When James Cameron made The Terminator (1984), he successfully coupled low-budget gravel with high-concept gravy. Within literally seconds, he established an alternate universe in which an entire (admittedly downbeat) mythology would play itself out. This was slightly unlike any other science-fiction film insofar as it succinctly detailed the players—both present and future—as well as the stakes of its epical tale by transplanting all of the combatants to the contemporary universe the audience readily recognized. Cameron may not be widely considered a high cinematic artist but this was the baptismal instance in which his interests in storytelling, with the aid of prudently utilized practical special effects, proved too excellent and refreshing a commixture to ignore.
The religious undertones to Cameron's first labor of love (Piranha 2 is frequently dismissed as “director-for-hire” work) helped to establish the gravitas of his nascent mythology. The connection between “John Connor” and “Jesus Christ” is obvious (is there a relation of some sort between “James Cameron” and “John Connor” as well?). Then there is Sarah Connor, named after the Biblical Sarah, foremother of the Israelites. The previously barren Sarah was gifted through a divine miracle to conceive and give birth to the providential, foretold son named Isaac. Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor is impregnated through time travel: the man sent by a burnt-out veteran warrior, hero and resistance fighter John Connor proves to be Connor's father. (The less time spent debating the scientific merits of time travel, the better. Also: one may view the conclusion of Terminator 2: Judgment Day as the inversion of the story of Abraham and Issac, as the father figure—future California Governator Ahnuld—lays down his... life?... for the chosen son.)
For the first three Terminator pictures, this mythology was largely held intact in its basic configuration. For three straight films, poor John Connor—first, to be terminated before conception, then as a rebellious adolescent listening to Guns 'N' Roses (a trait he still possesses in the 2009 release) and finally as a nearly nihilistic, disillusioned twenty-something—was the target. With Terminator: Salvation, Connor is propped up as a man of action, finally resembling in the most perspicuous manner the “freedom fighter” the audience has been repeatedly told he will one day become. What Terminator: Salvation promises with its trailer (vastly superior to the film) is to finally delve deeply into the war between the humans and the machines first alluded to in the opening seconds of Cameron's 1984 modern classic. What all of the studio executives seem to have forgotten, however, is that not a single viewer of the original picture considered the idea of seeing the future apocalyptic war as necessary, or entertaining or even a good idea in the least. Cameron allows Kyle Reese and his combat trauma-induced flashbacks to be the portal through which the viewer sees the hellish carnage and destruction of the future: it's not particularly appetizing or pretty, and there is just enough of it to drive the point home.
This is not to even broach the subject of this series' thematic schizophrenia. The Terminator posited that human beings could fight for their ideals, for their humanity, as it were, against seemingly insurmountable odds, in the face of known horror. The film's release in the 1980s suggests latent Cold War paranoia of nuclear annihilation coupled with uncomfortable acceptance, which makes the picture surprisingly relevant and subversive in the post-9/11 era, too. Terminator 2 was far more upbeat—the future may be grim but “Judgment Day” can be averted with the coupling of humanity and machine as one force for good. “No fate but what we make,” was the 1991 picture's enormously appropriate declaration, seeing as the Cold War was melting away like so many ice cubes on a June porch and people of varied nationalities, ethnicities and histories were, in essence, rising up against a long-feared oppressor.
Unfortunately, the allure of money was too potent for the aforementioned studio executives to resist: Terminator 3, released less than two years after 9/11, seemed to consign humanity to the dustbin for good: there is no stopping “Judgment Day”; as the politically ambitious star remarked with mechanic chilliness, “You only postponed [the future nuclear holocaust]. Judgment Day is inevitable.” And with that, studio avarice blatantly rejected the entire pulsing message of the first two films as crafted by Cameron. Terminator 3's tagline should have read, “No fate but what we make—What a joke.” And thus, with the end of the world, and end of that picture, Nick Stahl self-importantly intoned that the future still lay ahead. In other words, prepare to sacrifice more money to see a franchise go in an entirely unnecessary direction and nullify the purpose and meaning of the first two films, which so many today still love and quote as nineteenth century American politicians recited Biblical verses in their speeches.
The basic skeleton of the first three Terminator films remained the same, despite the thematic muddling and inconsistency. Each film presented a dystopian future dictated by merciless machines. Cameron's vision entailed faith in humanity against the encroaching supremacy of a mechanized future. It is no coincidence that the greatest objective of all three earlier films was to leave Los Angeles as soon as possible. In each case, at least one Connor was tormented by an ostensibly unstoppable and unyielding force. The formula was enticing in the relaxed, almost innate way that recalls simple fairytales or traditional professional wrestling “booking”: the villain is seemingly invincible, but the hero is equally determined to triumph and save the day. As the series progressed, the assassin terminators had to be increasingly deadly, until, with the third film, a Scandinavian supermodel Terminatrix could just about literally do anything it set its electronic mind on accomplishing. A viewer may have asked, as JC did with T2, “Why doesn't it just become a bomb or something and get me?” Terminator 3, however, was a film consciously bathed in self-parody—and, in a way, how could it not be, considering how pervasive the first two films became in the realm of popular culture? At least the film was brisk, if not memorable, and its longest car chase was excitingly mounted in a way all too few action sequences are today.
Which takes this look at the Terminator franchise to the newest release. It is difficult to remember a film so wantonly self-destructive and wasteful. The most fertile substance from T3 was the emotional chemistry between Stahl and Claire Danes as Catherine Brewster, John Connor's future wife and mother of his children. So the terminally confused Terminator: Salvation elects to spend approximately three minutes of its running time on the relationship between man and wife, savior and maiden. Christian Bale and Bryce Dallas Howard make the 2003 pairing of Stahl and Danes look like Bogey and Bacall in comparison. Bale is wholly lost in his role, grunting and fuming, screaming and yelling, behaving more like an impotent teenager confronted by his parents than the bravely insubordinate trooper defying catastrophic orders the film apparently wishes to present. Howard is an empty vessel. The only performer who escapes unscathed from the film is Sam Worthington, whose most accomplished episodes almost convince that there is an entirely functioning brain behind this enterprise. As this film's Frankenstein's monster, he literally howls at the moon, his naked body covered in mud evidently symbolizing man's evolutionary emergence from the muck and mire of the earth, with the wet soil representing a mother's amniotic fluid.
Terminator: Salvation is reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s James Bond movies of the frequently lamented “Roger Moore era,” as an old, aging and tired franchise begins to steal from newer, flashier populist cinema entries. The Matrix, Steven Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds and Michael Bay's Transformers, to name but three, are liberally borrowed from for action spectacles; Apocalypse Now, first poked in the ribs by Watchmen, is once again trotted out by director McG for yet another parading exercise in film geek pandering. Whereas The Terminator was a concisely paced, tersely eloquent exploration of dread, Terminator 2: Judgment Day a glossy action-packed marathon of mythological peregrination and a work of a man wanting to satisfyingly wrap up every loose end presented by his first opus, Terminator 3 an agile if nearly completely mindless compilation of action genre outbursts and obeisance to the superficialities of the two earlier pictures and simultaneously an utter rejection of their respective theses, Terminator: Salvation is a film adrift, with a character built up for three straight films who proves to be nothing less than boring in the flesh. Cameron had it right; the viewer did not need to see the much-ballyhooed war between the humans and the machines. Subtlety is not even the issue—T3 featured Danes' Brewster squeal, “I hate machines!” as one of her first lines. What Terminator: Salvation needs is the very hope of salvation once embraced, and later discarded, like so many long-forgotten cynical campaign promises.