Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Zaki's Retro Review: Terminator Salvation (2009)

Click here to read my retro review of Terminator 3

Terminator 3 was released in 2003, and while its global haul of $430 million didn't top that of T2 from twelve years earlier, it was enough to convince all involved that the brand still retained a great deal of potency with audiences. And though critics weren't exactly over the moon for Rise of the Machines, it did manage to hold its own. Still, in the aftermath of its successful launch, there were more questions than ever as to where things should go next.

The unquestionable face of the franchise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was now unavailable thanks to his election as California's governor (or Governator, if you go in for stupid neologisms), and the apocalyptic conclusion of the last flick meant that the entire shorthand of the series had now changed. As it happens, when Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna first started planning T3 in '99, they'd already mapped out a fourth installment. Both Nick Stahl and Claire Danes were under contract to return for the hypothetical next film, which would presumably be set during the machine apocalypse.

Eventually, as development on the fourth movie stretched on, Stahl and Danes dropped by the wayside. And of course, it wouldn't be a Terminator sequel without a game of keep away being played with the property's rights. Wouldn't you know, just a few short years after founding their company C2 Pictures (which, remember, existed primarily to house the Terminator franchise) a feud between Kassar and Vajna meant the franchise was once again on the block. This time it was scooped up by the Halycon Company, which sold domestic distribution rights to Warner Bros, and international to Sony.

From there development quickly moved along, and if there's a point where the fourth film went off the rails, it may well have been the early signing of Joseph "McG" McGinty, he of Charlie's Angels and Charlie's Angels 2 fame (infamy?), to direct. If Jonathan Mostow's selection for Terminator 3 was an unexpected one, McG's selection for the follow-up was downright baffling. While he'd demonstrated a capacity for surface-level escapism, there wasn't anything on his CV that easily pointed to his being the right choice for a Terminator entry.

Still, things continued along, with T3 writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris contributing an early draft that minimized John Connor's role in the story. Instead, the focus was on a new protagonist named Marcus Wright, a convict who was put to death just before the machine war started, but who mysteriously wakes up fifteen years after it starts. In that original script for what was now being called Terminator Salvation, John Connor would have been a mysterious presence spoken of with hushed reverence, but otherwise unseen until the third act.

That calculus changed when Christian Bale, now a major draw after headlining Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films, signed to star. While he was initially wooed to play Marcus, it was the Connor role that appealed to the actor, and the script was subsequently rewritten by Jonah Nolan (with additional polishes by Paul Haggis and CSI creator Anthony Zuiker) to highlight this altered focus. For the role of Marcus, McG took a suggestion from James Cameron (who had no involvement otherwise) to hire Aussie actor Sam Worthington, who had just worked with Cameron on his latest project, the sci-fi epic Avatar.

While the cast, including Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate Connor (née Brewster) and Anton Yelchin as a teenaged Kyle Reese, and many of the talents assembled behind the camera certainly pointed toward something with real potential, Salvation was saddled with an unfortunate production window that ran headlong into an impending Writer's Guild strike. Essentially this meant that if the project was to make its intended summer '09 date, they had to move ahead no matter what, even if the script wasn't where it needed to be. And it most certainly wasn't where it needed to be.

Set in 2018, fourteen years after the fiery finale of Rise of the MachinesTerminator Salvation depicts the future war in its relatively early stages. While John Connor, now thirty-three, leads a faction of resistance fighters, he hasn't yet become the savior of humanity he was prophesied as. Instead, he answers to a cabal of military leaders, including Michael Ironside as General Ashdown, who don't have much tolerance for Connor's gung-ho approach (which comes from his knowledge of the future thanks to his past experiences).

