Terminator: Salvation had so much potential when it hit theaters in 2009. Instead of following the T-800’s story or undoing the bleak ending to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Salvation boasted a new story that finally gave us the heroic John Connor who has been promised since the first movie in 1984. With writing support from Jonathan Nolan and starring Christian Bale, both of whom had just made the mega-smash The Dark Knight, and co-starring Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, with then-up-and-coming Sam Worthington as cyborg Marcus Wright, Salvation seemed like the rare prequel that could effectively stand alongside the later films.
So, what went wrong? While Bale might say it has something to do with a production assistant messing up lighting, Salvation director McG recently offered his own thoughts. “We got so close to nailing that thing right,” McG told The Hollywood Reporter. “I got a lot right in that movie but didn’t quite stick the landing.”
The ending that they didn’t stick finds Connor mortally wounded in a resistance attack that destroys Skynet’s supply of weapons, including the newly-designed T-800s. Despite the mistrust directed toward him, Wright sacrifices himself to save Connor’s life, allowing the resistance to continue its fight. If he could have done anything different, McG says that he’d have “stuck with the dark ending that we photographed that got cut.”
The director doesn’t share his planned ending with The Hollywood Reporter, but he has mentioned it before. In a 2009 discussion with EW, McG describes an ending in which Connor dies and Marcus’s sacrifice plays out differently. “Marcus offers his physical body, so Connor’s exterior is put on top of his machine body.” The heroes later meet this version of Marcus, thinking that it’s still John Connor. But in the last moments, “Connor gets up and then there’s a small flicker of red in his eyes and he shoots Kate, he shoots Kyle, he shoots everybody in the room.” In this movie, “Skynet wins.”
While that ending does certainly differ from the one on screen, it’s hard to say that it would have improved the reception of Salvation. After all, similar plot threads occurred in the movies that followed, and they haven’t been particularly well-liked. In 2015’s Terminator: Genisys, John Connor becomes the most advanced Terminator, the T-3000, and in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate, a T-800 finally completes its mission and kills young John Connor in front of his mother, Sarah.
But perhaps the greatest takeaway from these other films is that nothing is ever final in the Terminator universe. Despite catastrophic stories that seem to spell the end of beloved characters, later Terminator movies find new ways of exploring its fluid timeline, allowing us to infinitely revisit the war between man and machine.
Despite these facts, McG remains disappointed with the way the film has been received. As he assures The Hollywood Reporter, “I tried, Terminator faithful, I tried.”