August 25th 2010

Terminator Salvation: Trial by Fire

By Timothy Zahn

Review by Mervyn Charles

Everyone loved the original Terminator film. The concept was great, the lead performances were all infused with a brooding or desperate menace and it made a star out of Arnie, meaning he was able to go on to bigger things like Commando. T2 was oddly compelling for an all-action Hollywood blockbuster that sacrificed storytelling for explosions.

Then someone decided to unleash the awful Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. If ever a movie had no business being made, it was T3 and woe was me for paying good money to see that nonsense in the cinema.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles neatly sidestepped the lunacy that was T3, managing to revert to classic Terminator themes such as destiny and the human nature in place of one-liners, guns, explosions, more guns, car chases and even bigger guns. Terminator Salvation could have continued in that same vein but that film will be remembered for the infamous Christian Bale rant than for its storytelling quality as the producers obviously decided to stick with the guns, explosions and more guns formula with the added twist of lots of pumped up actors shouting “YEAH” at the camera every five minutes.

Can this Timothy Zahn novel reinvigorate my love affair with all things Terminator, move the franchise away from big-budget explosions and low-rent acting and take it back to the basics of simply being a compelling tale?

Set a few weeks after the events in Terminator Salvation, the main arc of the story is centred on two supporting characters from Terminator Salvation, the pilot Blair Williams and Barnes, John Conner’s lieutenant. However, no thing Terminator-related would be complete without one of the main characters so we have a sub-arc centred on Kyle Reese as he settles in to life in the Resistance.

Anyway, back to the main plot as this is where things begin to unravel very early on in the story. The Resistance won a victory but the war goes on. The majority of the Resistance leaders have been wiped out. Conner is recovering from a heart transplant. So why would he let his second-in-command go on a mission to recover the corpse of his brother who died during the opening scene in Salvation? Zahn explains this odd decision as being about humans retaining their humanity but it doesn’t make sense, militarily or otherwise. There is no place for sentiment in the post Judgement Day world. We know that from Kyle Reese’s description of life in the future during The Terminator but Conner lets his second-in-command swan off on a personal mission at a time when the Resistance is at its most vulnerable to a counterattack by Skynet.

Barnes, accompanied by Williams, fly a helicopter to the site of the attack depicted at  the start of Terminator Salvation, surely a waste of military resources as back at the Resistance base we find Reese accompanying a group of Resistance fighters as they scour an old battlefield for spent ammo casing and any salvageable weapons. So the Resistance are so hard up for weapons they have to scrounge spent bullet casings but won’t miss a helicopter, crack pilot and senior lieutenant for a few days.

Whilst at the battle site, Williams and Barnes discover what appears to be a communications cable leading from the wrecked Skynet base which they decide to follow. The cable leads them to the remote mountain village of Baker’s Hollow, populated by a small community of humans who survived the war between man and machine but are living a hunter-gatherer existence. Among the villagers are three escaped Skynet scientists who are trying to earn the trust of the villagers and therefore their place in the community. Meanwhile a lone human, who claims to be John Conner, makes his way through the forest towards Barker’s Hollow, chased by T-700s and a Terminator Hybrid. It is in this village that Trial by Fire reaches its denouement as the Resistance fighters, the villagers, the scientists and the man who believes he is John Conner meet and we get to the bottom of Skynet’s latest plot to defeat the human race.

Due to events in Salvation, there is a friction between Barnes and Williams. Zahn conveys this well enough in his writing. However at other points Zahn appears to be more interested in impressing the reader with his ability to reel off the names of guns than in telling a coherent story which is a shame because despite some glaring gaps in the plot and a host of weak and predictable characters, this could have been a far more engaging read.

The Kyle Reese arc moves along at a more compelling pace as he and three comrades are trapped underground as their salvage mission leads them into the depths of the ruins of a Skynet base. However this sub-plot could have featured any character and it seems Reese was only included to provide character continuity between the book and the movies.

Despite some good moments, Terminator Salvation: Trial by Fire left me feeling disappointed on completion. I want to miss a novel when I’ve finished reading it. I want to wait for the next instalment and to feel that I have read something worthy of my time. I didn’t get any of those feelings on finishing this book. It could have been much more compelling if Zahn had made the effort to make the characters more credible or even original as I believe the best way to continue the Terminator franchise would be to take it away from the silver screen and commit it to the written word. Instead, Trial by Fire ended up continuing in the same vein as what was an awful film.

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