Following a delay of what was to be a direct continuation of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation was released in the summer of 2009. In it, we follow three main characters: John Connor, prophesied leader of the resistance, and his struggles under resistance command, Kyle Reese, a survivor of Judgment Day in the ruins of LA, and Marcus Wright, a death row inmate executed in 2003, who wakes up after the bombs have fallen and discovers he is a cyborg hybrid.

Have you seen the trailer for the movie recently? Go ahead and watch it, I’ll wait.

That was a solid trailer, and it got me so pumped for the film. But then, the movie happened.

Marcus and Kyle meet up and agree to try and find John Connor. Kyle is later captured by the machines and taken to a Skynet facility that seems to be processing humans for some unknown, nefarious purposes. It’s not quite the work camp that we were promised from the first film, where most survivors are put to work handling bodies of dead humans, but it’s close.

Marcus eventually finds his way to Connor and convinces John to let him penetrate this facility in order to shut down the defenses so John can rescue Kyle. During their escape, they encounter a digital Arnold, do battle and defeat it, and John is stabbed through the heart. At the climax, Marcus sacrifices his own heart to John, who carries out his duty in the continuing battle against the machines.

Terminator Salvation was met with mostly mediocre reviews. The positives in the film included great special effects, well-orchestrated action sequences, and a pretty great scene with a T-800 pursuing the three heroes through a Terminator factory. The plot and character development, however, were a completely different story.

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Project Angel

Original drafts of Terminator Salvation tell a very different story. John Connor was originally intended to have a much less substantial role, instead being relegated to the shadows (but still presumably hoarsely shouting his name into a radio over and over again) and being somewhat of an enigma. He was supposed to be secreted away on the resistance command sub, an element that still made its way into the final draft of the film.

Marcus Wright was supposed to be much more front and center. Marcus likely would have gone through a similar arc, waking up unaware of the missile strikes and wandering about the post-apocalyptic landscape, meeting Kyle Reese, etc. But the hybrids were originally supposed to be a much larger and different part of the story. Serena Kogan, a woman we briefly met at the beginning of the film, had Marcus sign his body over to Cyberdyne Systems’ genetics division. She was going to appear later in the story as another hybrid, after Marcus breaks into Skynet to help rescue Kyle and discovers a utopia, with hybrids living in a resort, driving around in golf carts, T-600s manicuring lawns, and everyone generally living in bliss.

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Skynet, you see, wants to preserve and protect humanity, and only by hybridizing humans and machines (and apparently nuking half the planet?) can it protect us from inevitably destroying ourselves. Or something.

One can still see some elements of this in the final version of the film. When Kyle is in the lower levels of Skynet, being herded like cattle, the camera pans upward and we see several human-looking entities standing at the top of the facility, looking down on all of the people below. These were to be more hybrids, supervising the processing of the people being collected from the wasteland.

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Instead of Serena Kogan becoming the face of Skynet to deliver exposition to Marcus about his finalized role as a stealth infiltrator designed to draw Connor in to Skynet so a hidden T-800 prototype could toss him about before killing him, she was supposed to deliver these lines in person, explaining Skynet’s true intention, which was to be the salvation of the human race. See, that’s where they get the title, right? Get it?

Not A Robot, A Cyborg

In the original conclusion of the film, Connor launches a surprise strike from the nuclear sub on Skynet, in order to rescue Kyle. All of the hybrids living in blissful unawareness are destroyed or threatened, setting up what would be the future war sequences from the first three films. Connor started the war, you see. All Skynet was trying to do was protect us and usher us into the next stage of our evolution (after nuking half the planet). Skynet would then retaliate, and we’d have our war against the machines. In one draft, Kyle has already been hybridized, and in another, they are successful in rescuing him, but Connor is always critically injured during the process. John dies after the rescue and his team decides the figurehead of Connor is more important than the person, in order to give people hope, and decide to place his skin over Marcus’ endoskeleton. The surgery provides the trademark John Connor scar, and Marcus powers back up to lead the resistance in John’s name.

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McG also toyed with the idea of Marcus terminating Kyle, John’s wife Katherine, and the rest of resistance command before assuming control. The whole thing was a plot by Skynet to get a Terminator in charge of the resistance.

One of the things that I continue to laud Terminator Salvation for is the effort to do something new with the franchise. Up to this point, all the movies followed the same pattern of a chase film, and this one also skips the time travel element and chooses to set a film solely during the war.

It’s hard to think if the original ending, changed after it leaked to the internet, would have been better than the one that we ended up with. Christian Bale allegedly had a lot to do with the increased presence of Connor after he was signed on to the role, going from the shadowy background character to almost a dual-lead with Sam Worthington as Marcus.

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What Works

The Action – The action in Salvation is great! The first sequence, shot to mimic a one-camera take, follows John Connor surviving a helicopter crash and desperately trying to get away from a crawling, busted-up T-600. There’s a sense of panic to this scene, which reflects Sarah’s desperate efforts to escape a similarly disabled T-800 in the first Terminator. The next major action sequence is a vehicle chase, where Kyle and Marcus are attempting to evade Mototerminators and a Hunter-Killer. This sequence is also shot effectively, and demonstrates both characters’ resourcefulness in the variety of tactics they employ to deal with their pursuers. Marcus’ escape from Connor and the Resistance in a hail of gunfire is also capably shot and exciting to watch.

