Terminator 3 and 4 are a bummer. Such bummers. When I discussed Aliens, the movie, with a friend, he said the only way to have made that sequel properly was to not have made it at all. I know a lot of relatively snobbish folk who feel that way about sequels. I, on the other hand, feel that any story – no matter how outlandish, cliche, stale, or unnecessary – has the opportunity and capability to be told in an engaging manner, but the last two Terminator movies really test my ability to say that.
In terms of sequels, they’re not the worst I’ve ever seen. They’re even better than some other sequels I’ll be dealing with on my list. The problem is that they’re kind of hollow and perfunctory. Which is a problem. If I was here to rate or grade them or tell you if you should spend your time on them, I’d have a lot to talk about (for example: in Terminator 3 they, apparently, measure C4 in number-of-supercomputers-that-can-be-blown-up increments). But I’m not. I’m trying to find the transcendent core of science fiction, but they are mostly bummed out missed opportunities. In fact, my only note that I wrote for the third one is the T-800’s line, “Judgment day is inevitable,” because that underscores the concept laid down in the second one that the machine uprising might in fact be divine retribution in a world where there is no God.
Terminator Salvation had a unique opportunity in that it’s both sequel and prequel. You can do that with time travel! Something that happens after the thing can be the thing that happened before the thing. But with this movie it’s really difficult to reign in the critical instinct.
Namely: what sordid fever dream were we living that we collectively felt that Sam Worthington had more onscreen charisma than week old tofu left on the counter? This movie could have been named: Terminator: Everyone Has Batman Voice.
The third Terminator was so by-the-numbers that it’s difficult to talk about it meaningfully. Perhaps you could make it a metaphor about Arnold’s fading film career in the face of a sleeker, hotter Terminator. Terminator: Salvation can almost be talked about exclusively in terms of missed opportunities. It’s kind of frustrating and heartbreaking to think about. The biggest misstep is the hamfisted way in which they tried to tackle the question of what makes a human. Instead of a robot that simply believes itself to be human, we have a robot that was cleverly programmed to think it didn’t know what the real plan was the whole time because SkyNet is so nefarious and such an expert planner that it wears a top hat and has a maiden tied to the train tracks.
Revealing that Sam Worthington was a pawn confused the movie as well: were any of the things that had the look of a reveal really a reveal? Were we supposed to know so far in advance that Marcus was a Terminator, or was that supposed to be dramatic tension poorly handled? And if SkyNet is the incredible strategist that it is, why does so much of its plan depend on happenstance? Marcus just happens to run into Kyle Reese, and he just happens to run into the person that can take him to John Connor, and that one person just happens to develop a personal attachment strong enough to set him free. And in a world of Terminators, why is only one following John Connor through the factory while he wrecks the joint?
My hope, and my assumption, was that Sam was this new breed of Terminator (though why the machines would need him seems insane when they already have two different kinds of liquid metal terminators) who left the factory before he was imprinted with whatever relevant information. In the absence of that information, his natural human instincts take over. He’s fallen through the cracks as far as SkyNet’s concerned: it doesn’t even realize that he’s alive, but when he shows up at their front door, Helena Bonham SkyNet (yes, she plays SkyNet briefly) decides to fix that right up, activates his machine brain. Marcus’ struggle then becomes holding onto his humanity long enough to ensure John Connor does whatever it that needs doin’. He heroically sacrifices himself while protecting John. This encounter would leave John unsteady in the face of what the true potential of the machines are. Maybe his goal then becomes trying to convert machines to the Gospel of Humanity (because, c’mon: John Connor: Jesus Chris: JC. Same guy) because he realizes that in a brute war, the machines will undoubtedly win. Instead, we get a shitty heart transplant that makes us wonder where Mr. Connor will be getting the immune system suppressors he’s going to have to take the rest of his life: and what blood type do machines have?
The movie leaves us with a heavy handed parable about the strength of the human heart as, in a move only a twelve year-old with a Metallica notebook would think is deep, John now has a machine heart (except not really: it’s some dude’s). I know my version doesn’t exist, but I wish it did. It would be better than ending a movie with two monologues.
Coming up next, in what is a very appreciated breath of fresh air, are a group of family friendly 80s sci-fi movies: Short Circuit 1 & 2, Batteries Not Included, E.T., and Flight of the Navigator.