Director : McG
Screenplay : John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Christian Bale (John Connor), Sam Worthington (Marcus Wright), Moon Bloodgood (Blair Williams), Helena Bonham Carter (Dr. Serena Kogan), Anton Yelchin (Kyle Reese), Jadagrace Berry (Star), Bryce Dallas Howard (Kate Connor), Common (Barnes), Jane Alexander (Virginia), Michael Ironside (General Ashdown), Ivan G’Vera (General Losenko), Chris Browning (Morrison)
There is no shortage of firepower in Terminator Salvation, the fourth film in the time-bending sci-fi series that began back in 1984 when James Cameron cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as a monosyllabic cyborg sent back in time from the machine-run future to kill the mother of a future resistance hero. Alas, that plot device, having been reworked in both Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and the much belated, Cameron-less sequel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), is discarded in Salvation, which unfortunately also denies the film one of its predecessors’ chief pleasures--and I’m not talking about the presence of the Governator. Rather, I’m talking about the vicarious pleasure of watching the battle for the future waged in the familiar streets of today. While all three previous films gave us glimpses into the devastated futureworld run by the self-aware computer Skynet, Terminator Salvation is the first entry to be set entirely in that future, which sets it apart and gives the franchise a new look, but also weighs it down with so much grit and gloom that there’s no fun left. For all their philosophical conundrums about technology, love, and fatalism, the Terminator films have always been fueled by B-movie bliss writ (increasingly) large, which despite all the firepower on display, Salvation is studiously lacking.
Having temporarily set aside his cape and cowl, The Dark Knight’s Christian Bale brings his trademark vigor and intensity to the role of John Connor, the resistance leader about whom so much ado was made in the previous films. Now a young man fighting in the human resistance against the machines that have taken over the world, he seems well on his way to fulfilling his destiny, which returning screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris used to jumpstart the franchise with Terminator 3 by using the idea of predestination to replace the previous emphasis on our ability to change the future (otherwise, it could not have logically continued after the events in T2). However, there is little if any talk of such matters in Terminator Salvation, which dutifully replaces time-travel plot mindbenders with straight-up war-movie action that is shot by cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (Into the Blue) in grainy tones of sepia and gray that emphasize sweat and dust and rust as a means of adding gravity to the gee-whiz pyrotechnics.
A secondary plot strand involves a man named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who we first see as a death-row inmate on his way to lethal injection in 2003 and is then suddenly resurrected in the apocalyptic 2018 without any memory of what happened in the years between (those who couldn’t guess what has happened to him likely had the question answered when they saw the trailer). As he attempts to find his way to the resistance leaders, Marcus is constantly caught in the maelstrom of violence between humans and machines, the latter of whom come in shapes and sizes ranging from a building-size mechanical warrior with a machine gun for a head, to snapping metal snakes, to the familiar warships and skeletal Terminator soldiers that have long since entered the pantheon of immediately recognizable pop culture icons. He also stumbles across a teenager named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, who we just saw as Chekov in Star Trek), who everyone knows will eventually travel back in time to save John Connor’s mother and, in the process, become his father (try unraveling the space-time ramifications of that one!).
The main star, though, is the firepower, which director McG (best known for the campy Charlie’s Angels movies) lavishes with much style and intensity. To be fair, many of the action sequences are quite impressive, especially in the way several of them unfold as single-shot sequences that eschew rapid-fire editing for Children of Men-style verisimilitude. McG also recognizes that scope and scale matter, and there are several points at which he pulls back his camera to let us see just how immense the stakes are (there is particularly impressive shot on a bridge involving a showdown between a vehicle and a hovering warship). He also throws you right into the thick of it all, notably in a speed-demon tracking shot behind Terminator motorcycles zipping in and out of wrecked cars strewn across a highway.
It is thrilling, to be sure, but the more sound and fury McG throws at us, the more aware we become of the film’s studious lack of both humor and humanity. There is always the larger issue of the survival of the human race, but the individual characters on-screen are largely one-dimensional ciphers who evoke no real passion or enthusiasm or empathy. We may care about the fate of Kyle Reese, but only because we remember the tough-but-sensitive romantic hero of Cameron’s original that he is destined to become. Similarly, despite all of his gifts, Christian Bale is never able to bring John Connor to life as anything other than a hardened warrior prone to barking orders and screaming about life and death. It’s all very loud, but not very moving.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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