Reel Rumbles #38: ‘Terminator Salvation’ vs. ‘Alien Resurrection’

25 Aug

In This Corner…

In recent years, there’s been a number of once-dormant franchises – particularly franchises that began in the 1980s – being resurrected with a third sequel. Not every franchise warrants a fourth movie, but we’ve recently seen Rambo, Live Free or Die Hard, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull…to varying degrees of success. (Surely, it will not be too much longer before some genius decides to make Back to the Future Part IV.)

There are two science fiction franchises, however, that share a very similar pattern of quality in their four movies. The first two films in both series are widely considered classics (and, in fact, all four films rank in the Top 100 of Flickchart’s list of the Best Films of All Time). Both had their reputations tarnished by a lackluster third film (yet even those movies have their defenders). And both had pretty definitive trilogy conclusions blown open by the arrival of a fourth film.

These “fourquels” might be considered unwarranted, even unwanted. One promises “resurrection”, the other “salvation”, but the results may be somewhat less than heavenly. Yet, some people may find them better than the disappointing third movies. And when you are presented with them on Flickchart – and you admit that you’ve seen them – the question is, “Which is better?” Care to find out? Step in to the Reel Rumbles ring as we pit Terminator Salvation vs. Alien Resurrection

Round One: Story

From a story perspective, there really is no compelling reason for either of these films to exist. Though, in the case of Terminator, it can be argued that the most grievous damage was already done by the previous film.

The first two Terminator films, both written and directed by James Cameron, told a complete story. By the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the impending rise of SkyNet and the downfall of the human race at the hands of machines has been averted. Then, twelve years later, came Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and the “no fate but what we make” attitude of T2 was thrown out the window. Judgment Day was instead proven to have only been postponed, as inevitable as a sunset at the end of the day.

As a sequel to T3, then, Terminator Salvation exists in a much different environment than the previous three films. It involves no time-traveling cyborgs from the future (indeed, no time travel – a staple of the franchise – takes place at all); it takes place in a future in which the machines have already won, and instead becomes a post-apocalyptic war movie. In a way, on its own terms, it succeeds, providing plenty of action, but in many ways, it doesn’t feel like a Terminator film. It doesn’t help that Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of the previous movies, is conspicuously absent. (No, digitally plastering his face onto the body of another naked bodybuilder doesn’t count.)

Alien Resurrection, meanwhile, is able to commit sins entirely fresh and new. Alien3 was a film with a troubled production from start to finish, and it shows, but it brought a trilogy of films to an blatant end: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), lone survivor of the first film and action heroine of the second, was dead, having sacrificed herself to prevent the alien that had gestated inside her from escaping.

The “Resurrection” in the title of the fourth movie doesn’t just refer to Ripley, cloned 200 years after her death (along with the alien in her chest). It refers to the opportunity to bring back to life a dead cash cow. The resulting chaos is another movie that doesn’t feel like any of the three that came before it; a bit of a difference here is that each of the four Alien movies actually has a flavor pretty distinct from the others.

Though it’s easy to be harsh on the very existence of these films, the truth is that, while neither rises to become anything special, both Terminator Salvation and Alien Resurrection are decent, action-packed films. Shall we measure this round in terms of crimes committed against their respective franchises? In that case, Terminator Salvation narrowly wins this round, 10-9.

Round Two: Script

Terminator 3 scribes John Brancato and Michael Ferris returned for Terminator Salvation, which is probably the main reason why Salvation was a direct sequel to T3, as opposed to possibly having anything to do with the spinoff television series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, that was running at the time. With Judgment Day having already occurred, the writers were faced with presenting a vision of a bleak future in which mankind battles for survival against sentient machines. Instead of the flashes presented in Cameron’s Terminator films, the entirety of Salvation (save an opening scene) is spent there. There’s a lot of action, and a subplot about a Terminator who thinks he’s human. Things move right along, and there’s little depth to the proceedings. Salvation is a pretty typical post-apocalyptic action movie.

Alien Resurrection sprang from the pen of fanboy god Joss Whedon (he of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, and currently working on one of next year’s big Marvel movies, The Avengers). But despite the following Whedon may have among fans of sci-fi and fantasy, Resurrection is not his best work. Ripley and the alien are cloned, the alien escapes aboard a spaceship, havoc ensues, there are icky-creepy scenes between star Weaver and the aliens as they get to know each other.  Resurrection has a bizarre sense of humor (which may come from the director as much as the writer) that seems oddly out of place in an Alien movie, but at its core, it’s a fairly generic action-horror movie.

What does either of the scripts have that the other doesn’t? Whedon at least manages to inject a few memorable lines into Resurrection (none better than when Ron Perlman gripes, “Earth. What a sh-thole.”) It’s a narrow distinction, but, coming right down to the bell, we’ll hand this round to Alien Resurrection, 10-9.

