Expectations have a lot to do with reactions. If you take a bite of ice cream and it tastes like steak, you will be a little grossed out even if you really like steak.
I think that’s why there is such a wide range of opinion regarding the new Terminator: Salvation movie. People have a wide range of expectations, and how well the movie meets those expectations determines what they think of it.
Here’s what the movie is not: It’s not The Dark Knight, it’s not a meditation on time travel, it’s not about impending nuclear war, it’s not about man’s inhumanity to man, it’s not about the moral choices you have to make when you know something nobody else does, it’s not about fate and choice. Further, it’s not a screenwriting masterpiece, a character study, a love drama, or a comedy.
Once you get all that stuff out of the way, it’s a pretty enjoyable movie.
Instead of beginning with the infamous John Connor, it starts with some murderer named Marcus. Marcus is clearly a bad person, a person given an opportunity to give something back.
After this simple introduction, we are given the experience every fan of the Terminator franchise has been waiting for; fighting Skynet, post-Judgment Day. Robots tromp through empty cities, looking for humans to destroy. People fight to stay alive, some hoping to eventually join the Resistance. Metallic efficiency is pitted against human ingenuity in the classic match up of What We Made vs. Who We Are.
Along the way, some simple themes manage to worm their way to the surface, such as the value of human life vs. scientific perfection or knowing people by what they do rather than by appearances. But really, who cares?
Movies so often attempt to struggle with deep philosophical themes, and generally I appreciate that. Even so, it’s a lot of fun to spend two hours with a movie that is simply logical, mostly consistent, action-packed, and has a clear story. In more ways than one it is structurally similar to Lord of the Rings, with all that is good threatened by the power of the unquestionably bad.
There is something refreshing about people united against an unambiguously evil enemy. They have their differences, but in the end they all fight for the same thing. They display impressive levels of trust in and for each other, and express compassion and sympathy for the choices others make. In short, something about the constant foxhole mentality brings the characters together in an entirely believable and consistent way. More than that, they are forced to recognize each others’ inherent worth. After all, if all you have left to fight for is the survival of humanity, it tends to give individual humans a lot of importance.
For Christians, it is a great opportunity to appreciate the value of every human person as made in the image of God. So often the movies and books we watch and read caricature one group or another, one class or another, one person or another. This constant glorification of struggle between the world’s version of a “good” person or group vs. a “bad” person or group can easily cause us to separate people into categories that are neither fair nor helpful. Perhaps you’ve considered being a missionary to China; but have you ever really considered being a missionary to the Chinese government?
However, our mission as Christians is to bring a single solution –Jesus Christ- to a world with a single problem –separation from God caused by our sin. Our mission can only be inhibited by the way we are always separating the, “good,” from the, “bad,” and allowing that to drive our evangelism.
Terminator: Salvation isn’t much beyond a fun summer action movie, fleshing out the story of John Connor’s fictional rise to power in the Terminator mythology. Don’t expect more. But as you watch, cheering every time humanity manages to outwit the robots, allow yourself to realize that saving humanity from evil robots sounds great, but saving humanity from its own selfish sin is better… and a lot more realistic.