Movie Review: Terminator Salvation
The machines are winning.
That's how I felt after “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth installment in a franchise that used to make us care about the characters but has now – in the hands of director McG (“Charlie's Angels”) – turned into a mechanical exercise in pointless action.
Granted, it's great action. Terrific special effects. Pulse-pounding pacing.
But it's a case of diminishing returns. “Salvation” so keeps its characters at arm's length that after a while it really doesn't matter what happens to them.
Like the recent “Star Trek” movie, this is an attempt to reboot a perennial by approaching it from a different angle. The first three “Terminator” films (released in 1984, 1991 and 2003) were set in the “present” and were about preventing Judgment Day, when the world's computers and machines would turn on their human creators.
“Terminator Salvation,” though, is set after Judgment Day. Earth's cities are smoldering ruins.
The now-adult John Connor (Christian Bale) grew up being told he would lead humanity to triumph over the machines. But at this point Connor is only a regional guerrilla commander whose ideas are overruled by the Resistance's hierarchy.
The screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris' pivots on two plots. The first is the development of the T-800, the flesh-encased Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original. Human freedom fighters are accustomed to the more primitive T-600s, which have rubbery faces that don't fool anybody. But the T-800 is so convincing, you'd never suspect it's not human.
Marcus Wright (Aussie actor Sam Worthington) emerges from the wreckage of a bombed-out terminator manufacturing plant with no memories or clothing. He hooks up with a young fugitive named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, “Star Trek's” Chekov) and his mute child companion, Star (Jadagrace), and proves effective at fighting machines.
Actually we've seen Marcus before. In a prologue set in our present, he's a condemned criminal who donates his body to science – or at least to a scientist (Helena Bonham Carter) from some computer company called Cyberdyne Systems. (Gasp!) Once he emerges from the wreckage, he's determined to meet John Connor and, along the way, falls in love with a hotshot jet fighter pilot (Moon Bloodgood).
The other plot is about the efforts of John and Marcus to rescue Kyle, who has been captured by the machines. This is important because at some point in the future Kyle will be sent back in time to protect (and impregnate) John's mother, Sarah.
If Kyle is allowed to die at the hands of the machines, John Connor will never exist. The Resistance will collapse. The machines will win.
Yeah, it gives me a headache, too. And one of “Salvation's” big problems is that the gnarly knotted mythology keeps us from getting into characters who are shallow to begin with.
The original “Terminator” was a love story about time travel. “T2” was a love story about a boy and his pet killer robot… and about time travel.
“Terminator Salvation,” though, has no real relationships and no time travel. It hasn't yet been invented.
Bale's John Connor is a flinty-eyed stoic and about as interesting as a two-by-four (a Batman suit might have helped). He's got a pregnant wife, Kate (the same character that was played by Claire Danes in “T3”), but in this colorless role the usually excellent Bryce Dallas Howard is wasted.
Yelchin is, well, boyish as young Reese, but he's not exactly overflowing with personality. Bloodgood is a bit more intriguing as a gung-ho woman warrior.
The best performance comes from Worthington as the conflicted Marcus, torn between his conviction that he's human and the growing evidence to the contrary.
Frankly, most of these roles could have been played by marionettes with about the same impact.
But the movie looks great, anyway. The production designers have had a field day. They give us flying machines. Riderless motorcycles like machine guns on wheels. Towering machines that look like Transformers. Nasty aquatic sentinels that resemble voracious metallic eels. And, of course, various T-600s and T-800s.
Plus, the flick is jammed with references to earlier “Terminator” movies and shout-outs to the “Mad Max” movies (the mute child Star could be a cousin of the Feral Kid from “The Road Warrior”) and other apocalyptic sci-fi classics.
“Terminator Salvation” dishes plenty of eye candy and thrills. But it has none of the emotion or intellectual resonance of the first two James Cameron-directed installments.
It's basically a cheap thrill. An expensive cheap thrill.