I think films (like Terminator Salvation) strive to achieve in two areas: On a very visceral level, bringing you a lot of special effects explosiveness and fun, because that is what you want from a Terminator movie, but also, it will have more resonance if you have interesting themes.
We have a theme about the burden of destiny in the John Connor (Christian Bale) character and we have a theme about what makes us human in the Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) character. So I think at the end of the day the movie is largely about becoming. About John Connor becoming the leader of the resistance. About what is it that makes you human, which is the whole point of the Marcus Wright character: Where does humanity lie?
I think those themes goes a long way in the movie and during the journey we also blow-up a few things.
—McG, director of Terminator Salvation
Not having seen any of director McG’s previous films (or those of co-star Sam Worthington), I must say I was quite surprised at how well TERMINATOR SALVATION turned out. As McG himself noted at a pre-release press conference, “There’s nothing about the body of my career that would suggest I’m the right guy to make a TERMINATOR movie.”
Which is exactly what I thought, but the film itself puts all those reservations to rest. As McG notes, he has managed to weld some very memorable action sequences, of quite searing intensity, onto a framework that carries themes with a certain amount of resonance. In short, it’s a formula that makes for a nice restoration of the TERMINATOR franchise, especially after the previous installment was clearly heading in the wrong direction.The major fault of T-3 : The Rise of the Machines was that it took the time-traveling concept that had been set-up so carefully in the first two movies by James Cameron far beyond what was logical, or more importantly, believable.
TERMINATOR SALVATION, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also wrote T-3, corrects that fault by firmly setting the action of the film in the year 2018. Therefore, we have no time-traveling characters or the inevitable paradoxes they invite. Instead, we are introduced to a death row inmate, Marcus Wright, who agrees to let his body become the basis for an experimental Cyborg program being developed by scientist Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter). Resistance leader John Connor inadvertently frees Marcus when he leads an attack on the Skynet laboratories, which sets the new story into motion.
As Marcus Wright, the Australian actor Sam Worthington is a huge asset, giving TERMINATOR SALVATION the kind of subtle performance that Arnold could never reach. And since Worthington is mostly unknown in America, there can be no preconceptions about him. We can’t tell in advance if he may be a force for good or for evil, which is a question that John Connor himself must decide when he first encounters Marcus.
Of course, this idea of good guy or bad guy has been a re-current twist in all the TERMINATOR movies. Sarah Connor didn’t initially know if Kyle Reese was trying to save her or kill her in THE TERMINATOR. Likewise, in TERMINATOR 2 we weren’t expecting Arnold to be a good Terminator. So in TERMINATOR SALVATION, we also wonder if Marcus is good or evil, man or machine, Iago or Prospero?
Given such a fascinating ambiguity in his character, it’s no wonder Sam Worthington takes the ball and runs with it, basically playing a macho action character with an astonishing depth of feeling and pathos. In fact, much to its advantage, the entire first half of TERMINATOR SALVATION centers not on John Connor, but on Marcus Wright, whose amnesia has left him totally unaware that he has been reborn as a cyborg into a brave new world. Thus, he sets out in a journey to discover who he is, wandering through a beautifully realized vision of the American West, after the nuclear Armageddon of Judgment Day has left Earth a desolate wasteland.
All these stunning visuals are captured by cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, along with the assistance of the F/X wizards at ILM and Matte World Digital, who provide us with such iconic vistas as these: the steel hulk of Los Angeles skyscrapers, as seen by Marcus from the remnants of the famed Hollywood Hills sign; an escape by Marcus and Kyle Reese across the Rio Grande Gorge bridge near Taos, New Mexico; an attempt to reach Skynet’s Marin county headquarters by crossing San Francisco’s half destroyed Golden Gate bridge; and most excitingly of all, a fabulous Ray Harryhausen-type of action sequence set at a decimated 7-11 store in the New Mexico desert.
Strangely enough, most of the more exciting action scenes involve only the Marcus Wright character and not John Connor. Which leads one to wonder why Christian Bale, who reportedly was asked to play Marcus, turned that plum part down in favor of the far less interesting role of John Connor! Perhaps he felt he had already explored a similar character in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, where he plays a man who is both very tough, but still quite tender.
In any case, Bale’s loss becomes Sam Worthington’s gain. Ironically, Worthington was cast for his first major Hollywood film by James Cameron in his upcoming 3-D extravaganza, Avatar. At the TERMINATOR SALVATION press conference, Worthington was asked if he had sought Cameron’s advice before accepting his role as Marcus Wright. He replied, “I told Jim Cameron they wanted me to do it and I explained to him what I wanted to do with the character. He thought it was a good idea and told me not to fuck it up and that was about it. Then he went back to working on Avatar. It’s totally weird that I finished Avatar on a Friday and started shooting TERMINATOR on a Monday. I found it fascinating to still be involved in Jim’s world.”
Based on his work in TERMINATOR SALVATION, Worthington will certainly be an actor to watch in the future, especially in Avatar, where he plays a paralyzed former-Marine who travels to another planet and attempts to infiltrate the alien inhabitants by combining his own DNA with those of the aliens.
Worthington not only gets the best action scenes in TERMINATOR SALVATION, but most of the more memorable emotional scenes, as well. Christian Bale’s role, on the other hand, is extremely predictable. He doesn’t take center stage until the last half of the movie, and even then his action scenes become the kind of thing we’ve already seen far too many times in the first three movies.
Which is why, if there is to be a TERMINATOR 5, it might be best if there is a shift of focus away from John Connor and towards the character of Marcus Wright.
TERMINATOR SALVATION (May 21, 2009). Directed by McG; Screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; Produced by Moritz Borman, Jeffrey Silver, Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson. Executive producers, Mario F. Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna; Cinematography by Shane Hurlbut; Film editor: Conrad Buff; Music by Danny Elfman; production designer: Martin Laing; Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson; Terminator makeup and animatronic effects by John Rosengrant; Sound designer: Cameron Frankley; ILM visual effects supervisor: Charles Gibson.
Cast: Christian Bale (John Connor); Sam Worthington (Marcus Wright); Moon Bloodgood (Blair Williams); Helena Bonham Carter (Dr. Serena Kogan); Anton Yelchin (Kyle Reese); Jadagrace (Star).