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Kyle Reese – Anton Yelchin brings a lot of the same Kyle Reese previously portrayed by Michael Biehn to his performance. There’s a casual acceptance to the world around him, and a patience explaining things to characters not in the know, both to Sarah in the original film, and to Marcus here in Salvation. Here, he’s capable and demonstrates this by using guerrilla tactics to deal with threats and survive. He’s brave, and his one-on-one attack on the T-600 at the end of this film reflects the courage he’ll have later in his life to stand up to the T-800 to protect Sarah in 1984. Yelchin also reflects the raspy weariness that almost entirely defined Kyle in the first film.

The Hybrids – The hybrids are a new idea to the Terminator series, and a solid modernization of the franchise. As a transhuman future lurks inevitably closer, we face a possible road where prosthetics and other artificial augmentations to natural humans seems an increasingly likely endpoint. Salvation’s efforts to incorporate this natural(?) progression into it’s story in an effort to keep the franchise relevant is commendable. From a plot standpoint, it begs the question, “If the enemy is us, are they truly enemy?” If the whole battle so far has been humanity vs Skynet, what happens when Skynet starts incorporating humanity into itself? For sure, we have the scenery chewing of Helena Bonham-Carter’s weird Skynet, placed there to be a personified villain we can boo and hiss, but what happens if we’re just gradually amalgamated into Skynet?

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The T-800 – One of my favorite sequences from the film is the climax, when Reese and Connor are attempting to evade a pursuing T-800. While the digital Arnold is . . . passable . . . the final sequence actually reflects a classic Terminator film more than any other part in this particular movie. It’s inexorable pursuit is truly terrifying, reflecting the unrelenting Terminator from the first film, throwing nods to that film out along the way, such as the shot of its feet climbing the metal stairs. This particular Terminator is the first frightening one in the film, as the others so far have been obstacles to overcome or avoid. Despite solid action sequences leading to this moment, this is the first time that our characters actually feel threatened, paying off with this Terminator lancing John through the heart.

What Doesn’t Work

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John Connor – Possibly due to the fact that his role was originally to be far less substantial, John Connor is just sort of there in this film. He is given both testing a battle tactic and the rescue of Kyle Reese as tasks to complete, but there isn’t a very dramatic or dynamic growth in the character. He does progress from commander of a small unit to leader of the entire resistance in this film, but the character himself undergoes little change. It seems most of what he accomplishes is simply making sure everyone around him knows what his name is. Bale’s performance here is adequate, but this is the least interesting Connor we’ve had in the franchise so far.

The Plan for Marcus – Another possible victim of 11th hour rewrites, Marcus role in Skynet’s plan makes little sense. Here, he is a new type of infiltrator, and his grand plan is to be released into the wild, hopefully run into John Connor, and find a way to draw him into Skynet so something there can eliminate him? There are so many contingencies that could ruin this needlessly complex plan that it doesn’t make sense. Why not have him act on his own agency, with some sort of “desire” programmed in to get him to seek out the resistance, and Connor, and have him complete the act of killing Connor? His mission makes no sense in the final film.

Skynet also clearly knows who Kyle Reese is in this film, so why not take the opportunity to have Marcus kill him when they meet?

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Resistance Resources – This resistance is fully stocked. AC-130s, helicopters, explosives. This would make them a real challenge to a nascent Skynet, which is what I think the writers were going for. Except Skynet isn’t developing, it’s already out in the world, having successfully launched a nuclear strike. This is a world where humans are scarce and tools should be limited. How damaging to the war effort would it be to lose just one of those AC-130s, and they lost two just sort of flying about to see what was out there? What about the helicopters? Wouldn’t those be better served in a last-ditch effort or an all-out strike, when the cost of losing limited resources would be justified? Why would Skynet even allow Connor’s open-air base to even exist, considering the strategic loss resistance would suffer if that runway and those airplanes were destroyed.

Similarly, this resistance shows no fear in sending thundering fireballs into the sky in their pursuit of Marcus. You’d think every patrol robot for miles would come running if suddenly a large portion of the woods started exploding. Either the resistance has more resources than they need or they’re simply not afraid of Skynet finding them, and neither one makes sense in the context of the original films, where we see cars cobbled together just to have vehicles capable of combat. The resistance in those films reeks of desperation, and this one seems to be a well-stocked, rebellious army.

One Man Who Taught Us To Fight

As mentioned above, John Connor’s character arc isn’t dramatic in this film. When we first meet him, he is the capable, prescient fighter we’ve been prepared for in past films. He’s bucking the system, as he knows he is eventually to be the leader of the resistance, so the audience gets the idea that he disregards orders from command as often as he obeys them. He demands an audience by risking hypothermia to get into the secret command submarine.

