Who could have guessed that a grown man who calls himself "McG" would fail to restore the "Terminator" franchise to its former heights?
The director of the "Charlie's Angels" movies takes us to the year 2018 in the fourth "Terminator." John Connor is a high-ranking member of the human resistance against Skynet, which wiped out most of humanity in 2004 in a nuclear attack known as Judgment Day.
In the first two movies, we saw Skynet send terminators back in time to prevent Connor from becoming the leader of a successful resistance, first by trying to kill his mother, then by trying to take him out while he was a teenager. In the third, Skynet sent one back to go after his future wife and fellow leader of the resistance.
This is the first "Terminator" to be set after Judgment Day, once the machines have taken over, and McG squanders a unique creative opportunity.
The first two films offered glimpses of the future that were positively horrifying: humans being hunted down and exterminated in the rubble of civilization by robots with malevolent grins stamped on their faces; a terminator infiltrating a subterranean redoubt, like a snake pursuing rodents into their tunnels, unmasked too late by barking guard dogs.
But in "Terminator: Salvation," humans are able to move about in relative freedom. These machines have blind spots, evidently. Once they spot a human target they bring overwhelming force, but it doesn't seem like they have enough metal feet on the ground. Perhaps this whole thing is a metaphor for the American occupation of Afghanistan?
So anyway, yes, the machines do plan to wipe out the resistance -- they're just taking their time. They also take prisoners, oddly enough, which sort of undermines the terror of the whole being-hunted-down-by-cold-remorseless-machines idea. According to Wikipedia (and an unofficial screenplay of the first movie), the machines keep some humans as slave labor. Huh? Isn't that what machines are for? Tireless labor?
The action follows Connor as he leads a mission to destroy the machines by using a certain frequency to disrupt their electrical activity. We're also introduced to the latest terminator model, a human-machine hybrid that starts the movie unaware of the fact that it's not a real person.
The first major sign of trouble is the appearance of Michael Ironside as one of the top commanders of the resistance. No offense to Ironside, but the sight of this prolific B-movie actor issuing orders aboard a submarine into one of those handheld CB mics bodes poorly for the remaining 90 minutes of the film.
Christian Bale doesn't help matters with his dense, humorless performance as Connor. He just doesn't give us anything to care about. For more on Bale, let's turn things over briefly to Anthony Lane:
(Connor) is played by Christian Bale as a scar-nicked warrior, consumed by a messianic belief that he can save the world by shouting. After the opening battle, he answers his radio with yelps of “Here!” and “Connor!” as though introducing himself to a befuddled and very deaf grandmother.
Worthington does a better job as Marcus Wright, the cyborg who, thinking he's human, befriends members of the resistance and slowly learns the truth about himself. On the whole, though, you have to question the wisdom of making a machine, and a man who is duller than a machine, the emotional center of a movie.
Worthington does suffer an inexplicable lapse, though. During a confrontation with Bale while suspended in chains over a pit, he slips for a few seconds into his native Australian. But the fault there rests with McG for not recognizing the problem and fixing it, either by reshooting the scene or overdubbing the dialogue.
As for the supporting actors, I guess McG didn't want to be only person on set with a silly name: Moon Bloodgood and Common play two of Connor's friends and fellow soldiers. Bloodgood is okay, but it's clear from Common's performance that the rapper is there not for his acting chops but for his ability to draw 16- to 24-year-old black males to the box office. Anton Yelchin does well as a young Kyle Reese, whom we first encounter surviving by his wits in the ruins of Los Angeles.
As the movie lumbers towards its climax, with Connor on a mission to destroy Skynet, which sits in the ruins of San Francisco, the winks and nods to the earlier movies start to accumulate. By the end, we've gotten a "Come with me if you want to live," an "I'll be back" and a reprise of "You Could Be Mine," the Guns N' Roses song from "Terminator 2."
We also get an Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo. Playing a terminator that's fresh off the assembly line, Schwarzenegger strides into the fray, his body nude and CGI enhanced, and immediately goes to his signature move: picking people up and throwing them into stuff, rather then simply killing them. I'm not sure exactly which terminator model this is supposed to be, but I'll call it the WWE-1000.
The ending is a bit of a cheat. We're led to believe we're heading towards a final solution, if you will, of the terminator problem, but instead we're left with plenty of room for the inevitable sequel. Which is unfortunate, because I'm not sure what a fifth "Terminator" would accomplish, other than a profit.
"Terminator 2," directed by James Cameron, remains the high point of the franchise. His original "Terminator" was creative, intense and frightening, but its special effects don't stand up. "Terminator 3" wasn't terrible, but it didn't amount to much more than a rehash of the second movie.
"Terminator: Salvation" was McG's chance to revitalize the series, but this noisy, monotonous film comes up well short. If Cameron wants the fifth "Terminator" to be good, he should direct it himself. But even that might not be enough. We've seen the future, and it's boring.