When the latest edition in the Terminator series was announced, I had little hope for a good film. McG, director in charge, has a less than appealing portfolio and the process of reviving yet another old and popular movie series didn't really sound too creative either. But against all odds, Terminator Salvation turned out to be a worthwhile visit to the theater, although true fans of the series might be quite disappointed.
I've always had a rather peculiar bond with the Terminator series. Didn't really like the first film, but the no-nonsense, almost comedic approach of the second and third films really appealed to me. Since the series is rather silly story-wise, with some sci-fi nonsense and end of the world panicking thrown in for good measure, and the Terminator itself never looked all that scary or impressive to me, a darker approach felt a little out of place. The second and third films seemed to be aware of this pretty well, even made it work to their advantage.
The thing with Salvation is that it's better not to expect anything like the first three films. Although the universe and props are more or less the same, the tone of the film is completely different. They traded the 80s kitsch, more story-oriented blah and laid back nonsense for continuous big explosions and a pretty well destroyed planet Earth. This is sure to put people off, especially avid fans of the series, but I actually appreciated the change of tone, not in the least because they pulled it off quite well. If anything, it was nice to see the Terminators done in a way where they actually looked menacing and impressive.
Story-wise, this fourth instalment is pretty much a complete mess. There are plot holes a plenty, depending on how much you are prepared to fill some gaps yourselves, yet the main storyline is as linear and simple as can be. And even that they couldn't get right. Little boy gets caught, Conner goes after him to free him before the resistance attacks enemy HQ. Clue of the story is that the little boy is actually Conner's father and killing the boy might result in deleting Conner altogether. Biggest question is of course why they didn't kill the boy right away, though you could argue that they wanted to lure Conner to HQ to kill them both and be absolutely sure of their annihilation. As if I would care about such trivial stuff in a film like Terminator.
Anyway, Terminator Salivation is a more straightforward and easy to stomach Hollywood action film. The thing that surprised me the most was the almost impeccable styling of the film. Sure, there are plenty of films out there where things blow up and sci-fi machinery is involved, but somehow Terminator Salvation looks a lot dirtier and grittier than its Hollywood origins would have you believe. The lighting in particular is awesome, with many dark scenes dominated by a combination of monochrome color schemes. Not achieved by using simple color filters but by tweaking the actual lighting it seems.
Another surprising strong-point of Salvation is the creature design. Never been a big fan of the Terminator designs, but they look particularly sleek and sexy in this film. The big bots and flying machines too, though their designs are a little more generic. What really blew me away though were the Terminator bikes. It's very rare to see such great design potential transferred into the actual film. Usually it stays with cool concept art which is then totally butchered, but seeing those T-bikes fly by is really something.
The explosions look big and impressive, the action is energetic and the film remains visually pleasing and consistent throughout. Not so much the technical side, but the designs and lighting give the film its visual flair. It's hard to filter these films from the usual Hollywood fair as fans of these kind of films seem to have little interest in all of this and usually blabber about plot holes in a meaningless story, so more often than not I simply pass these films by not knowing what I might be missing. Which is a shame, because some of them are really worth watching.
If you think films like Terminator Salvation need a solid storyline and well-developed characters, you would do best to stay away from this film. It's a complete wreck in that department, especially if you're expecting a film that consciously and continuously supplies you with information to cover all the possible leaks in the story. To me, Terminator Salvation is about stuff blowing up, cool-looking bots and all of that set in an atmospheric context. Since that's where it delivers in spades, I'm more than happy calling Terminator Salvation a good film. As a film, it doesn't deliver all that much, but where it delivers, it actually shines.