It’s Back to the Future! Terminator Salvation’s Time Warp Left Me Dizzy

c sarristerminator salvatio Its Back to the Future! Terminator Salvations Time Warp Left Me DizzyTerminator Salvation
Running time 115 minutes
Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris
Directed by McG
Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Helena Bonham Carter

McG’s Terminator Salvation, from a story and screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, stipulates a post-nuclearized, post-apocalyptic America in the year 2018. Yes, 2018! That’s only nine years from now! I may actually live that long. And for what? As the elliptically named director McG, tells us in the movie’s  production notes: “We’re telling the story of the becoming of John Connor, the becoming of Kyle Reese, the strengthening of Skynet, and where our humanity lies. This is the moment when humanity takes a stand against the machines.”

I have quoted this passage only to inform my readers that it makes very little sense to me even after seeing Terminator Salvation. The problem may be the result of my never having become addicted to the Terminator series James Cameron initiated in 1984 with The Terminator, which he eventually followed seven years later with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. All I retained from these first two Terminator films was the serio-comic image of Arnold Schwarzenegger with machine-made muscles. I didn’t pick up on all the intricate time-travel subplots in which characters from the future send terminators back into the present to make sure that they are born, and that they are enabled to mature into the future. Hence, all the palaver in McG’s synopsis about this character “becoming” and that character “becoming.”

As it happens, I never did get to see Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003. By this time, Mr. Cameron had become a master of the universe with the global success of Titanic (1997), and had presumably outgrown the Terminator series. The point is that co-screenwriters Mr. Brancato and Mr. Ferris, who wrote the screenplay for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which posited the nuclear apocalypse that John Connor and his mother, Sarah, had spent their lives trying to prevent, have now written the story and screenplay for Terminator Salvation. In so doing, they have created a new character named Marcus Wright and played by Sam Worthington. We first meet Marcus on death row, calmly facing execution for an unspecified crime, being visited by a strange woman, Helena Bonham Carter’s Dr. Serena Kogan, who thanks him for donating his body for some valuable and again unspecified experiment. The execution takes place with a set of lethal needles, but the next thing we know, Marcus is seemingly reborn, and embarked on a mission he doesn’t understand.

Meanwhile, a decisive battle is looming between the forces of the human survivors, led at first by General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), and the machines, led by a nebulous organization known as Skynet. I say nebulous because the only identifiable acting entity speaking for Skynet is Ms. Bonham Carter’s Dr. Kogan. McG has dedicated the film to the recently deceased Stan Winston (1946–2008), who designed the original Terminator robot and all its subsequent variations. He won Best Visual Effects Oscars for James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

Indeed, Winston’s machines are something to behold, though not entirely to believe, even in this age of robotic devices to clear mines and drop bombs on the Taliban without causing American military casualties. The imagined fear that these mechanisms will turn on us is part of the sci-fi fantasy world created with films like Terminator Salvation. I suppose it is a way of escaping our more strongly based fears of a total financial collapse, and an endless series of wars against an infinite variety of insurgencies.

The character of John Connor, humanity’s projected savior, was played previously in his various stages of maturity by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl. For the current version, set 14 years after the nuclear apocalypse, Christian Bale was cast, and he is very effective in the role, as is Mr. Worthington in the role of Marcus, whom John Connor is not sure whether to trust as humanity’s ally, or to suspect as a spy from Skynet sent to infiltrate the human survivors’ base of operations.

Of course, the varied intrigues cannot be resolved one way or another in view of the needed justification for still another sequel of robotophobia, a sequel that I promise myself I will try to avoid. Nonetheless, I cannot completely condemn a movie that has been very competently written, directed and acted, any more than I can blame Mr. Schwarzenegger for all the woes he has encountered while trying to govern California.

asarris@observer.com