The latest Terminator movie (Terminator: Salvation) fits neatly into the time-travel mythology created by the first three movies, starting with the 1984 original Terminator in which a large, naked weight-lifting robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his signature role) is sent back from the future to 1984 in order to find and kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the resistance, whose son John Connor is destined to grow up to lead the fight against the machines that rule the world. The resistance sends its own time traveler back to the past - Kyle Reese - whose job is to find Sarah and protect her from the nasty Terminator. Kyle also ends up impregnating her, thus fathering the very son who will one day send him back to ensure his own birth. Lovely little time-travel loop of logic, that.
Now, with Terminator: Salvation, we are finally in that distant and dystopian future: it is now 2018, and the machines - led by the self-aware Cyberdyne systems - control the world. Los Angeles and much of the civilized world lies in post-nuclear ruins, and Cyberdyne has turned San Francisco into something of a very loud Metalica concert replete with belching industrial waste and human hostages. What the machines want with all those humans is never clear, unless it's just simply that since the Matrix and War of the World movies, machines are now naturally built to be harvesting humans in some grandiose reversal of fate: but really, wouldn't they much rather just be free of all the rust-inducing sweat and excrement?
That this future dystopia is under-imagined is not really meant to be a criticism. The first three Terminator movies left it under-imagined and intentionally so - it was meant to be the unimaginable horror that was to be so assiduously avoided. It was what Sarah Connor was willing to go crazy for and the destiny that gave her son, John Connor, the serious willies. Now that the series has finally brought us here - crossed over the threshold into Wonderland, so to speak - it would be difficult to paint this future in all its unlikely glory and still provide a credible story and movie. This film does a fairly good job of it, most of the time, giving us Resistance fighters stowed away in fortified desert camps, abandoned gas stations, post-nuclear ruins, underwater command subs, and other assorted locations where human vermin need to be eradicated by the machine civilization. Where it seriously falters, I believe, is at machine headquarters, which have the look of a much more B-movie sci-fi, and reminded me most of all of Halls of Justice from the campy Sylvester Stallone featurer, Judge Dredd. (They also make use of an animated Schwarzenegger that is disturbingly un-menacing.)
What's clear about this Terminator, however, is that it is a serious departure from the three movies that have come before, and anyone who is a fan of the series should understand that what they are going to get this time is a very different movie. That makes this a very difficult film to review. On the one hand, I was disappointed, as the Terminator chase has become the reward for slogging through all the films. We don't get that, and quite honestly, it's hard not to resent its absence. All of the first three Terminators center around a very simple premise: survival in the face of an unstoppable killer. They are essentially horror movies, in which the killer can be stopped by nothing: not time, not place, not power. Each movie gave us a different - and delightful - incarnation of that killing machine. The first was a brute. The second, a sleek and efficient chameleon. The third a wily female seductress.
Clearly, the story has moved into territory that perhaps it was never meant to travel (in the best sci-fi, the dystopian future remains unimagined, to give the story more power): by crossing over from the present into the future, from a John Connor wishing away his destiny to one who is leading it, we have altered the nature of this story dramatically. We have a movie that is no longer about running away from the future, but what to do with the future that's here.
This movie is having none of the old adrenaline-pumping endless power-chase, and if you go looking for it, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, what we have is a war movie, a War of the Worlds / Mad Max / Matrix type of affair, complete with military structures, chains of command, and an enemy that has grown lazy and fat with power. It's as if Cyberdine is being run by the Bush Administration, replete with bloated military budgets, lazy intelligence, incapable armies, little overriding vision, and a cronyistic despotism. The Rebellion, meanwhile, has fashioned itself on the Matrix's Zion, and with John Connor being played by Christian Bale, seemingly they are the ones being led by a machine. (I've always enjoyed Bale's presence in a movie, but even before this film, I considered his performances robotic.) Clearly, this is a movie about insurrection - and the parallels, and reversal of position, to Iraq are no mere coincidence: it's everywhere in the movie, from the washed-out cinematography borrowed from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan to the long-takes as we follow Connor through the battlefield. The film takes a cue from "Battlestar Gallactica," here, putting us in the point of view of the scrappy insurgents, and making the superior mechanized forces the bad guys. As it was for "Battlestar," the POV makes the moral questions more complex and resonant, even if this film doesn't quite know as well as "Battlestar" how to develop such complexities.
So we are left with a story that is at once less focused, and more complex, than the three that have come before. The first reaction is to want to disparage it for that. It's also riddled with post-apocalyptic clichés, which are very irritating, to say the least. But despite all that, there's something here - something new, for a Terminator movie - and it can't be dismissed all that easily.
What animates this movie is the introduction of a brand new character, Marcus Wright (played with wonderful passion by Sam Worthington). The movie opens in 2003 with Marcus, a convicted murderer, about to be put to death. But Cyberdine gives him a second chance, and Marcus signs away his body to the corporation. Now, in 2018, Marcus finds himself resurrected, and so the movie becomes a journey for Marcus to find out how he's been compromised by the machines - as well as to find his essential humanity.
This new story, the film does quite well. Marcus finds some interesting characters who help him to find his humanity along the way (including, yes, the young Kyle Reese, who's survival is key to the affairs of the entire time line), as well as comes to understand the nature of his bargain. That he does so in the midst of a human apocalypse and a nasty little war means something important, I think, to us in our present moment. And this is what I've always liked about the Terminator movies: that every few years, we get a movie that we deserve: in 1984: a brutish and instinctual killer that cares not about trendy fashion. In 1991: servitude to sleek technology, but a sense of hope. In 2003: supremely efficient and alluring marketing marching us to final annihilation. And in 2009? A war movie in which us humans, who have become machines, have a chance to re-find our heart.
This Terminator also takes great pains to fit us into the assiduously studied time lines of the series. The characters all fit well with their destinies - and with their struggles to elude them. In all four Terminator movies, it is clear that even with time travel or the greatest human efforts, destiny will win out, and destiny awaits us all. The question is how we face it. This movie gives us that at least as much as the others, and sets us up nicely for what surely will be the fifth, and final, episode in the series.
So I liked these things about the movie, even if the ending is a bit cheesy and the gestures feel too neat. While this Terminator doesn't deliver the thrills or the sardonic wit of the others that have come before, it takes a chance on giving us something more: a metaphor for ourselves. Despite all my qualms with it, it's worth seeing, and a Terminator worthy of the name.