Mania Grade: C+
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- Movie: Terminator Salvation
- Reviewed Format: Theatrical
- Rating: PG-13
- Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Michael Ironside, and Helena Bonham Carter
- Written By: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
- Directed By: McG
- Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
- Series: Terminator Salvation
There's a Storm Coming In
By Rob Vaux
May 20, 2009
Terminator Salvation represents perhaps the most intriguing blockbuster of the summer season. On the one hand, the thought of reviving the franchise at this late date sends chills down the spine, especially with no James Cameron, no time travel paradox, and not even an appearance by star Arnold Schwarzenegger (although there's this… no wait, that would be telling).
Furthermore, director McG--by his own admission--has some big shoes to fill, and fans may not be inclined to cut him much slack after the whole Superman debacle. On the other hand, star Christian Bale doesn't exactly go in for low-brow idiocy, co-star Sam Worthington is rapidly becoming sci-fi's It Guy, and the trailers promise a fascinating extended look at the one part of the Terminator mythology which hasn't been fully explored: life after Judgment Day. Which of its dual natures will come to the forefront?
In point of fact, they both do, transforming this fourth outing into equal parts blessing and curse. It does no lasting harm to the Terminator mythos--and it certainly might have, considering some of the endings they were pondering--but neither does it advance the storyline in any truly refreshing directions. It's a far more compelling world than a narrative, presenting an effectively grim exploration of humanity's war against the machines and yet failing to find that all-important spark which made Cameron's efforts so extraordinary. It works best if you simply immerse yourself in its surroundings without thinking too much about the pedigree.
As post-apocalyptic visions go, this one feels as convincing as any. The bombs have fallen and Skynet is busy trying to stamp out humanity like roaches on the kitchen floor. Remnants of the military are fighting back, governed by a junta of generals (including the great Michael Ironside) but inspired by the CB broadcasts of visionary soldier John Connor (Bale) who some people believe is a prophet. The status quo is interrupted by a pair of potentially cataclysmic events: the appearance of Marcus Wright (Worthington), an amnesiac whose last memory is being executed in San Quentin before the war; and Skynet's capture of a young rubble rat named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) whom it believes is important for some reason. Connor and his underlings have to piece together their significance even as the human leadership plans an enormous offensive.
McG and his team have thought through the nuts and bolts, applying an attention to technical detail which aptly reflects Cameron's relentless perfectionism. Skynet's 2018 mechanical minions feel of a kind with the later models of 2029--cruder, clunkier, but just as deadly. Terminator Salvation parleys them into some solid action sequences, the best of which entails a giant harvester robot that deploys a pair of sentient motorcycles in pursuit of its prey. The film earns further points with the dynamic between Bale and Worthington (the latter of whom is likely on his way to becoming a big star). Bale ably delivers Connor's seriousness and intensity, no longer unsure of himself but clear and devoted to his eventual destiny. Wright's appearance may disrupt all that, and Worthington has the screen presence to take full advantage of the opportunity.
McG's camera lends their environment a proper sense of grit--sepia tones and sand-blasted wreckage that, while hardly unprecedented, sell the proceedings extremely effectively. This is the Terminator universe without question, and one has no problems linking it to the events of Cameron's original films.
The difficulties come in the particulars of the scenario, which haven't received nearly as much attention as the bots and backgrounds. The central arc exists merely to provide impetus for the action: to ensure that we have some stake in this and aren't just playing out the string until Connor sends Reese back in time. It hangs together (more or less), but it doesn't inspire us the way earlier scenarios did. More importantly, it features some gaping logic holes. Skynet apparently knows who Reese is, for example, and has him in its clutches for a fair amount of time. So why not just put a bullet in his head while it can, before he has a chance to go back in time and knock Sarah up? It has its reasons, but they don't hold water… especially considering the emotionless robotic reasoning presumably behind it. Similar gaffes take place with distressing regularity, and the action, while efficient, becomes numbing after awhile. McG counters with some terrific imagery--notably a San Francisco Bay drained of its waters and now serving as Skynet's headquarters--but that trick eventually wears thin as well.
Having said that, the glass still remains about half full, which may be more than enough for its intended audience. The PG-13 rating doesn't diminish Salvation's intensity levels, and as popcorn thrills go, I fear we'll see a lot worse before the summer is out. But the franchise behind it demands uncompromising standards, and on too many important levels, the effort here fails to meet them. It may simply be that the Terminator story has been told: that we learned everything we needed from the first film and that T2 took the remaining concepts about as far as they could reasonably go. The leaves Salvation a little too late to the party and a little too threadbare to liven it up again. Resolute competence is about the best it can manage.