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But this defiance is all we really get to see from him as he progresses from leading a small unit to leading the entire resistance. He assumes command by asking other resistance units to disobey a direct order from command, and command is then killed by an HK that tracks them back to their submarine.

Connor also progresses from not-at-all trusting Marcus, who he sees as the latest infiltrator abomination, to trusting him with assistance in rescuing Kyle, and finally ending up seeing that Marcus is a victim of Skynet, and not a tool, and is eventually saved by Marcus’ sacrifice. But this is more of a progression in the relationship between the two characters, and not character development in Connor. He is largely static, starting out as the defiant leader of a small resistance unit and ending up as a still defiant leader of a slightly larger resistance unit.

Kyle undergoes slightly more change in this film. When we first meet him, he is a resourceful fighter surviving in the wilderness that LA has become. He is capable of taking care of both himself, and a child in his care. He meets Marcus and sees the opportunity to get the help he needs to become more directly involved with the resistance and John Connor specifically. We see these subtle changes manifest in the way he deals with both T-600s he’s confronted by – The first is dispatched by trickery, luring it into a trap set to destroy them, and the second he meets head on, when the child in his care is threatened. Kyle leaps on to it’s back and wedges a piece of scrap metal into a weak point, putting himself into great jeopardy doing so. He is becoming less afraid of the Terminators as the film goes, on, and by the end he’s earned the sigil of the resistance, at least according to John Connor.

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By far the most obvious character arc is Marcus’. When we first meet him, he is on death row, as his “brother and two cops are dead” because of him. He signs away his body to Cyberdyne genetics in exchange for a kiss from Helena Bonham-Carter, and it’s not a warm act or a desperate one, but instead a cold moment that shows he’s already resigned to his fate.

He wakes up from his fate in a future that doesn’t make any sense to him, and eventually encounters Kyle. Here is our first moment of witnessing Marcus soften up a bit. He easily disarms Kyle of a shotgun in their first meeting, but takes sympathy on him, showing him how to secure the shotgun to his person better, to prevent a more dangerous threat from taking his weapon away in the future. This also has the benefit of setting up the scene from the first Terminator where Kyle creates a makeshift sling to stow his shotgun, though I always interpreted that scene to be more about hiding it beneath his coat than it was to prevent someone from disarming him.

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After meeting Connor, we see Marcus evolve further. He volunteers to penetrate Skynet defenses after the reveal that he is no longer entirely human, in order to better set up John to rescue Kyle and other human prisoners, another selfless act that shows he isn’t as nihilistic as he was when we first see him in the film.

Marcus ends his story by offering his own heart to John after it has been lanced by the T-800 at the film’s climax. Here, Marcus finds his redemption, his salvation, in a final act of giving. He’s done something in his past that haunts him, and he has the chance to do something now to make up for it. The resistance desperately needs their leader, and he is dying, and only Marcus can make the sacrifice needed to save him. Marcus’ progression is from despair to hopefulness.

Not The Future My Mother Warned Me About

McG did have plans for a subsequent entry following Salvation: “I strongly suspect the next movie is going to take place in a [pre-Judgment Day] 2011,” McG reveals. “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.”

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Continuity Nitpicks

  • In the original film, it’s mentioned that survivors stay down by day, but they can move around at night. However, they still have to be careful because HKs use infra-red to find survivors. In Salvation, Kyle informs Marcus that they must stay down at night because of the infra-red, but they’ll be free to leave Los Angeles at daybreak.
  • Kyle mentions in the first Terminator that most of the records were destroyed in the war, and Skynet just knew the city that John Connor’s mother lived in, hence the systematic hunt of the first Terminator. Conversely, Salvation Skynet knows who Connor’s father is. This is never even addressed, leaving us to infer some sort of handwavium about this maybe being a new timeline. If Skynet knew who his father was , why not just kill him and be done with it?
  • “The 600 series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy.” What good would an infiltrator unit be if you could tell from a great distance that it was a giant? Despite the humanoid shape, a lurching hulk would be easily identifiable as not human, and thusly not effective. The original film makes no mention of them being giants, but instead it’s the fake-looking, rubbery skin that gave them away.
  • In T2, we see both the first Terminator and John Connor’s protector melted in a trough of molten metal. In Salvation, Connor manages to douse a T-800 in molten metal, but this doesn’t destroy this one. Is this a different type of molten metal? Why would it destroy one Terminator but not another?

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Terminator Salvation is 2/3 of a good movie. I still think it gets a bad rap. It doesn’t live up to the high watermarks of the first two films, but it tries to break with establishment and introduce new ideas, rather than just a retread of the chase films that came three times before it. It has great action sequences and a solid final battle. It falls short in the area of having a sensible, logical plot and struggles to find something for Connor to do that doesn’t feel hamfisted into the plot. A majority of these issues possibly stem from the rewrites, but the third act in the initial draft doesn’t play out much better. Perhaps more time in the oven would have allowed the interesting idea of the cyborg hybrids to play out to a more satisfying conclusion.