Into this mix is introduced Marcus, who we learn was turned into the first human-machine hybrid by Cyberdyne following his execution in 2003. Though he's initially mistrustful of this entirely new kind of Terminator, Connor is nonetheless forced to team with Marcus when he finds out that Skynet has kidnapped his future father Kyle Reese, intending to kill him before he can be sent into the past (why Skynet knows about the Reese-Connor connection at all is never really explained). In the end, the pair succeed in rescuing Reese, but when Connor is mortally wounded by a T-800, Marcus sacrifices his human heart so the resistance leader can live to save the future. The end.

But not originally the end! During the development phase, the plan had been for Connor to actually succumb to his injuries, after which, due to his symbolic importance to humanity, his skin would be grafted onto Marcus's metal frame. Thus, John Connor lives, and the "salvation" of humanity is actually a Terminator. Get it? As you can imagine, this ending would have stirred all manner of shit had it actually been made, as became clear when news of it leaked onto the web about a year before the thing came out. The resultant uproar led Warners to initiate the hasty fixit job where Connor survives and Marcus dies.

Now, I'm not in any way defending their original plan, as it sounds deeply problematic, but the issue here is that when your entire story is counting down to a very specific conclusion, it's probably been structured such that it doesn't really leave wiggle room to pull out a few threads here or there without the whole thing coming undone. As it is, we go through two hours of noisy tedium, and at the end of it wonder why we bothered sitting through it at all. Nothing of substance really happens. There's no major character movement that we haven't already gotten in the previous entries.

More than anything, Christian Bale is just boring as John Connor. What a letdown. I remember hearing he'd been cast and getting genuinely excited at the prospect, but he's such a straight-ahead good guy that there's just no texture to his portrayal (and did he forget to turn off his gravelly Batman voice?). Also done a disservice is poor Bryce Howard, who doesn't get to do much more than stand around and look worried. On the other hand, Yelchin is terrific as the young Reese, practically embodying Michael Biehn, and Worthington makes the strongest mark as the confused, conflicted Marcus. It's easy to see why he got on Cameron's good side.

Ultimately the biggest problem is that Terminator Salvation  doesn't really have a reason to exist. Say what you will about that original ending (and like I said, I'm no fan of it), but it would have been at least as big a paradigm shift for the series as the "everything goes boom" ending of Rise of the Machines. Instead, we go through a slightly eventful day in the future war, one that sets up a few things that we may be familiar with (like Linda Hamilton's voice cameo, or Schwarzenegger "cameo" as one of the first T-800s), but otherwise it's just, y'know, whatever.

In fact, "y'know, whatever," pretty much sums up Terminator Salvation in general. Everything about it is functional without being exceptional, from the production design to Danny Elfman's score. And it might as well have been the reaction from audiences when it hit hit theaters in June of 2009. Produced on a $200 million budget, the McG movie topped out at $125 mil domestically, and even though it racked up a not-bad $370 million worldwide take, that was still a marked step down from Terminator 3 (which had itself been a marked step down from Terminator 2).

While the plan had been for another set of sequels to pick up where this one left off, the generally ho-hum reception to the film meant some reconnoitering was in order. It's worth mentioning here that, in addition to Salvation, the time after Terminator 3 also saw the launch of a short-lived television series called Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which pretty much ignored T3 entirely and just did its own thing. I've actually never seen the show so I can't comment on its relative quality, but it premiered on Fox in January of '08 and though it started strong and got renewed for a second season, it was quietly cancelled in April of '09, three months before Salvation came out.

Clearly the the property was on the ropes. And then, you guessed it, another bankruptcy hit. Shortly after Salvation's release, the Halcyon Company filed for Chapter 11, leaving the rights up for grabs yet again. These were then promptly scooped up at auction for a cool $20 mil by Megan Ellison of Annapurna Productions, who partnered with her brother David, of Skydance Productions to carry the brand forward and eventually handed it off to him. By the time all the legalese was worked out and another entry was made, six years had elapsed -- actually the shortest gap between sequels -- and like Skynet's Hail Mary play in the very first Terminator, the franchise's last, desperate hope was to go back in time. Back to the beginning.

To Be Continued...

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