(some spoilers below)
It occurred to me while watching Terminator Salvation that the reason the film sucks so hard is that John Conner, as a character, is the least interesting character in Cameron’s creation.
He was a mere idea in the first film and a cypher in the second. I don’t think that was accidental. In a way, making any film about this character — or this idea of a messiah — will fail because there isn’t much there.
Much as the story in the original Star Wars trilogy was never about how Darth Vader became Darth Vader or how the Empire managed to dominate the galaxy far, far away, the story in the Terminator films is not how John Conner saves the world. To begin telling this story represents a real misunderstanding of what made the first two Terminator films work.
That the third and fourth films have failed to deliver on the promise of “John Conner, messiah” has everything to do with the fact that there isn’t anything to John Conner. Here we never get any real sense that this role as “messiah” weighs on John except from what Bale brings to the character. There’s a weariness to his portrayal that is appropriate, but never feels quite right because we just don’t know who the fuck John is.
The moment when he sees the plans for the T-800 (the Arnold Schwarzenegger model of Terminators) doesn’t have the weight it should. The moment is so rushed you almost miss its significance. Same when he finally meets the T-800.
Even the film sorta knows that the Marcus Wright character is the most interesting character, but even that fails to resonate because his character is never developed. He gets in one battle, saves Blair (obligatory female warrior), and they fall in love in a 2-minute scene. The film wastes the opportunity to depict the “two sides of the same coin” -ness of Marcus Wright and John Conner by rushing the set up.
I wanted to like Terminator Salvation a lot though. Mostly because Christian Bale can do no wrong (despite being terrifically good in American Psycho, The Machinist, and the Batman reboots, his finest work will forever be as Emily Watson’s bored as fuck husband in Metroland), but also because I so enjoyed the first two Terminator films. This one is well-made and there’s a great idea and story at the core of this.
But shoddy execution ruins it.