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Originally Posted by Hercules Rockefeller
That was so ****ed up, someone didn't know how to end a movie and took the easy way out.
Apparently they were kind of re-writing the movie as they went along.
Lots and lots of Spoilers:
EXCLUSIVE: WHAT WENT WRONG WITH TERMINATOR SALVATION?
* By Devin Faraci
* Published Today
This article, while about an alternate version of Terminator Salvation, does contain spoilers for the version in theaters now.
The Terminator Salvation you saw on movie screens this weekend was not always the Terminator Salvation that was meant to be. Like in the franchise itself, history has been changed, and the original script for Terminator Salvation ended up getting gutted. You can still see the outlines of that script in the current film (a form of deja vu, as similar vestigial script elements can be seen in this summer's blockbuster hit Star Trek), but the specifics that might have made Terminator Salvation if not better at least more interesting are gone.
What caused these massive changes? And what were they? The biggest change came when McG flew to the UK to talk to Christian Bale about starring in the fourth Terminator movie. The director wanted the Batman star to play Marcus Wright, the cyborg protagonist of the script. But Bale focused on another part: John Connor. The only problem is that John Connor had about three minutes of screen time in the entire film; most of Connor's moments were played offscreen. In the original script John Connor was the secretive leader of the Resistance. He lived on the HQ sub, and almost no one saw his face, so as to keep him hidden from the robots. Connor made radio addresses and existed as a legend for the fighting men and women of the Resistance, but in the original script Connor didn't show up onscreen until the last minutes of the movie.
You may remember in late 2007 when the rumor that Bale was signing on to Terminator 4 surfaced there were two competing reports: while Aint It Cool had Bale tipped to play Connor, we had him tipped to play a Terminator. As you can see both are correct; for a little while people involved in the film were assuming that Bale was going to let go of the Connor idea and move over to the Marcus role, but he had something else up his sleeve: massive rewrites to beef up the John Connor role.
Watching Terminator Salvation as it exists in theaters it's easy to see that this was a bad idea. The script that ended up getting shot never quite finds anything for John Connor to do. If you were to remove Connor from the film, relegating him once again to radio voice over, almost none of the film's plot would be changed. It's likely that the new Connor scenes were the work of Jonathan Nolan, who did do a lot of writing on the film, but who was denied credit by the WGA. The reason would be that all of the work Nolan did was cosmetic - adding Connor scenes that had no bearing on the film's structure or plot.
Bale's desire to star as John Connor was probably the most fatal blow to the film; it completely distorted the shape of the story as it existed. But the other fatal blow came from the internet. When the original ending of the script leaked - John Connor is killed by a Terminator and has his skin grafted onto Marcus Wright, who takes up the shadowy leader's place as the leader of the Resistance - many people went crazy. On the surface it seemed like a major slap in the face of the franchise, and doubly so on paper: John Connor, the guy who the entire franchise is ostensibly about, shows up for two and a half pages, gets killed and has his face transplanted onto a robot (in the original script it's actually just the face that gets slapped on Marcus).
There are differing reports as to how far that ending made it. McG has gone on the record again and again saying that was never the ending he wanted (he came on to the project after the script we're talking about here was written), but there's a lot of contrary evidence, including on-set reports that have 'Connor becomes robot' written on production calendars. The entire finished film itself feels like evidence that the original ending was always the intended ending. The movie seems to be inexorably building towards the 'Connor dies' finale, including elements like endless scenes featuring Sarah Connor's tapes, obviously intended to give Marcus/Connor a primer on John Connor's life and destiny. In fact, when John Connor got a pole through the chest I was excited - had McG been lying to us all along and kept the original ending?
Of course he wasn't. The film's biggest weakness comes in the final minutes, which feel almost completely slapped on, as the character we've been following makes a sudden and boring sacrifice. The air just explodes out of the movie as John Connor's rescue feels utterly unearned, and the ending of the movie is so final that you walk out of the theater not caring whether or not the future war is ever again revisited.
So what might have been? Before the Bale rewrites and before the internet kiboshed the original ending?
With John Connor relegated to the shadows for most of the film, the original Terminator Salvation focused more on the relationship between Kyle and Marcus. Star was always there, and was essentially always just as useless, but without the constant cutaways to pointless Connor scenes the film was able to delve more into Kyle/Marcus. The script spent time examining what it was like living in a post-apocalyptic world, and was more definitively R-rated. At the gas station Marcus saves Kyle and Star from a group of cannibals, throwing one of them into an open fire (intended as a callback to the biker on the stove in T2. It's important to note that the original script by extraordinary hacks Brancato and Ferris - the guys who wrote The Net, Catwoman and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines - is not some discarded gem. It's got plenty of problems of its own).
