The very first "Terminator" spinoff materials – the Now comics – explored the Future War, but aside from flashbacks/flash-forwards, it took another two decades for the Future War to be explored on screen. This makes "Terminator Salvation" (2009) stand out among the saga's screen incarnations, even though the plot points and themes will be familiar to readers of the spinoff materials, particularly Dark Horse Comics' early 1990s work.
"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris reprise their roles, but "Salvation" comes off as a quite different film since it's directed by McG. In and of themselves, the ultra-kinetic action sequences leave little to complain about, although the giant Harvester – which picks up humans for transport to Skynet's labs – smacks a bit too much of the "Transformers" franchise, which was huge at the time. And the special effects are great, notably in a scene where we see Marcus' face with machine parts exposed; the saga has come a long way since Arnold's self-repair scene in "T1."
"Salvation" has a stark tan- and rust-colored beauty that serves to set off this 2018 future from the 2029 future of James Cameron's films that was defined by Hunter-Killers prowling a dark-blue landscape. I also like the look of Skynet Central's exterior, which resembles a "Blade Runner" cityscape. And the interior recalls a sterile sci-fi film, like "2001" or "The Andromeda Strain." All told, it's a nice film to look at.
As established in "T3" and the two "T4" prequel stories ("From the Ashes" and "Sand in the Gears"), the Brancato/Ferris future differs from Cameron's in that it's not so much man vs. machine as it is man-and-their-machines vs. Skynet's machines. The Resistance is on close-to-even footing with Skynet, so this plays more like a war movie than a story of desperate survivors – in that regard, it's a less grim film to watch than one might assume.
The film's biggest problem is Conrad Buff's editing, which is rapid-fire, presumably to accentuate the action. This makes the plot hard to follow. For example, John knows Skynet Central has human captives before Marcus tells him Kyle Reese is among those captives. Presumably, pilot Blair Williams told John, but if there ever was such a scene, it was cut.
Additionally, General Ashdown of Resistance Command insists on a coordinated attack on Skynet before John has a chance to rescue Kyle, but it's unclear why he is in a rush.
The excellent novelization by Alan Dean Foster – in his first "Terminator" jaunt after stints in the "Star Wars" and "Alien" franchises – smooths this out somewhat, but in the film, it's a mess. It's not even clear if the Resistance aims to attack many Skynet bases worldwide, or if several regional Resistance cells are supposed to converge on Skynet Central, in San Francisco. (The former is the case, Foster tells us, but you'd hardly know it from the film.)
It's also unclear how Skynet's embedded signal leads Skynet to the Command submarine. And the functionality of the Skynet signal-jammer is unclear: John and his team successfully test it, but they don't use it later at Skynet Central, when it could come in handy. In short, "Salvation" has complex plot points, but it's presented as a straightforward actioner, as if the writers, director and editor weren't on the same page.
Aside from making the plot hard to follow, the quick cuts and fast pace make "Salvation" feel insubstantial. For example, John jumps from a helicopter into stormy seas, and then we immediately see him in the submarine's war room. The logistics of the sub plucking a man out of the ocean must've been daunting; however, we don't see it. As the film moves forward, a viewer feels like even the riskiest move is unlikely to have consequences for our heroes – and not just the nearly invulnerable Marcus. (This, of course, is an issue with most action films of the early 21st century, but one would hope the "Terminator" franchise might be a cut above.)
For the second-straight film, the franchise makes the odd decision to recast roles. IMDB says Nick Stahl wasn't considered for a return to the John Connor role and Claire Danes wasn't interested in playing Kate again. "Salvation" takes place 14 years after "T3," but was filmed only six years later, so one might assume they needed older actors. Christian Bale is five years older than Stahl, so that might explain that (although more likely, they wanted a bigger name).
But the switch to Bryce Dallas Howard makes no sense, as she's two years YOUNGER than Claire Danes. At any rate, Kate does nothing in "Salvation" beyond standing next to John, looking pretty and reminding us that he has a pregnant wife.
On the plus side, Marcus (Sam Worthington), the human/Terminator hybrid, is an intriguing addition to the series, and he has good chemistry with Resistance pilot Blair (Moon Bloodgood), although – as with all character stuff in this movie -- it's not fully exploited.
The ending of "Salvation" is arguably a misfire. On my theatrical viewing, I thought John received Marcus' mechanical heart. In retrospect, that makes no sense, as the Resistance has no ability to replicate Skynet's procedure. On this viewing, it's clear that John receives Marcus' human heart (previously, John notes that Marcus' heart is still human, and therefore a vulnerable spot).
It's similarly unlikely that the Resistance's surgeons could perform a heart transplant – but obviously, we must accept that they can. Questions about whether John's body would accept Marcus' Skynet-enhanced heart are also raised. And the outdoor surgical theater is strange and potentially not sterile.
