I saw Terminator Salvation yesterday. I thought that it was pretty good, though it was not the fantastic relaunch that I had hoped for. I went in having heard that it was horrible, so finding it not-horrible coloured my view, of course. Yet having said that, I must say that I disagree with the story being written about it across the internet. This story says that Christian Bale was originally approached to play Marcus, the protagonist of Salvation, and that his preference for the role of John Connor led to the director emphasizing Connor more in a way that gave us a disjointed narrative. Consequently people seem to sort of blame Bale for the final product.
Here’s the thing: the Terminator franchise is about John Connor. It may be named after the machines, but John Connor is the central character – even when he hasn’t been born yet. Time travel is invented because of John Connor. John Connor’s father’s hero is John Connor. John Connor saves humanity from annihilation. If you want to make a spin-off movie about a cyborg that wants to go against Skynet because of its human brain okay, I’ll probably go see it so that I can get yet another taste of the Terminator world. But the main series is and has always been about John Connor and whether he can, despite all odds, survive to lead the Resistance to victory.
Some of my favorite parts of this movie involved Bale’s Connor trying to navigate his role as saviour with his lack of age/pre-Judgment Day military experience while keeping his ideals intact. I thought Bale did a great job of showing us a conflicted man who was trying to do the best he could in a horrible situation… with little screen time. For the lead character – or even one of two lead characters – Bale wasn’t on screen that much. Even in the scenes with both Connor and Marcus the camera’s focus was on Marcus. See, for example, the scene where Connor first interogates Marcus. Marcus’ pathetically-restrained cyborg body is on full display even as Connor launches into a fabulous soliloquy about Skynet’s repeated assassination attempts.
I should note here that I think Sam Worthington did a great job with Marcus and I hope that this movie helps his career. So this is not about Marcus being a bad character or badly acted or anything like that. The franchise is just not about him. It has steadily moved towards more John Connor per movie over the first three movies; (potentially) no John (ever) in the first, young John totally protected by a very prominent Sarah and the Terminator in the second, and then John begins his life as John Connor, leader of the Resistance, saviour of humanity in the third. Since Salvation is the first of three new movies, it should have been about John Connor in his early or middle Resistance years. We know (or think we know) that he dies before his wife sends back the second Terminator, so these three movies have to either be pretty tightly organized or work around that – and even if they work around it, they are action movies and so should still be pretty tightly wound.
Where do we end up then? We know that Connor was able to empty prisoner camps from the earlier movies, and this movie posits that he hasn’t started doing that yet. So why not have the main plot be him pushing against the Resistance command to save the imprisoned? A recurring Terminator theme is bungling authorities – particularly in the form of that one psychiatrist and the police – so you’ve got thematic continuity. You can still have the final mass shoot-out be emptying Skynet headquarters and saving Kyle Reese (who, it has been pointed out, was supposed to have spent considerable time in the camps). Maybe an ending scene showing the exhausted, harried John Connor finally coming face to face with his father. Tension, explosions, emotion, and you’re set for movie number two.
Alternatively, if you have to have a Marcus character, why not play up the related issues more? What side is Marcus on? As I suggested earlier, Christian Bale did a great job of showing Connor’s personal reaction to anything resembling a Skynet attempt to kill him, his feelings of responsibility for saving humanity, his proficiency as a guerilla captain, his fairness and his leadership abilities (both shown when he let Blair Williams out of jail despite her helping Marcus escape) in very little screen time. But think what would have happened if we had had Marcus in Resistence custody for a longer period of time. Arguments amongst the fighters about whether he qualified as a robot or a human, questions about whether the doctors could remove the chip controlling him (thereby making him an effective Resistence member and giving the Resistence some practice with Terminator-like technology for when they will, eventually, have to catch and reprogram two)… meanwhile the higher-ups would be howling, with Connor stuck in the middle. Another effective sequence.
What both of these alternative Terminator: Salvation story lines do is unify the story. As it was, the story felt very disjointed; switching between two viewpoints can be an effective film structure, but you have to use two people who are similar to each other, but total opposites in key ways. A good example is Mezzo Forte, an anime that switches between the viewpoints of two teenage girls with similar appearances, both of whom are skilled in the use of violence. But one is portrayed as a good-natured, sexually curious minx while the other is sexually cold and only seems to enjoy herself while hurting other people. Flipping between their two viewpoints builds up tension throughout the film as we see them coming to the ultimate confrontation. Contrast the newest Terminator. At first Marcus seems to be human and in control of himself. When Connor interrogates Marcus (not until midway through the movie) we start to see a confrontation building – but as quickly as their tempers got out of hand Connor regains control of the situation, suggesting his tactical and leadership skills. So now they’re friends – but wait, they’re enemies, Marcus led Connor into a trap. Until Marcus fixed himself (by pulling out a chip – couldn’t the Resistance doctors have done that?) and they’re allies again until the end of the movie. There is no apparent reason to structure the movie in this bipolar way – it serves no purpose other than to make sure that when Connor and Marcus next meet we, the audience, know where they are both coming from.
Two last points. The first: a little tweak that would have made the movie a lot better for me, and set up interesting issues for the coming sequels. The heart thing. Overdone, under-believable. Open-heart surgery between two guys who may or may not be compatible by an ex-veterinarian in the open on the edge of a nuclear battlefield? And that doesn’t even get into issues like wasn’t Marcus swimming in a gunky river with his heart exposed a couple hours beforehand? I’m not a doctor and even I know that that heart is in an icky condition. So, my tweak/question: why didn’t they just make the heart mechanical? They could have said that to keep Marcus’ human brain alive Skynet needed to create a machine-heart that mimicked a real heart’s actions precisely. Then we have a reason for why it can be transplanted more simply than an actual human heart (no worries about rejecting organs, for one), and there will be an interesting fold to future Terminator movies: John Connor would be a cyborg, partially created by Skynet.
My last point is really just a hat tip to director McG. Apparently there was a topless scene for Blair Williams in the movie and he cut it because it felt forced, like it would only have been there to provide eyecandy for boys. Yes, sir, it would have been. Kudos on cutting it. I can see where you might have felt the urge to have one – after all, there was a full-blown sex scene in the original and you have a married couple that one might assume would occasionally indulge. (I’m looking forward to seeing where that plot thread is going, by the way.) However the movie that you ended up making was more of a war movie – one man lost behind enemy lines meets up with kids who are promptly kidnapped by the bad guy; he proceeds to team up with a good(?) guy he meets nearby to get kids back. That kind of story does not lend itself to topless shots. Therefore some credit is due for putting story/art ahead of horny boys who are too lazy to find a free porn site.