible about all the decisions he made in his own life. The fact that he's back from the dead is another sin on his mind, and following his path from murderer to hero is a solid through-line for the movie. While I don't think Worthington is the best actor, he at least gets into the role of Marcus well enough that his character is believable.
The other half of the film, though, totally betrays the movie and all the good work Worthington does on his end. The big issue is that John Connor just isn't an interesting character and his story takes up half the movie. We already know from the previous films that John is going to lead the resistance once day but Salvation insists on showing us in the middle of his military career when the Resistance high command clearly doesn't trust him and doesn't want to promote him. It's like the movie is saying, "hey, maybe he doesn't become the big leader of the human military," only to then do everything it can to show how it's a foregone conclusion. There's no build up to him taking over and no catharsis when it happens. One minute the high command doesn't trust him and then next they're all wiped out by the machines and John is the leader by default. It's simply not a great story.
But then Connor himself isn't a great character, either in performance or writing. Christian Bale can be a great actor, but when it comes to genre work he often seems disinterested at best. His Bruce Wayne is one of the best of the BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. series but, honestly, any time he had to put on the cape-and-cowl he lost the role. That seems to be the same problem here in that he just couldn't invest in this sci-fi folk hero he's supposed to be playing. He's good in the quiet moments, but heroic bombast seems to be beyond Bale. Not that he's given anything more than cliches to say, to be fair, but an actor more invested in the role could at least have made the schlock sound good (such as Bill Pullman in the craptacular Independence Day).
It's not just the John Connor story that falls apart, though. The whole third act is all based around the idea that the machines captured Kyle Reese to lure John Connor out; Reese, in essence, is bait for a trap. The problem is that this requires the machines to (a) know that Kyle Reese is Connor's future-dad and (b) know exactly what Kyle Reese looks like so they know who they've captured (two details the movie plays like its nothing). If you remember from the first Terminator, though, the machines don't have complete records of anything which is why the machine sent back in that movie has to kill every woman with the name Sarah Connor since all the machines have is a name. The machines likely wouldn't know what Kyle Reese (an random kid of no importance up until then) looks like if they also don't know what Sarah Connor (a woman famous for her crimes who also spent years in a mental institution) looked like.
Moreover, though, there is never any record of Kyle Reese. Not in his existence in the distant past (where he arrived before he was even born) nor as John Connor's father. Without that key detail (something both Sarah and John have been keen to keep secret from just about everyone) how would the machines know to use Kyle Reese as bait for John? It doesn't make any logical sense and causes the entire last act of the film to fall apart.
Not that the last act would have been great regardless. Up until this point the machines have been shown putting their advanced technology to good use. Freed of the constraint of having to send everything through time wrapped in skin-suits, Terminator: Salvation really gets to explore all the various machines that SkyNet could create. Giant mechs and huge floating ships are shown prominently, but even some small vehicles, like terminator-motorbikes (which are actually pretty cool) get their due. These are all great twists on future tech and I really dug what the movie was doing. Except then, in the last act, the film feels the need to revisit the past by having John Connor fight another Arnie-looking T-800. The film regresses, giving us one of the least interesting robots for John to fight also so it can shoehorn in the Governator one extra time.
This fight is a terrible climax for the film. The machine up until now had been shown using high explosives and laser weapons, taking the humans out with ease in one-on-one encounter. Having a weaponless, naked T-800 take on John after all that is a let down, and that's not even taking into account the fact that the T-800 is absolutely terrible at his job. Time and again he has Connor pinned down, his hands wrapped around the human's appendages, and instead of breaking any bones or (more efficiently) just snapping the dude's neck, the terminator insists on throwing him around. Time and again he picks up the human and then throws him as if this is the most effective way to kill the guy. Even just the act of stepping on the human's ribcage and pushing down would have been more effective than the stupid wrestling moves the machine relied on. It's tedious, and stupid, and makes no sense.
Which, really, is probably the most effective set of descriptors for Terminator: Salvation. The movie starts of strong and then gets pretty tedious the more it shifts its focus from Marcus over to Connor. Considering all the logic leaps it makes, giving the machines more knowledge than they should ever have, it's easily one of the dumbest movies in the series. And for all it's lofty ideas of time-bent machinations, human/machine hybrids, and advanced systems that clearly required multiple time loops to setup, the movie doesn't explore any of these ideas in a satisfying way, leading to a whole lot of setup that makes no sense and goes nowhere.
Supposedly Salvation was going to be the start of a trilogy of future-set movies for the series. If that was really the case then I'm glad this film did as poorly as it did at the Box Office. It's a huge waste of potential, a good opening act squandered by bad decisions and terrible casting. We should all be happy it didn't lead to more films in the franchise. And that's a sentiment I'll reiterate for the next film as well...