Round Three: Performances

The producers of Alien Resurrection were at least smart enough to realize that an Alien movie without Ellen Ripley would be less than half as awesome. (Of course, then came Alien vs. Predator movies, but I digress…) And they made Sigourney Weaver the highest-paid actress of the time to secure her return. Even if it’s a bit of a stretch – even for sci-fi – it was a smart move. Though the clone in Alien Resurrection is not quite the same Ripley (particularly given her disturbing connection to the aliens), she is the lead that the movie needs.

Fortunately, she’s also surrounded by some suitably colorful support, notably from Ron Perlman, Leland Orser and a terrifically creepy Brad Dourif. As second lead, Winona Ryder is pretty generic – unfortunate, as in her depiction of one of Alien‘s robots, she follows excellent performances by Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen – but she fills her role adequately. None of the performances help to ground the crazy goings-on in the film, but they at least provide color.

The performances in Terminator Salvation, by contrast, are nearly monochromatic. As Marcus Wright, the Terminator who thinks he’s human, Sam Worthington gives the best performance in the film. (This is interesting, as, later in the same year, he seemed fairly generic in Avatar.) Anton Yelchin is plucky as a young Kyle Reese – the man who would go back in time to become John Connor’s father in the original Terminator – but the rest of the supporting cast winds up being forgettable.

The biggest surprise is the normally dependable Christian Bale. As the supposedly charismatic and inspiring leader of the human resistance, Bale huffs and growls his way seriously through the part, at times appearing to resurrect his gravelly Batman voice from The Dark Knight. When a highly respected, future Oscar-winning actor is not automatically the best John Connor in the franchise’s history, you have a problem.

If only because Bale is just a little disappointing, while Weaver remains dependable, Alien Resurrection takes this round, 10-9.

Round Four: Direction

If, without watching either of these films, you were to compare their directors’ resumes, you might predict Alien Resurrection to automatically win this round. But Terminator Salvation manages to score a few hits here.

The director who simply goes by the name McG had directed two Charlie’s Angels movies and a high school football film, We Are Marshall, before nabbing Terminator. And while Angels prepared him somewhat for shooting action, it’s not a body of experience that makes him an obvious choice. But the truth is, McG keeps the pace going, and there are a few inventive action pieces in Salvation. My personal favorite is a tracking shot that weaves in and out of a crashing helicopter with Christian Bale inside.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is not, based on past experience, an obvious choice for Alien, either. But his is a body of work more acclaimed. Resurrection remains his only Hollywood film, but his French films like Amélie and Delicatessen score highly on Flickchart. Alien is a departure for him, to be sure, but he brings a definitely unique aesthetic to the proceedings. Visually, Resurrection is a bit of a departure from the past films, and maybe that’s what rankles with some Alien fans.

A little inventive action and pacing is not enough. For good or ill, Jeunet does bring a unique visual style to Alien, and that helps him pull ahead of McG in this round.

And the Winner Is…

The truth is, neither of these is a bad movie. But neither do they have a prayer of reaching the heights of their predecessors. Did they ever? If you were to watch all four movies of each franchise back-to-back, Terminator Salvation might feel like less of a sin, following, as it does, Terminator 3. But it can’t escape the fact that the actor who made the franchise what it was is missing, and Christian Bale doesn’t manage to fill Schwarzenegger’s shoes. On the other hand, its competition boasts the reliable presence of Sigourney Weaver and Jeunet’s quirky style. The winner of this bout, by a nose, is Alien Resurrection.

More Sci-Fi Matchups in Reel Rumbles:

And debate the superior origins of the Alien saga (and Reel Rumbles) with Alien vs. Aliens.

Author’s Note: For any fans of the Terminator franchise who were disappointed by Terminator Salvation, I would indeed recommend checking out the short-lived TV series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The show used an inventive time-travel twist to erase the events of Terminator 3, and while I initially worried about the re-casting of such an iconic role, Lena Headey does an admirable job at filling Linda Hamilton‘s shoes as Sarah Connor. The show also features the franchise’s best John Connor, if only because Thomas Dekker has so much more screen time to work with. It is a shame that the show was treated as nothing but a glorified commercial for Terminator Salvation; it was superior to the movie in almost every way, true to the spirit of Terminator, while expanding on the universe. It was cancelled before its time.

  • Tom Clift

    Completely  agree with this result. I actually like ALIEN: RESURRECTION quite a bit more than ALIEN 3…T4, on the other hand, I have practically no memory of at all

  • Ryan Stuckey

    Terminator: Salvation made me physically angry (mainly because I actually paid money to see it in the theater). There were just constant stupid things happening in it that it was impossible for me to enjoy it at all. I was too busy rolling my eyes and audibly sighing.

    I actually kind of like Alien: Resurrection.

  • Ryan Stuckey

    Terminator: Salvation made me physically angry (mainly because I actually paid money to see it in the theater). There were just constant stupid things happening in it that it was impossible for me to enjoy it at all. I was too busy rolling my eyes and audibly sighing.

    I actually kind of like Alien: Resurrection.

  • Fitz

    In Whedon’s defense the studio all but destroyed his script. His script would have had the ship crash landing on Earth and Ripley combating it.