Image from 'Terminator Salvation'
Terminator Salvation is a solid entertainment but unfortunately too beholden to contemporary big-budget  action-movie conventions. Analysis by S. T. Karnick.

Sweetness and light beat darkness and seriousness at the U.S. box office this past weekend as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian easily outdrew Terminator Salvation.

The "Terminator" films are about the takeover of the world by machines, and unfortunately the series has itself manifested that phenomenon, being increasingly taken over by special effects and action sequences at the expense of identifiable human concerns.

Terminator Salvation, the fourth film in the apocalyptic action series, is heavy on action and sensational visual effects, but weak on the things that originally made this series so popular. It will please audience members who don’t expect too much from it.

While Battle of the Smithsonian did better than expected, bringing in $70 million during the four-day holiday weekend, Terminator Salvation fell far short of expectations in taking a still-healthy $53.8 million. Families comprised nearly half of the audience for Battle, whereas men constituted 70 percent of the Terminator audience.

It’s possible that many of the latter conceived of themselves as having better things to do over the holiday weekend, but that’s certainly a factor having to do with the film itself. Terminator Salvation is the first in the series without Arnold Schwarzenegger as a primary character, and the series has moved increasingly away from the personal, intimate approach of the first installment (in which the fate of Sarah Connor was at the center of the story, and her relationship with Kyle Reese is at the forefront).

True drama is created when characters with whom we can identify are forced to make difficult moral choices. That requires the creation of strong characters and the crafting of situations where they are forced to decide between conflicting goods and harms–not just strategic questions (how best to defeat the enemy) but instead situations involving difficult tradeoffs (such as whether to allow an innocent person to be put in mortal danger in order to save others).

Unfortunately, Terminator Salvation tends to fall short both in creating characters and in crafting interesting new dilemmas for them, instead relying too much on contemporary action movie conventions and cliches. The hollowness of most of the characters and the lack of real, personal dilemmas undermine the drama of the film, leaving only the flash and bang, which are admittedly diverting but leave one wanting more soul.

The use of apocalyptic imagery and Christian themes certainly has helped sustain interest in the series, and Terminator Salvation retains those elements and builds on them (particularly the theme of self-sacrifice, always so strong in the series).

However, the move away from human scale in The Terminator to today’s generic, world-scaled action movie approach–going further down the same road that pretty much ended at Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines–make the film much less interesting. In particular, elements repeated from Transformers and Steven Spielberg’s uninspired remake of War of the Worlds suggest a serious lack of imagination and inspiration.

As with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, James Cameron, cowriter and director of The Terminator, was not involved in making Terminator Salvation, and his ability to place strong human relationships at the center of momentous events (Titanic, Aliens, The Abyss) is sorely missed here, as is that of his cowriter and producer for The Terminator, Gale Ann Hurd. (Hurd’s involvement in the Fox TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is evident in the show’s stronger presentation of character relationships.)

The people behind Terminator Salvation certainly appear to have tried to create some relationships among the characters and thereby force them to make some dramatic choices, but the characters are continually overwhelmed by the big events swirling around them. Hence it’s difficult really to care for them as they tend to remain somewhat generic stand-ins for real human beings.

In this regard Christian Bale and Bryce Dallas Howard in particular fall short, whereas Sam Worthington does a superb job of making Marcus Wright real, human, and appealing–rather ironically, given a plot element which I won’t reveal here.

Despite all of these elements working against it, Terminator Salvation earned significantly more money (in nominal dollars unadjusted for inflation) in its first weekend than The Terminator did in its entire theatrical run, and it’s likely to do well overall. Nonetheless, although the producers have left room for a sequel, it’s difficult to envision further installments having much attraction for audiences unless the series begins again to accommodate real human beings with real human concerns.

For that to happen, it would perhaps be a good idea to return to the low-budget, human-centered approach of The Terminator, though that’s exceedingly unlikely at this point.

–S. T. Karnick