Blair's lack of argument over Marcus' sacrifice also suggests this ending was a last-minute rewrite. In Foster's book, John is not gutted in the final battle, and he and Marcus both survive the story intact. It's a less dramatic ending, but a more logical one, and it would allow for Marcus to be used in future stories.
Initial plans for "Salvation" to launch a trilogy were quickly scrapped (perhaps this is why Marcus is killed off), but there would be several follow-up novels and comics.
Perhaps because of its action chops and production design, "Salvation" ranks the highest among the non-Cameron films on IMDB, with a 6.6, compared to 6.5 for "Genisys" and 6.3 for "T3." On the other hand, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic calculate that it got worse reviews than "T3" but better reviews than "Genisys" – and I likewise would rank it between those two films in quality.
(IDW released a comic book issue dubbed a "Movie Preview." It adapts roughly the first quarter of the film, up to the point where Marcus meets Kyle and Star. The rest wasn't adapted, perhaps because of lukewarm reception to the film. As such, "T2" is the only movie to receive a full comic adaptation.)
CHARACTERS AND ACTORS
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton): Sarah is not in the film, having died in 1997 of cancer, but Hamilton does reprise her role vocally, recording the tapes John listens to. Her voice sounds older than it should, but I suppose she was still the best actress for the job.
John Connor (Christian Bale): John, 38 (remember, he was born in 1980 on this timeline), is not the high man on the totem pole among Resistance Command; he merely leads one outpost. It's presumably somewhere in California -- although not in Los Angeles, which they flee in "From the Ashes," or San Francisco, which is home to Skynet Central. However, he has the ear of all the little guys in the Resistance thanks to his regular broadcasts and his prophetic status (which he himself must have spread, although that notion is downplayed). Bale – the fourth actor to play John in a lead role -- is sufficiently gruff and heroic as a man who leads from the front, and he looks somewhat like "T3's" Nick Stahl, although for the sake of continuity, I'd have preferred to see Stahl in the role.
Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard): Kate, presumably also 38, is a Resistance doctor, but she doesn't get much screen time, other than to remind us that she's still around and she's pregnant (as revealed in "From the Ashes"). Howard is the second actress to play Kate, taking over for Claire Danes, who wasn't interested in reprising her "T3" role.
Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin): About 16 years old by John's estimate (chapter 11 of the novelization), Kyle – along with Star – somewhat jokingly calls himself the L.A. branch of the Resistance. He does not know John is his son, and John does not tell him after they meet in this movie. (And, indeed, John never does tell him before sending him back through the time bubble in 2029, as we see in "Genisys.") This fits with "T1," where Kyle does not know he's John's father (although since "T3"/"T4"/"T5" are on a different timeline from Cameron's films, it wouldn't necessarily have to fit). Command knows Kyle is at the top of Skynet's kill list, but they think that's a sign that Skynet is glitchy, not that it's important that Kyle survives. Kyle's dad had been around post-Judgment Day – Kyle notes that his dad tried to fix a radio at their hideout (5) – but presumably Kyle is the last survivor of his family. Following Michael Biehn, Yelchin is the second actor to play Kyle in a significant role; third if you count Jonathan Jackson's turn in "The Sarah Connor Chronicles."
Star (Jadagrace): Kyle's mute companion, she's about 9 or 10 years old by Marcus' estimation (4). She's good at sensing trouble. Kyle gave her the name "Star" because he found her at the ruins of an L.A. observatory, looking skyward (7). The final page of Foster's novelization vaguely hints that she might be a robot, as Marcus notices a red glint in her eye just for a moment, which is probably a trick of the moonlight.
Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood): This Resistance fighter jock is initially the only one in John's Resistance cell who believes Marcus is more man than machine.
Barnes (Common): John's second in command.
General Ashdown (Michael Ironside): The top man in the Resistance, he (for some reason) orders the cells to attack various Skynet bases before John has a chance to rescue the human prisoners from Skynet Central. Ashdown is killed when Skynet blows up the Command submarine.
General Losenko (Ivan G'Vera): Ashdown's second in command and a top man from the Russian military. He's also killed when Skynet blows up the sub, but we'll learn his backstory in the novel "Cold War."
Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington): Born in 1975 – in Abilene, Texas, according to the novelization (10), although Wright's Australian accent puts a lie to that in the film -- he's executed by the state of California in 2003 for, by his own admission, killing someone who didn't deserve it. As he had given his body to Advanced Cyberdyne (15), Marcus re-emerges from a Skynet R&D lab in 2018 as a (very successful) prototype human-machine hybrid. He believes he's human, but he has buried programming that Skynet exploits. His arc is very similar to that of Dudley from "Secondary Objectives," "The Enemy Within" and "End Game" in Dark Horse's "T1" timeline; it's likely that Brancato and Ferris read those comics.
