Why Terminator Salvation is not a terrible movie.

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Spoilers follow.

If you were to follow my Twitter, you’d know that I watched Terminator Salvation yesterday. You’d also know that my reaction to the movie was positive. And so I won’t bore you with a review of the film, but instead, an analysis. Lots of people who make lots more money than I do have already reviewed the crap out of it and they got to see it before it was officially released. I am not in a position to get special screenings and so I’ll take the high road and rely on the far less time-dependent nature of analysis. I mean, they’re still analyzing Plato and that was sooo last millennium.

Most good science fiction stories are based on a simple idea. It is usually possible to distill the essence of the story into a “what if” type of question. Since the Terminator franchise is science fiction, it seems to follow that there’s an idea somewhere in underlying story, the action, the explosions and the scary freaking skeleton robots. The first Terminator movie is by far the best thing the genre has created. And the germ that lies at the heart of this now sprawling franchise might have a pitch that looks something like this:

What if a robot assassin from the future were sent back in time to kill a woman before she can give birth the savior of mankind?

From this germ, the idea is expanded. We already have, of course, the robot apocalypse. We also have time travel. And then, to make things even more crazy, the savior, upon discovering this plot, sends one of his best soldiers back in time to stop the robot assassin. Even better? The soldier sent back is the one who will sire the savior of mankind.

It’s a brilliant story, but it can only go so far.

We can make one decent sequel. The robots try again, sending a more advanced robot this time, armed with the newest in CGI technology. This time, the savior sends a reprogrammed robot assassin back in time to save his own rebellious teenage ass. It follows pretty well. It makes sense. At the very least, it’s fun. It still needs little to no extra explanation. It holds its own as a science fiction story. Maybe it’s not as good as the original, but it’s got our attention. We get all that emotional garble that is admittedly pretty seamlessly integrated, but still shows a very common tendency in science fiction to ask the question, “What if robots had feelings? Does that make them human?” The thing that saves it is that most of the world didn’t know that it was a cliché, though plenty of science fiction nerds did.

I have a confession to make. I have never seen T3. It looked really bad and while I usually will get around to seeing just about everything that even remotely appeals to my science fiction sensibility–I saw Wolverine twice and I hated it the first time around–I somehow managed to miss this one. Based on what I’ve read, I haven’t missed much and that doesn’t surprise me. It seems like a backhanded attempt to make further cash-money by rehashing the same damned plot from T2 with a hot chick terminator. Absurdly bad sci-fi.

That brings us to Terminator Salvation and what it means for the franchise and what it means as science fiction. Schwarzenegger was apparently treated to an early screening and was “underwhelmed.” To be fair, he didn’t see the whole movie, but he said he “wasn’t sure who the terminator was,” which is a pretty telling remark of a)Schwarzenegger’s complete ignorance of anything of substance and b)the fact that this is not a “terminator film,” in the sense of T1 and T2. It’s a completely different type of story. You see, Terminator 2 was really a remake disguised as a sequel. Same plot. Same characters. Slightly different take.

What are the common elements of the first two films? Robot assassin, time travel. T4 is missing the time travel element, though it retains the robot assassin designed to blend into a human society. But at its heart, it draws from a completely different science fiction mode. This is a post-apocalyptic film. It’s in the vein of Mad Max, A Boy and his Dog, and, well, most of Harlan Ellison’s stuff. The other films were, more properly, pre-apocalyptic films. In the original films, Judgment Day is a sort of vaguely defined event some time in the future. It’s a fearful event just beyond our vision. It’s mysterious, terrifying, and the fact that it is unknowable is what makes it so terrifying. In T4, it’s a history lesson. It happened a while ago.

This is what I mean by the fact that it totally abandons the original concept of the former films and draws upon something artificial, that is, the specific mythos of the original films with which to build its story. The first two (or three) films were based on the same idea and were, in essence, iterations of the same idea (two different tellings of the same idea, though passed of as sequential). This new creature continues chronologically, but not necessarily building on the original concept. It is, instead, based on the specific plot events that transpired in the original films.

The original film is pure and undiluted. Characters were created to fill necessary roles in a drama based on a “what if?” question. The new film is answers the question “What happens next?” if Judgement Day were to actually occur. Thus the original idea is diluted and it is now about something completely different. Put another way, the first film answers the “what if?” question and the second film, answers a second “what if?” question using the end of the first film as its initial conditions.

Again, at its core, it could be any robot apocalypse movie. The fact that it draws from an established mythos is beside the point. All this gives us is easy plotting: John Connor has to save his teenage father so that he can send him back in time to shack up with his mother. The rest of it is essentially the same as any apocalypse movie (zombie, robot, nuclear, or otherwise): Survive.

In other words, the proper way to make Terminator 4 would be to say, “Let’s make a robot apocalypse movie” and then use the Terminator mythos as a convenient vehicle for setting up the scenario that plays out in the film. In many ways, it feels like this is exactly what McG did.

Understanding the film from this perspective, we can see that it’s actually pretty stupendous. Post-apocalyptic movies should be terrifying. That giant robot is damned terrifying–the sound effects are pretty key in establishing this tension, I might add. In fact, zombie and robot apocalypse movies have a lot in common in this respect.

In some ways, it is still a “Terminator” movie. Skynet employs a lone robot assassin in an attempt to kill John Connor. The twist is that the robot assassin doesn’t know that he’s a robot assassin. He thinks he’s a human. That’s cool. I can get behind that.

In the end, however, this is just too different a film to actually be thought to spawn from the same original idea as James Cameron conceived it. As a standalone story, it’s solid–decent action, tolerable acting, fair-to-decent scripting, excellent pacing–and that’s how it should be viewed.

After all, it’s been a while since we’ve had a good robot apocalypse movie. At the very least, it’s a hundred times better than the last two Matrix films, though for accomplishing that, I don’t think we should give McG a medal or anything. Just a pat on the back, I think.