Brutal, intense, and irreverent, the original “Terminator” (1984) was anything but a Sunday School story. And yet, it was one of the best messianic allegories of the past 25 years.
In the biblical Christmas story, two forces are at work. One sends a mysterious messenger from the Other World to inform an ordinary young woman that she will miraculously conceive a child; this child, it is later discovered, will defeat the forces of darkness at the battle of Armageddon. The other force tries to win the future battle by killing the child before he can grow up and save the world. Since King Herod, a servant of this other force, doesn’t know which specific child is the Chosen One, he has all the babies of the same age massacred. More mysterious messengers arrive from Another World, giving the woman gold and other valuables; and being warned, she and her child flee to the deserts of Egypt to wait out the massacre. The scripture says·that Mary “pondered these things in her heart” as she helped her son follow his Father’s footsteps to prepare for his ultimate mission.
In the first “Terminator” movie, directed by James Cameron, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is the ordinary woman whose child is destined to lead a resistance against hyper obedient machines that threaten to destroy all humans. The classic SF conflict between technology and human intuition is in play. Using time travel, the machines try to vanquish their enemy by preventing his birth. “The Terminator” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives in the past (our present), naked, buff, and determined to fulfill his mission. Like King Herod who killed all the babies in order to execute the one he was after, the terminator goes after all the Sarah Connors in the phone book with both barrels of his massive shotgun blazing.
Meanwhile, back in the future, her grown-up son, John, the leader of the future resistance movement, has sent his not-yet-father, Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn), back to the present to protect his mother and, in what was a surprise twist, consummate John’s “miraculous conception.” As the film ends, Sarah Connor is escaping into the deserts of Mexico, pondering what has just happened and preparing to train her son John for his destiny as the prophesied leader in Armageddon. Despite the guns, the profanity, and the unmarried sex, “The Terminator” was an amazingly complete and satisfying Christian allegory.
In the biblical allegory, Satan begins as a U son of the morning,” one of the chosen angels who falls from grace and becomes the archenemy of God, trying to rule humanity and take the glory for himself. One of his names, Lucifer, is a reminder of his former light and glory. In “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), the classic Satan myth is reversed when the Terminator is reborn as a disciple of John, coming back to protect rather than destroy young John Connor (note his initials).
It has been six years since the last “Terminator” filled the silver screen, and many felt that the franchise should end when original director James Cameron left. Despite Cameron’s participation as writer, T-3, “Rise of the Machines” (2003), .directed by Jonathan Mostow, diverges from the serious allegory. It is, in fact, pretty silly. Nevertheless, I was hopeful that the latest installment, “Terminator: Salvation,” would live up to the franchise’s original promise. I call this new film a “circquel” because it is both prequel and sequel, taking us into the future in order to tell us how the story began, and thus complete the circle. In a word, it delivers.
You don’t have to buy my allegorical interpretation to enjoy this film; it works on every level. As science fiction it presents the classic war between man and machine, while ironically taking advantage of machine-generated computer graphic capabilities that were not available even five years ago. This future dystopia is set in a bleak, gray world where the sky is starkly white and everything else is awash in shades of gray and black. Clint Eastwood painted with a similar palate in his “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) by using a special processing wash that leaves behind the silver alloys in the film. In “Salvation,” director McG (it’s time for him to grow up and use his real name!) creates the same effect through computerized treatment of every frame of film.
CG technology also allows bullets, shrapnel, and robot arms to fly directly at the audience without the use of awkward 3-D glasses, because computers don’t have to be careful of shrapnel hitting the camera lens. The result for the audience is a two-hour thrill ride of dodging bullets and debris from the safety of a theater seat.
In the new story, 25 years have passed and the machines have almost won. Pockets of resistance fighters are hiding in bombed-out buildings and using shortwave radios to hear the disembodied voice of John Connor (Christian Bale) giving them encouragement and direction. John, meanwhile, listens to the tape-recorded voice of his mother giving him similar encouragement and guidance. His task now is to find 17-year-old Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), and eventually send him back to the past to protect (and impregnate) Sarah Connor.
Although John Connor is an important character in the film, the story centers on a new Christ figure, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a hybrid who is stunned to learn that he is half human and half machine. (I wouldn’t reveal this fact, had it not been highlighted in the trailers.) Wright’s character allows us to explore the film’s central theme – what it means to be human. It also fits the allegory, since Jesus himself was a hybrid, both human and divine. More important to the allegory, one of these two Christ figures makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life so the other can continue the battle against evil. I expect the sacrificial one will return at a critical moment in the next episode, just as Gandalf did in the “Lord of the Rings.”
Several new characters are introduced without overshadowing the original characters and storyline. Jane Alexander is underutilized as Virginia, the leader of a small resistance group who gets scooped up by the machines. I anticipate her return with a larger role. Young Jadagrace Berry is remarkably mature as the deaf-mute girl befriended by Kyle Reese and is surely destined to be healed by one of the Christ figures in a future episode.. Moon Bloodgood (great name!) as the fighter pilot who falls for Marcus (after he rescues her as she dangles from a parachute) is likable, strong, and unassumingly gorgeous. I hope her character returns in future episodes; she is heroic in “T-Salvation,” but there is a lurking possibility that she could become the fallen angel in future episodes.
“Terminator: Salvation” is a competent addition to a well-loved series. McG and fellow television directors, such as J.J. Abrams and Jerry Bruckheimer, are proving that directors today can successfully commute between the box and the screen. T-4 satisfies on its own terms, while setting up the next installment in what promises to be an exciting new trilogy. If you haven’t seen the first “Terminator” you won’t understand this one very well, so be sure to rent the original before watching “T-Salvation.”