But again, with Connor out of the script the relationship between Kyle and Marcus gets to grow, which gives Marcus' later quest to rescue Kyle more weight. And the early scenes where Kyle can't drive are paid off in this script, first with a sequence where Marcus teaches him to drive and later, in the third act, where Kyle gets the final heroic beat he's missing in the finished film.
As in the final film Kyle and Star are captured by Skynet and transported to Skynet City, but with one major change: Skynet has no idea who Kyle Reese is. This is a point that bothers many viewers of the final film; I'm not radically concerned, as Kyle Reese's time traveling shenanigans are public record enough that it's believable Skynet would have found out about him while taking over the world's computer networks. But by having Skynet not know who Kyle is the original script removes the machines' idiotic plan to bring John Connor to Skynet City instead of simply killing his dad. This feels like the kind of change that was made to give John Connor more to do, since the whole sequence where Connor convinces the Resistance forces to step down doesn't occur in this script (and why would it? He's Michael Ironsides in this movie).
Marcus' adventures with Blair are slightly different. In the original script he saves Blair from a pack of rabid wolves as opposed to horny rapists. This scene was important because it gives Marcus his first awareness that he's much faster and stronger than he used to be, something he couldn't quite prove against humans in a PG-13 movie (although could you wreck a group of wolves in a PG-13 movie?). In the finished film Blair and Marcus have a tender moment; the original script takes things very, very differently: Blair offers Marcus a STAF. That's Sit Tight And ****, a phrase in common use in the Resistance. See, it's a horrible, miserable future and the humans of the time have gotten over their petty prudery. If the only joy they can get is ****ing, why not take it? Life is cheap and they may not live to see the next night, so tap whatever ass you can.
The next big change comes when Marcus is captured by the Resistance. John Connor remains offscreen and he interrogates Marcus via com-link. But Connor is thinking like the John Connor who has become used to temporal assassination attempts, and he believes that Marcus has been sent from an even more advanced future to kill him. Meanwhile, we have more cutaways to Kyle Reese being transported to Skynet City; this script really forwards Reese in a way that the finished movie fails to do.
Marcus escapes the Resistance more or less as seen in the finished and heads to Skynet City. And it's here that the major changes really come into play.
In the original script the title Terminator Salvation actually meant something. Watching the finished film it's hard to figure out why it has that name - is it because Marcus saves Connor's life in the last minute? In the original script Serena has a bigger role than a quick cameo, and she explains the salvation element.
Marcus comes to Skynet City and finds... a seaside resort populated with humans. He sees Terminator landscapers! It turns out that Skynet hasn't been trying to wipe out humanity. It's been trying to save us.
This is perhaps the most bizarre idea in the whole script, and the one that most obviously doesn't work. It seems as though Brancato and Ferris thought people liked the Matrix sequels, as this all feels like it could be in those films. See, Serena heads Project ANGEL, which is making Hybrids (ie, Cyborgs). The reason? Skynet did a calculation and realized that humanity was going to be extinct in 200 years; the machines decided to save a few by turning them into Hybrids and wipe the rest out. It makes no sense, and is the kind of thing that makes you wonder if these guys ever even watched the previous Terminator films.
What's fascinating is that the Project ANGEL stuff lasted well into production. While I was on set I was given a security badge that gave me access to all the stages; it had Project ANGEL's logo on it. While being given a tour of pre-production artwork we were told more about Project ANGEL and the role it would have in the movie, a role that's completely removed from the final film. At the time I visited the set it seemed like Serena was going to show up in person at the end of the movie, just as she does in the script, and I saw artwork depicting that.
It's here that you can really understand where Terminator Salvation fell to pieces. The film was being rewritten, piecemeal, on the set. Instead of re-engineering the whole picture it seems like McG and company were just tackling each segment, figuring out how to get John Connor more involved without fixing the underlying structure at which they were picking away.
Serena, a cyborg herself, meets Marcus and explains Project ANGEL and the seaside resort to him. She also explains the Transport chip - it's embedded in all cyborgs and prevents them from feeling pain and emotion. She then gives Marcus a tour of the whole Skynet City, showing off the T-800s that are being developed and giving him a peak at the T-1000 and T-X in the earliest stages. She also shows him the time machine technology they've been working on, and the neural net AI database of human brains, which will allow the Terminators to better act like humans and as such better infiltrate human encampments.
Then the big shock: Marcus is too late. Kyle's brain has been removed and he's been uploaded to the neural net database, and Star has been terminated. All hope is lost, and Serena has activated his Transport chip, so Marcus can't do anything.
Just then there's an explosion. Serena is distracted and, just like in the finished film (where it actually makes less sense), Marcus rips out his Transport chip. He then jumps into the time machine, which burns his clothes off, and he goes back in time just far enough to rescue Kyle and Star, grab a laser weapon and set off the explosion that distracted Serena (whether or not Brancato and Ferris were watching Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey while writing this scene is unconfirmed). And then the action begins.