T-800, model 101: Fresh off the assembly line, this classic model (which looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger) attacks John in Skynet Central. This marks the first time the Arnold model is "evil" since "T1." As would be done later in "Genisys," digital effects are used to make the model look like a young Arnold. On the James Cameron timeline, T-800s appeared about a decade later, as they were considered to be new in 2029. When John sees human prisoners, he worries that they are part of the research and development for T-800s (3).
T-600s: The classic endoskeletons are the main bipedal ground models. Some have rubbery faux-human skin that is easily obliterated (4). The film is set just before advanced prototypes such as Marcus Wright and the T-800 are ready. T-600s have one vulnerable spot on the back of their neck (17).
Hydrobots: Water-based Terminators shaped like large eels with claws for a mouth (3).
Harvesters: Giant Transformer-like Terminators that gather up human captives and place them in aerial Transporters (7).
Moto-Terminators: Riderless motorcycles that spring from Harvesters' legs (7).
CONTINUITY AND CONTRADICTIONS
"Salvation" picks up in 2018 during the Future War, in continuity with "T3: Rise of the Machines," the comic series "Sand in the Gears" and the novel "From the Ashes" (but not the "T3" spinoff novels). This continuity will then continue into the further "Salvation" spinoff materials.
Although this is the first screen incarnation (other than flashbacks/flash-forwards) set in the Future War, numerous comics and novels have explored this time (on other timelines), including the Now Comics, Stirling's "Future War" and Blackford's trilogy.
Skynet's technology is progressing faster in this timeline than John expects from what he's been told by Sarah (via Kyle). Notably, T-800 Infiltrators hit the streets in 2018 rather than 2029. However, this time the Resistance is much better armed than on the timeline John heard about, functioning more like a strong (albeit not totally unified) military and less like a bunch of ragtag bands.
Primarily through the appearance of the Russian General Losenko among Command, "Salvation" makes it clear that the Resistance is a unified worldwide military. This seemingly contrasts with "T3," when John waves an American flag in victory. However, it's possible that while the Resistance is international, specific cells still display nationalism. Also, this is a different timeline from the future shown in "T3."
Similarly, we saw cooperation between different nations' Resistance groups in the comic "Hunters and Killers," back on Dark Horse's "T1" timeline. And the idea of Resistance Command being located on a submarine may have come from that comic, which is largely set on a Russian sub.
Kyle's lines to Marcus mirror his lines to Sarah in "T1": "Come with me if you want to live" and his warning that a Terminator "does not stop until you're dead" (4). Later, John tells Kate "I'll be back," a wink-at-the-audience scene-closer.
The survivalists at the mini-mart are like similar groups in "From the Ashes" and "Sand in the Gears": They foolishly believe Skynet will leave them alone if they lay low (7).
Blair and Marcus are attacked by a trio of rogue humans. Previous examples of humans who do not side with the Resistance were found in the Now comics, Stirling's trilogy and the novel "From the Ashes."
Skynet Central is in San Francisco. The city by the bay was also the setting of "One Shot," back on Dark Horse's "T1" timeline, but this is the first time it is significant in the Future War. San Fran will also be the primary setting of "Terminator Genisys."
On this timeline, John gets his famous facial scars – first seen in the Future War scene in "T2" -- when he is scratched by a T-800 that is freezing up after being buried in molten metal and liquid hydrogen.
The idea that humans and machines will converge into one inseparable species is known as the "singularity" theory. It has always been an undercurrent of the "Terminator" saga, but it's particularly overt in "Salvation." It is personified by Marcus, who starts life as a human but is granted a second chance as a machine. John, who sometimes acts "like I'm some kind of machine myself" (11), believes the rescue of the captive humans is important because humans are different from machines; if they behave identically, then the war has no point.
Ultimately, John's life is saved when he receives Marcus' heart via a transplant, but the metaphor is muddy, because this is Marcus' human heart. "Genisys" makes a stronger statement on this issue when John is revealed to be made up of nanobots.
And the end of Foster's novelization flirts with the idea – just for fun, I think – that Star is a machine: Marcus (who survives in the book) looks on as the moonlight is "glinting redly off one of Star's eyes. ... Nothing more than a second of reflection, a singular twinkle. Or a singularity" (17).
TIMELINES AND TIME TRAVEL
As "Salvation" takes place almost entirely in 2018 and chronicles one battle in the Future War, this is the only "Terminator" movie where we get a reprieve from worrying about conundrums of timelines or time travel.
I suppose it is worth noting that John strongly believes they will all die if Kyle dies, which shows his belief in a closed-loop timeline rather than branching timelines. It could also be that 1) he just doesn't want to risk being wrong, and 2) he loves his dad and doesn't want him to die.