A funny thing happened to the Terminator franchise on the way to 2009; it turned from unabashed campy fun into humorless, gritty science fiction. Weekend box-office figures for Terminator Salvation suggest this was not a smart business move. But on an artistic level, director McG had nowhere to go but up from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), which featured whiny Nick Stahl as John Connor, putative future savior of the human race; and a killer fembot in a red jumpsuit. He did improve on that model — mainly by throwing it out.
Though the first three films had human protagonists, their break-out star was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. With Ahnuld currently occupied with Governator duties, the quipping cyborg is MIA. Salvation starts in a more solemn vein, with a scene in which a remorseful condemned murderer (Sam Worthington) consents to donate his entire body to a lab headed by geneticist Helena Bonham Carter. When he “wakes” from his lethal injection, he finds himself in a bleak future where sentient machines rule a nuked Earth, and humans scuttle like rats amid the wreckage.
Worthington, a brawny newcomer from Australia, probably couldn’t take the young Schwarzenegger in a fight, but he has a secret weapon: the ability to appear plausibly human. Though anyone can guess Something Just Isn’t Right about the character’s apparent resurrection, he quickly becomes the film’s emotional center.
And it needs one. Because, despite Christian Bale stepping in as resistance leader Connor (an upgrade over his younger incarnations in cheekbones alone), the film is a lot of storm and fury occasionally signifying familiar sentiments about the blurry line between man and machine.
Some of Salvation’s confusion and pretension — and its intermittent power — could come from the bizarre assemblage of scribes who reportedly toiled on it along with credited screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris: They include Paul (Crash) Haggis, Jonathan (The Dark Knight) Nolan and Shawn (“The Shield”) Ryan. Put those guys in a room and what do you get? Something that looks and feels a lot more like the culty, reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” than a Terminator movie.
The problem is, it retains the silliness inherent to Terminator movies, which are premised on a self-fulfilling prophecy: John Connor will save humanity from killer machines. How do we know this? Because a human resistance fighter traveled back in time to 1984, told a waitress she would bear a savior, and impregnated her, thereby inadvertently fathering the man who’d sent him there in the first place. (Confused? If all you remember from the first film is “I’ll be back,” Salvation won’t make much sense.)
In Terminators 2 and 3, the plot revolved around protecting young Connor so he could eventually do whatever he was supposed to do. In Salvation, which takes place 14 years after the machine-made apocalypse, the focus shifts to shielding waifish teenager Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who will eventually become Connor’s dad. If the boy is killed before he can time-travel and get it on with ’80s-tastic Linda Hamilton, will Bale poof out of existence?
No one ever addresses this paradox. True to his music-video beginnings, McG prefers to concentrate on bleached desert vistas, scarlet explosions and Cuisinart-edited action. To his credit, he gives the frequent battles a touch of postapocalyptic grandeur. (One takes place in a nocturnal swamp with flaming trees filling the horizon.)
Bale is convincing as a haggard, stoic warrior, but his character is ultimately more action-movie punching bag than anything else. Perhaps, instead of splitting our attention between two competing points of view, the gaggle of writers should have told the whole tale from Worthington’s character’s perspective. Being from our present, he’s easier to identify with, and his very survival raises thorny issues the film only has time to evoke in passing.
Struggling to combine popcorn epic with moody geek fodder, Terminator Salvation will probably be remembered for failing as a franchise reboot where Star Trek succeeded. But, just as Arnold’s clunky old Terminator was more fun than the sleek new T-1000, so a failed experiment can be more memorable than a ship-shape success.