The trio try to escape Skynet City with Kyle driving an ATV, paying off his driving lessons. They're pursued by Hunter/Killer Terminator Tanks, and they take most of them out as they rip through the seaside resort (including killing one Tank by... making it drive into a pool), but they end up on a dock and with one last H/K tank about to end them. Then suddenly Blair shows up leading an airstrike that destroys the tank. Then the sub surfaces, and John Connor finally makes his appearance, leading human troops in combat against the Terminators at the resort. Connor and Kyle meet, but it's not a big moment.
Marcus has rescued a bunch of humans while at Skynet City and the Resistance take them aboard the sub. Everybody is happy and it seems like the Resistance has won the day when Marcus suddenly realizes that Serena is among the refugees. She attacks, blowing off his arm and gut shooting John Connor. Fade to black.
Later Marcus wakes up in the hospital. Blair tells him that they're covering up Project ANGEL - even within the film this was too stupid to let anyone know about it. But there's bad news: John Connor's not going to make it. His wound is fatal. On his death bed John Connor gives Kyle the picture of Sarah Connor (when I interviewed Anton Yelchin he confirmed that this scene had been cut before shooting, which he thought was a good idea. That does make it seem like the original ending was never intended for production). John and Kate beg Marcus to take up the mantle of John Connor - since no one has really seen him anybody can be him. The legend is bigger than the man, they insist.
Marcus agrees, and John Connor's face is grafted onto Marcus (this, it turns out, is the source of Connor's scars. You would think they would have cut off his face from the back of the head, under the hair, but I guess not), despite the fact that nobody really knows what Connor looks like anyway. But it's done, and Connor dies and Marcus now must step up and lead the Resistance into the future.
In a lot of ways the original Terminator Salvation script is still poking through in the final film. In fact, except for the additional John Connor nonsense in the first two acts, the opening two-thirds of the movie (minus the prologue, which was not in this script) more or less follow the original beats. These are the best parts of the movie, and it's when the finished film moves into the third act that everything starts falling apart. It's obvious that McG and Jonathan Nolan never really cracked their own third act, and without the death of John Connor they never found a reason for this movie to even exist. In effect what they've done with their undercooked third act is make a movie that's a TV episode - in the end everything is more or less back at the status quo. And by backgrounding Kyle and robbing him of his third act heroics, the finished film has taken away its only other good reason to exist, namely that it's the beginnings of the Connor/Reese friendship.
Would the original ending have worked? People would have walked out of theaters mad, no doubt. But it was a ballsy idea that could have been executed better than it was in the script. You don't even need to do the face transplant - have Marcus be the original owner of those John Connor scars the whole movie and they'd read like a reveal at the finale. The ending of Salvation now is so pat that it isn't the opening of a new trilogy but just another boring prequel, setting up things we already knew about. Killing Connor would have been shocking and would have added drama to the upcoming installments. Hell, it sounds like Skynet City offered pretty great technology to the heroes - why not have Connor's brain downloaded into Marcus' body?
These are all pointless considerations now. The finished film opted to play utterly safe, and as a result it's a lump without buzz or excitement. Ironically Bale's demand to beef up John Connor, which led to a final film that is utterly distended, would have perfectly set up the character's demise. The biggest problem with Connor dying at the end of the original script is that his death carries no weight as he's a nobody throughout the film. But in the current movie, which feels like it's building to that death, it would have been the kind of surprise that works, one that's had a foundation laid.
The beefing up of Connor led to the diminishment of Reese, a big problem in the final product. Anton Yelchin came on to Terminator Salvation at a time when he was the second lead; I imagine his demotion must have been disheartening. And to audiences it's disappointing as Yelchin is the best actor in the piece. A Terminator Salvation with twice as much Yelchin might very well have been a movie that was more enjoyable, in the same way that Star Trek overcomes its script handicaps with great casting.
Looking at this weekend's box office it's likely that Terminator Salvation is the end of the franchise. And it's probably the end of Christian Bale forcing major rewrites on projects as well. I do think that a smarter rewrite of the original Brancato/Ferris script, one that allowed for a truly shocking ending, might have turned out a film whose failure at the box office would have been worth mourning. While I enjoyed myself watching Salvation, at no point did I really give a **** about what was happening or what was going to happen next in the series. McG and Nolan muddied the end of the picture, delivering action generics (yet another Terminator fight in a factory) while never finding their own hook that would give this movie more of an impact than you would get from an expanded universe novel. The only thing that was really, truly broken in Brancato and Ferris' script was Project ANGEL, and the finished film doesn't really give Skynet any better motivation for collecting humans. McG, fearing the fan backlash (which was already starting when the original ending leaked) opted to 'fix' the element that least needed fixing.