The “Salvation” of Terminator Salvation is ostensibly a reference to the deliverance of the human race from a computer-led extermination, but for the producers of the series revival it’s clearly about resuscitating the original man-versus-machine action franchise.
Set in 2018 (after a 2003 prologue with a condemned prisoner signing his body away to scientific experiments – it’s not the last we’ll see of him) with Christian Bale is the adult John Connor, the once and future messiah and the fabled savior of the human race whispered among the scruffy survivors scrambling through the wreckage of the war against humanity, this is supposed to take the series back to its rough and ready roots, or at least a 21st century version of it. It’s McG’s version of the post-apocalyptic war scenes from the James Cameron’s original Terminator flashbacks (flashforwards? Tenses are so tricky in time travel movies).
Cameron’s expressionist tech-noir nightmare of literal war machines rolling over the remains of cultural detritus and the skeletal corpses of fallen robot soldiers with grinding indifference is replaced by a sunblasted world of ash and dust and rubble, the remnants of civilization after being burned to the ground by the robots, a futuristic desert storm waged by whirring, clanking warbots herding the human survivors into its version of a concentration camp.
This is the world that Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), the executed man of the prologue, is resurrected into. Of course there is more to his story – and his identity – than even he knows, but there isn’t really that much more to the film. The original Terminator was a scruffy, clever, energetic little picture that stretched it budget-starved effects budget with visual imagination and tech-noir style and tossed plenty of wit into the thrill ride. This is little more than big machine spectacle with a little lip service paid to humanity, identity and free will, which are not exactly themes so much as plot points. The rest is lost in a blast of machine-gun fire.
The film tosses in the obligatory salutes to past films: “Come with me if you want to live,” “I’ll be back,” and even finale set in a mechanical assembly line factory, though this one is hard at work constructing Terminators in a cyber city that looks like a “Blade Runner” suburb for the new virtual world order. There are Terminator motorcycles buzzing down wreck-littered highways, Terminator eels swimming in the rivers like mechanical piranha, Terminator robots the size of buildings that pluck humans and drop them in traveling cages, flying Terminator carriers and so on, a whole food chain of robot killers designed to hunt humans and look cool doing it. There’s even a virtual appearance by Arnie as the original Terminator model, at least until the CGI flesh is burned away after a few scenes and it’s all clanking metal skeleton. There just isn’t any personality behind the spectacle, merely momentum and few jarring leaps that look more like dropped reel changes than stylistic choices.
Christian Bale reaches for a scuffed soulfulness as the impassioned resistance hero who can’t relax his intensity and vigilance for second and ends up with less character than his android opposite. Sam Worthington plays the redemption-seeking ex-con as strong, silent and brooding, with an grim expression that shifts only by degrees. At least Anton Yelchin shows some spark of life as teenage Kyle Reese but the rest of the resistance soldiers are a glum and humorless bunch and pretty much a drag to hang out with.
I do get kind of a charge from seeing Jane Alexander cast as a survivor, the former head of the NEA in a rock ’em sock ’em robot movie, but her Earth mother/tribal elder role doesn’t add up to much beyond handing out food to a cute orphan. And what the heck is Helena Bonham Carter doing there, apart from cashing a paycheck for a few days work?
There’s less story and character complexity in this 110 minute feature than in an average episode of the (now officially cancelled) TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles . That may not be an impediment to box-office success, but I wonder how long it will takes audiences to tire of spectacle alone and demand story or characters or a plot that takes viewers into places they didn’t expect to go. Terminator Salvation changes around a few sets and redesigns the virtual nemeses, but otherwise it’s the same mission, the same fight and the same inevitable outcome, carefully constructed to leave open the next chapter in the never ending franchise.
This review is also published on the Seattle PostGlobe
Directed by McG; screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris; featuring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Jadagrace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Jane Alexander, Michael Ironside. PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language. 110 minutes.