Though his track record in television is something to be very proud of, with Charlie’s Angels and the following sequels standing out as the highlight on his filmography, some might question how McG managed to land a directorial position on the big-screen return of James Cameron’s gargantuam Terminator franchise. Needless to say, the fans, at first, were restless. But that was before details started to trickled out, kicked off nonetheless by the revelation that Christian Bale had signed on to play John Connor, and people started to realise that this could actually be pretty good. Two hundred million dollars later, via a well-publicised, if unfortunate, on-set scream-a-thon, promising preview footage and some amusing ‘big robot’ envy between McG and Michael Bay, and the film is suddenly one of the most talked about cinematic events of the year, and certainly in the running to be one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters. And yet it still hasn’t quite rid itself of all the doubters.
The Terminator franchise is one that could do without another lacklustre entry. Sure, T3: Rise of the Machines raked in the cash worldwide, but it was generally a massive disappointment, only managing to stave off my own personal dissatisfaction with a daring closing segment that, in stark contrast to all that had come before it, was actually really good. There is nothing wrong with a series having a bit of a giggle at itself, but what T3 fundamentally misunderstood for most of its runtime was that tongue-in-cheek is fine as long as the tone of the movie focuses on the story, rather than the joke. The first two films were very serious, not to the point of being po-faced, after all Arnie does give John Conner the thumbs up whilst descending slowly into a molten furnace of metallic martyrdom, they simply possessed a dark, intense atmosphere that kept them running at 100mpg until the closing credit. Despite the dubious qualities of the third film, this is a franchise that is well loved by the public and critics alike. It is something of a rarity in its field; an action-packed, sci-fi, time-travelling extravaganza that also has the intelligence and wit to stand out from the crowd. Given that the best moments of T3 involved neither Arnie’s Terminator or new addition the T-X (Loken), it makes sense that Salvation should be set in a new time with a new cast, continuing the bleak prospectus laid out at the end of the third film, and suggested throughout the prior two.
The winding storyline linking the films is a bit of a brain-teaser, but does fundamentally make sense, assuming one avoids the sort of niggling time-paradoxes that even Stephen Hawking has been unable to solve yet. The series revolves primarily around John Connor and his immediate relations, or soon to be relations, and their attempts to deviate the events of the past, which past exactly depends which film you’re watching, away from the apocalyptic future they all know is coming. The Terminator, film number one, introduces us to Sarah Connor (Hamilton), soon to be mother of John, who is pursued through 80s America by an inhuman killing machine from the future, the titular antagonist, that, as Michael Biehn famously tells us, “absolutely will not stop”. Michael Biehn’s character, Kyle Reese, is human and has been sent back from the future, by John Connor, now leader of the human resistance, in an effort to prevent it from killing her. Thus we have the basic premise of the first film. Things get a little more awkward when it becomes clear that Kyle, who was sent back by John, is actually John’s father from the past. But the film crucially, like its sequel, was written and directed spectacularly by James Cameron, maintaining a gritty sense of tension and interesting character development.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day made a killing at the box office and practically revolutionised special effects, something Cameron has always been fascinated by, and is to this day. It also broadened the scope of the first film to include John Connor as a character, and a young boy, and introduced the crucial element of the series, judgement day, in which a self-aware artificial intelligence, Skynet, annihilates most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. Not exactly children’s stuff. The film’s genius comes partially through its technical brilliance, winning four technical Academy Awards, but also through its characterisation. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is by this point incarcerated in a psychiatric institution, and taken a turn down the wild side. The character has become a classic of action cinema and this transformation, coupled with the inclusion of her son as protagonist and the shocker of having the original Terminator reprogrammed to fight off a second, more advanced model (Patrick), made the film successful on all levels. It was simply the perfect sequel. The fact that the characters are working together to avoid the end of the world, foreshadowed as early as the first film, through Kyle Reese’s dreams, provides an interesting, and menacing, setup that never feels forced.
The third film capitalised on the success of the first two and introduced a new storyline involving John’s future wife Kate Brewster, played here by Claire Danes, and a series of future military leaders that constitute the targets for new antagonist the T-X to hunt down. The T-X, unfortunately, bore little real threat and wasn’t particularly interesting. As we said earlier, however, the real juice of the third film comes at the end, when John and Kate are directed to a secret bunker, thinking they are headed for Skynet’s operational core. When it turns out to be a nuclear fallout shelter the realisation sets in that Judgement Day has not been prevented, but simply postponed. A depressing thought, and one rendered even more poignant by the film’s final shot, in which the nuclear missiles launched and the terror begins.
And so ends the ‘first trilogy’, assuming McG’s reinvention of the franchise takes off and is turned into a new one. Perhaps ‘trilogy’ is an unfair term given the fact that James Cameron had no involvement in the third, but according to McG he has given his blessing to the fourth, which is good news for fans at least.
So does McG have what it takes to handle such a celebrated franchise. His confidence and enthusiasm are perhaps the qualities that turned it in his favour. Even with multiple rewrites, including the emergency involvement of prominent screenwriting figures Paul Haggis and Jonah Nolan, McG still managed to rope in Christian Bale, amass a huge budget, and get everyone excited about the Terminator franchise again. That’s some achievement.
Terminator Salvation is out May 21st in America and June 3rd in the UK, and will be reviewed in the June edition of Fan the Fire, online May 22d.