If the prospect of a fourth Terminator film has caused you to emit a weary groan and wonder how they could even consider it without Arnie – he’ll be too busy governing California for this one – then you’re not alone.
Even Terminator Salvation’s director, McG (Charlie’s Angels), was sceptical at first. Speaking to a small group of journalists and enthusiasts at a sneak preview in London’s West End last year, McG expressed his initial doubts about continuing a franchise that many had presumed was killed off by its star’s decision to run for political office. McG admitted that he couldn’t imagine a Terminator movie without Schwarzenegger, until the producers outlined their vision for a film set after the apocalyptic events shown at the end of Terminator 3.
The six-plus minutes of footage that was shown to the assembled few, taken from the early stages of post-production, revealed that the action takes place 10 years on from the nuclear apocalypse that closed the underwhelming Terminator 3. Having wiped 95 per cent of mankind from the globe, the machines are busy mopping up the last vestiges of the human resistance.
McG talked enthusiastically about the film’s pre-production process, and about scriptwriter Jonathan Nolan, brother of director Christopher and co-author of, among other things, The Dark Knight. Indeed, the director compared Salvation directly with that film, and with the recent Bonds, in that all three attempt to take a popular franchise ‘back to basics’, stripping away any sense of glitz or irony and focusing on character, drama and gritty, intense action.
He also talked about his decision to cast Christian Bale as underground leader John Connor, and about the star’s initial resistance to the role. When originally approached, Bale apparently made it abundantly clear to McG that he wasn’t interested, until the director was able to work his persuasive magic by convincing Bale that the film would work both as serious drama and as action summer blockbuster, staging a ‘cold table reading’ of the script to prove to Bale that it could work as drama without the benefit of special effects and stunts.
Connor’s role is clearly the script’s central focus – McG talked about how he approached the character, who will eventually become even more of a messianic figure for humanity. By the time the film begins, Connor has been attempting to convince survivors of the need to fight back for some seven years, with little success. Salvation (and its potential sequels) will take him from unloved wanderer in the wilderness to humanity’s saviour, as he uncovers the machines’ plan to harvest human DNA and develop the android ‘T-800’ model, as played by Schwarzenegger in the first film.
On the subject of sequels, McG refused to be pinned down, obviously waiting to see if the film makes money before setting anything in stone. But he did confirm that both Bale and Nolan have signed on for two more films, and the potential for a broader story arc seems inherent in the material.
Special effects supervisor John Rosengrant then took the stage, enthusing about the ‘groundbreaking’ nature of the effects in the film, which combine CGI and old-fashioned mechanical effects. He also talked about the late, great Stan Winston, whose work on the first two films helped to define modern effects technology. Rosengrant and McG both talked about how they had to ‘retrofit’ the robots from the previous films to make them look clunkier and less sophisticated than later models, referring to character Kyle Reese’s description in the original terminator of the bulky, prosthetic ‘T-600’ models. The director compared these models to Soviet tanks – unwieldy but brutally effective.
The screened footage was extremely rough, with several effects sequences unfinished, replaced by blue screen shots and ‘animatics’ (animated storyboards). Some of the more impressive new gimmicks included giant ‘Harvester’ terminators, which collect human specimens for use in genetic research and development, and speedy motorbike terminators that patrol the roads. Overall, the film has a gritty, Matrix-inspired look, taking place in ravaged, barren landscapes and in subterranean bunkers where resistance fighters, under the leadership of Connor and Michael Ironside’s General Ashdown, plan their campaigns.
Overall, Time Out is optimistic about the new film. Both Nolan and Bale have a convincing pedigree. The footage was breathlessly impressive, fast-paced and intense. The robotic effects and action sequences look astonishing, and from hints and supposition we can assume there are a few genuine narrative surprises in store (though McG insisted that the supposed ending leaked onto the internet some months ago, in which Connor himself would turn out to be a robot, was a definite fake).
The overriding problem could be one of familiarity. In its future-messianic overtones the plot has echoes of both The Matrix and the new Battlestar Galactica, while another giant mechanical movie, Transformers, could well have stolen some of Salvation’s robo-thunder.
But as the footage screened a second time, all such doubts were swept away. There’s no mistaking that this is an attempt to produce something genuinely substantial, not just a slice of light summer entertainment but a solid character piece with intelligence and heart. This approach may no longer be new, but as Casino Royale and The Dark Knight have conclusively proved, it can certainly be effective.