The great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose books were the basis for Blade Runner and Minority Report, wrote:
Within the universe there exist fierce cold things [machines]. Their behavior frightens me, especially when it imitates human behavior so well that I get the uncomfortable sense that these things are trying to pass themselves off as human but are not. . . . The greatest change growing across our world these days is . . . the momentum of the living towards reification, and at the same time the reciprocal entry into animation by the mechanical. We hold now no pure categories of the living versus the non-living.
From Frankenstein to The Matrix, the revolt of the invented against the inventors is a staple of science fiction. Anxiety is produced not just by "the rise of the machines," as the subtitle to Terminator 3 has it, but even more by the "reciprocal entry" of machine and human into one another. The latest entry in the Terminator franchise, Terminator Salvation, set just after the so-called Judgment Day, when the machines nearly eliminate the human species, comes at this issue by introducing a new character into the series: Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a vicious killer executed for his crimes but reborn as a machine-human hybrid, upon whose choices the plot pivots.
As a summer action flick, Terminator Salvation delivers the goods: entertaining battles, captivating chase scenes, and high-octane explosions. In fact, it's better on that count than most critics give it credit for being. Its attempt to say something important about humanity falls flat, as does its surprisingly sparse efforts at humor. Perhaps the director, McG (a.k.a. Joseph McGinty Nichol), and screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris felt compelled to talk about humanity because the film does such a poor job of displaying it.
The original Terminator was lean, captivating, and funny. It was also fresh, both in its plot and in the way in which it played off classic science-fiction and film-noir motifs. In noir films, the past haunts the present, as characters find themselves repeating, or being trapped by, some antecedent deed or event. In T1, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) protests, "This is a mistake. I haven't done anything." Kyle Reese responds, "No but you will. It's very important that you live." In Terminator's world, humanity finds the future bearing down on them in the present.
Terminator Salvation is a prequel to the three Terminator films already released (in 1984, 1991, and 2003), and it features John Connor (Christian Bale in a disappointingly bland performance) as the heroic resistance fighter against the machines. To remind him of his destiny and his origins, he has a worn picture of his mother, Sarah, and the recordings she prepared for him. The main plot line here has Connor saving the life of his father, Kyle Reese, who is at this point younger than his son. Given the complicated, intersecting plot and timelines — a result of time travel — the film spends a great deal of time trying to make the whole thing hang together. It is less confusing than it might be, but it fails to flesh out the characters in the way intended.
Aside from the case of Marcus Wright, there is little possibility here of confusing the human and the machine. The latter are huge, Transformer-like creatures designed to smite. One never suspects that one might have a conscience or be able to mask itself as a human. Wright's hybrid has possibilities, but they are never really developed. The question of his identity is raised repeatedly in the film, but his quest to determine who and what he is lacks the drama and mystery of, say, Deckard's quest in Blade Runner. By comparison, Wright is merely an unconvincing plot contrivance.
The best the film can do in the way of humanizing its characters is to have Connor announce that humans do not make decisions based on "cold calculation." Of course, Hollywood, only marginally human itself, is one of the coldest calculators around, and that is why we end up with summer-blockbuster sequels and prequels that have no business being made.