Salvaging Salvation

Because Terminator Salvation Is Not the Failure That Critics and Fan Boys Proclaim

The first time I watched Terminator Salvation (2009) was the fall it was released on DVD. But I didn’t buy it on DVD – I streamed a grainy bootleg from my PS3 onto a cathode-ray tube TV. During that viewing, I sat upright in my bed, straining to make out every scene – not just because of the bootleg’s poor quality, but because I thought it was a damn good movie that demanded my attention. I’m not a Terminator fan boy though, and I soon forgot about the film and went on with my life, eventually investing in a flat screen.

Move four years into the future. It’s 2013. I found a portion of my summer’s extra-curricular studies analyzing science fiction novels and films for philosophical and social commentary. So in other words, I watched a lot of Star Trek. It was, however, while reading “The Second Variety” back to back with “Imposter” in Philip K. Dick’s Collected Short Stories that I recalled the fourth entry in The Terminator film franchise. All these stories share settings of post-apocalyptic futures where killer machines disguised as humans are, themselves, unaware of their artificiality. So I gave Salvation another watch, and, like Butters after watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I find myself in the minority, saying, “I thought it was pretty good!”

I say the minority because Terminator Salvation currently holds a 33% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes [i]. In his two-star review of Salvation, Roger Ebert complained that “One of Hollywood's oldest axioms teaches us: The story comes first. Watching ‘Terminator Salvation,’ it occurred to me that in the new Hollywood, the storyboard comes first. After scrutinizing the film, I offer you my summary of the story: Guy dies, finds himself resurrected, meets others, fights. That lasts for almost two hours” [ii].

It’s from this kind of review that I would like to defend Terminator Salvation. I feel director McG does tackle the philosophical commentary so often found in good science fiction – one that seeks to define humanity by distinguishing man from machine. It might just be harder to see this through all the explosions and smoke.

One can prove McG’s intention to make Salvation an intelligent sci- fi action flick: “I think intelligent action films represent the magic of movies at a very high level and I'm thrilled to throw my hat in the ring and be part of it”[iii]. Regarding Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), Skynet’s human-machine hybrid who retains his human identity, McG stated, “[Marcus] is a real exploration of what it means to be human . . . You can have metal bits and pieces running through your body, but it doesn't make you any less of a man. And the question is, where do you become a machine and let go of your humanity?”

Here I’d like to point out that in Salvation doesn’t just question the difference between man and machine through the character of Marcus, the robot/machine hybrid. More importantly, its through John Connor (Christian Bale), who condemns Marcus based solely on his physical mechanization. The film is as much the story of Connor’s salvation as it is Marcus’s, and in this sense, also The Resistance’s, which orders the destruction of Skynet’s headquarters despite collateral damage of thousands of human prisoners’ lives – a sacrificial act Conner disobeys: “Command wants us to fight like machines. They want us to make cold, calculated decisions. But we are not machines. And if we behave like them, than what is the point in winning" [iv]?

In essence, Connor goes through much the same character arc as Sarah Connor does in T2: Judgment Day (1991), who starts as a paranoid militant bent on murdering an innocent software developer and becomes someone capable of trusting a Terminator as a father figure for John. Since no one in their right mind would criticize Linda Hamilton's portrayal of Sarah Conner for its intensity, I feel Roger Ebert misses the point when he complains that T2: Judgment Day’s Edward Furlong is “infinitely more human as John Connor than 
Christian Bale is in this film." Salvation’s John Conner is not intended to seem human. Marcus the robot-human hybrid is.

This film is not the failure that critics and fan boys proclaim. If you want an action sci-fi with big explosions, you should like Salvation. And although it’s no Blade Runner (1982), if you want to ponder the difference between man and machine in the super cool Terminator universe, you should like Salvation. But if you want a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger with the tone of a James Cameron film, you’re going to be disappointed – because that’s a stupid thing to expect. It doesn’t star Arnold Schwarzenegger and it isn’t directed or written by James Cameron. If Salvation did suffer from misguided expectations, maybe it will garner respect in years to come.

Just for the sake of things that could have been, apparently, prior to Salvation’s poor reviews, McG had plans to make Salvation part of a trilogy:

“John Connor is going to travel back in time and he's going to have to galvanize the militaries of the world for an impending Skynet invasion. They've figured out time travel to the degree where they can send more than one naked entity. So you're going to have hunter killers and transports and harvesters and everything arriving in our time and Connor fighting back with conventional military warfare, which I think is going to be fucking awesome. I also think he's going to meet a scientist that's going to look a lot like present-day Robert Patrick (who famously played the T-1000 in Terminator 2), talking about stem-cell research and how we can all live as idealized, younger versions of ourselves" [iii].

Imagine that: a T-1000 origin story revolving around the philosophical quest for immortality…and more explosions. If that sounds cool to you, it’s unfortunate that this future will not come to pass. The fifth Terminator movie which is currently in development with a summer 2015 release date is set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, while McG and company are out of the picture [v]. I just find it so confusing why people would make another Terminator film starring Arnold. He’s old now. It doesn’t make sense for Terminators to age. They’re robots – they don’t age. I don’t even…

Also, notice how I wrote an entire Terminator article without making any forced “I’ll be back” jokes. Discipline. Discipline is a thing.

[i]  Terminator Salvation.” Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.

[ii] Ebert, Roger. Terminator Salvation.” 19 May, 2009. Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.

[iii] McG. "Salvation By Cyborg" by Ethan Alter. Film Journal International 112.5 (2009): 14. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.

[iv] Terminator Salvation. Screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. 2009. Dir. McG. Prod.  Derek Anderson. Perf. Christian Bale and Sam Worthington. 2009. Warner Bros, 2009. DVD.

[v] Thomson, Iain. Schwarzenegger says 'I'll be back' for Terminator 5 reboot.” The 29 June, 2013. Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.


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