Here in the wonderful Land of Oz we had to wait a week longer than our North American cousins for the premier of McG’s Terminator: Salvation and all’n’all it’s been a week of bad reviews. When checked last, the Tomato-metre on Rotten Tomatoes shows that only 34% of reviews for the movie have been positive. Given that the abysmal Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines somehow rates 70%, our expectations for T4 plummeted over the week.
Anyway, we saw it last night and I’m forced to conclude that either I operate on a very different wavelength to the 66% of my fellow reviewers who found it boring, dull and dumb, catastrophically bad, inconsequential, stupefying and beyond salvation, fit only as “light entertainment for small boys, and others with an uncritical love for big, violent machines” or I’m someone with an uncritical love for big, violent machines.
Ok, I admit it, I do like big, violent machines, but if I’m uncritical, I sure managed to fool a lot of people on my way to the top of the academic mole hill. Assuming then that I’m not a moron (as some reviewers believe anyone who likes this movie must be) and that I do have some proven credentials as a critic, it’s necessary to consider some alternative reasons for why 66% of reviewers dislike Terminator: Salvation.
So here goes. Perhaps the movie’s thrilling visual overload (and sometimes confusing camera work) induced a terrifying flashback to some other movie (T3 perhaps?); perhaps many reviewers had pre-judged T4 (no doubt fuelled by Christian Bale’s widely publicised dummy spit on the movie set)? Perhaps they simply don’t like genre movies or they’re criticising T4 for failing to be something it was never intended to be? Although the best science fiction combines great ideas alongside great characterisation, great characterisation is not a pre-requisite for great science fiction. If you want a fine-dining experience, you don’t go to McD’s; by the same token, if you want character driven drama go watch a Merchant Ivory production, don’t watch McG’s!
Of all the possible reasons for the negative press however, the one I find most plausible is that the vast majority of reviewers are now so used to reboots, remakes, reinvigorations, re-imaginings and a host of other Hollywood excuses for rehashing old material that they are incapable of judging a movie that doesn’t meet their expectations. This is the only way I can explain why T4 has a paltry 34% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and J.J. Abram’s reboot of Star Trek rates an incredible 80%. I’m the first to admit that Star Trek was a hugely entertaining movie, an outstanding cinematic thrill. But the holes in its plot and the incredible coincidences necessary to hold the plot together are frankly an insult to the intelligence of the audience and to the memory of Gene Roddenberry. Abrams’ Star Trek is a movie that entertains brilliantly in the moment, but like fast food it fails to sustain the consumer. As the thrill of the Star Trek moment fades from memory, the movie is frankly forgettable.
For all its flaws, and it has many, this is not the case with T4, as I hope to show.
So to conclude my critique of my fellow critics, the one concept they seem to be struggling with is re-invention. T4 is something new in the Terminator franchise. Like the very best sequels, T4 takes a risk and gives its expectant audience something different from what they’ve had before: it moves into uncharted territory. In short it reinvents the franchise. Instead of a classic science fiction movie (Terminator) or a heart-pounding action thrill ride (Terminator: Judgement Day); Terminator: Salvation is first and foremost a futuristic war movie. And if you accept that, then other criticisms, such as its lack of humour, fall away: given the brutal context, there’s really not much scope for belly laughs. Having said that, there is fun to be had in the movie’s over the top action.
Terminator: Salvation is set in a post-apocalyptic 2018; Judgement Day has come and gone and the machines under Skynet have all but wiped out humanity; all that remain are scattered remnants, a resistance in its infancy. In the wonderful logic that only science fiction allows, T4 is in fact a prequel to James Cameron’s groundbreaking Terminator in which John Connor sends Kyle Reese back through time to protect his mother and become his father. In T4 the adult John Connor (a dour Christian Bale) has not yet met his teenage father-to-be, and must find and protect him in order to ensure his own, and humanity’s survival.
But John Connor is not in fact the central character in this chapter of the Terminator story. That position is held by Marcus Wright (played by a show stealing Sam Worthington), who we encounter in the opening scenes set in 2003; Wright is a convicted murderer about to be executed and convinced to donate his body to science (read Skynet). We meet him again in 2018 wandering naked in the mud and ruins following a failed mission by Connor’s forces. It’s clear immediately that he’s not human, but what is he? In answering that question, the movie earns and warrants its SF credentials.
Now for why I believe T4 is a more satisfying experience than, say, Abram’s Star Trek: it leaves us with questions and provides fuel for thought. (WARNING: some spoilers ahead!) Here’s one example. It’s a curious fact that there’s much talk and dispute about the role played by time travel in T4. Many are convinced that it plays no part, but that really doesn’t stand up to any serious analysis (although I’ll admit this may be due to poor scripting!). For one thing, Skynet is seeking Kyle Reese, which would make little sense unless it was intent on stopping him going back in time and fathering John Connor, the leader of the human resistance. But more than just the possibility of time travel takes place I think, and it’s not the mistaken belief of some that Marcus Wright is a cyborg sent back in time to 2003. Although it’s unclear exactly what is going on with Marcus I believe there’s evidence (perhaps unintentional on the part of the filmmakers) that he was sent back in time, though not to 2003 when we first encounter his human self, but back to 2018 from some unspecified future date. Consider that when we first encounter him in 2018 he is wandering naked in the wilderness, and if there’s one thing emphasised time and again in the previous movies it’s that humanoids travel naked through time. Some argue that he emerged from the devastation following Connor’s failed mission into machine territory, but this is unconvincing for a number of reasons, not least that he is unscathed by what appears to have been a nuclear explosion, which, in any case, is more likely to deactivate rather than activate a cyborg.
But if more evidence is required, consider that Marcus is something unique and more sophisticated than any other cyborg in existence in 2018.
More than anything however he represents a fatal flaw in Skynet’s understanding of its enemy: humanity. As much human as machine, Skynet believes it has created in Marcus the ultimate infiltration unit using the ideal physical material: the body and mind of a convicted murderer. But for all its genius, Skynet cannot calculate the human spirit. And if T4 is a celebration of anything it is that, the human spirit, and the capacity for atonement and self-sacrifice, qualities the machine simply cannot comprehend.
In the end, if we were still providing a rating out of 100, I’d rate Terminator: Salvation 70/100. It’s not great, but it is good, and it does not deserve the near-universal panning it has received.
So, if you agree with the 66% of critics who disliked this movie, let us know why I’m wrong. If you liked the movie, let us know why.