If you have never seen another Terminator film, the franchise’s latest installment, Terminator Salvation, will be utterly baffling to you. The good news is that if you’re a fanboy well-versed in the series’ robotic lore, you’ll leave the theater just as confused and dissatisified as all the noobs. In other words, it is an equal opportunity snoozer replete with lumbering action sequences, misplaced character development and an unrealized love subplot. Ahhh, summer.
The film opens in a jail cell in 2003 as Marcus Wright, played by a dialect- confused Sam Worthington, signs his body over to Cyberdyne systems before his lethal injection. Flash forward a decade and a half and we find the world in ruins after the internet-induced nuclear holocaust we know of from the previous film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Whatever humans are left spend their time fighting robots, which are just angry, steely machines; not quite the androids we have come to know over the years. John Connor, whose performance is phoned in by a grizzled Christian Bale, now holds some form of prophetic role in the world as a radio preacher.
Anyway, Connor goes on a mission that ends in stuff getting blow’d up, awaking the now robotic Marcus in a goofy Golem/Frankenstein homage. After some more robot action and the appearance of the requisite babe (who is tough enough to fly a fighter jet yet still needs a man/machine to protect her from rape- hungry miscreants), we learn that Kyle Reese, who is actually John Connor’s father, has been taken to Skynet’s headquarters. As the resistance is planning an attack, Reese is sure to die at the hands of either robot or human, unless John Connor and his android buddy have anything to say about it. Campy schlock ensues.
The question shouldn’t be “where does this film go wrong?” as much as it should be “where does it go right?”. I’ll offer up the one highlight as Anton Yelchin’s performance as Kyle Reese. Just as Ewan McGregor channeled a young Alec Guiness to play Obi-Wan Kenobi, so too does Mr. Yelchin embody a young Michael Biehn who created the role 25 years ago. Adding some lovable humor to this year’s Star Trek and now giving us the only character worth watching in Salvation, this is turning out to be the summer of Yelchin, and let’s hope there are many more to come.
Other than that, the film is a mess. The action sequences are yawn-able, the motivations of neither the machines nor the humans make any no sense, and worst of all, we are offered no insight into John Connor’s destiny. As the lore goes, he is the key to ending the war with the machines, which he already did, preemptively, in the second film. We last saw him stuck in a bunker at the end of the third film, yet this film completely skips what happens after that. How does he get out and rise up through the ranks? Why do people think he is a prophet? Did he tell them? No answers are offered here, making this feel more like mid-season filler for a television show rather than the gratification we expect from a season finale.
McG, the film’s director, is someone I had hoped would have graduated from a successful run as an adolescent filmmaker. Unfortunately, his attempts at growing up falter on every front. This film tries to show us a gritty future, but the picture is so incredibly clean that this barely comes off. It feels like an effected car commercial instead of a bleak view of the future. On top of that, save for Mr. Yelchin, no one offers up a memorable performance, leading me to believe that McG has incredibly low expectations of his actors. He gets work because he knows how to blow stuff up, but even the action is tired. Spatially almost nothing makes sense and there are no intense moments. I kept thinking of how great it was in the original film when the T-800 busts into the police station to get Sarah Connor. That scene, pretty bare bones special effects wise, works because by that point the audience is braced and excited for the ensuing gun battle. No scene is ever to pulse pounding in this film. I’m not sure that McG will ever get better, so maybe the franchise should find someone else.
This is the first film not to feature Arnold Schwazzenegger, at least not in the flesh. A more important absence here, however, is James Cameron, whose name doesn’t appear in the credits at all, a Terminator first. This seems fitting as this is the least interesting and least innovative film of the bunch. Rise of the Machines at least offered up a wicked car chase. It is nice to see this beloved and respected story continue, but if this is direction things are going, then we have to say “Hasta La Vista, Baby”.