[SPOILERS] The first in a proposed trilogy of sequels-cum-prequels, gut instincts are proven correct in fearing the worst from McG's attempt to emulate James Cameron. Terminator Salvation is a rote, soulless, dumb endeavor. After the climactic events of Terminator 3, we're now in the post-"Judgment Day" dystopia of 2018 A.D, where survivors of a nuclear war started by supercomputer "Skynet" are battling robots. It's the threat of Cameron's flashforwards made flesh and stretched to 115 minutes, which is half the reason Terminator Salvation feels so pointless, tedious and uninvolving. It's the franchise's very own Phantom Menace; pointless backstory for the sake of visual-effects.
Not helped by sweeping rewrites of an already problematic script, Terminator Salvation is an imprecise and frustrating beast. Ostensibly, it's the story of criminal Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a Death Row prisoner who signs his body over to medical science shortly before a lethal injection in 2003, and wakes up 15 years later to find himself in the midst of Mad Max-meets-Transformers. Teaming up with teenage rebel Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a mute kid called Star (Jadagrace Berry), and hottie fighter pilot Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), Marcus attempts to find would-be leader of the resistance John Connor (Christian Bale), for no clear reason. It's a shame Christ figure John's in his carpentry phase, however -- just a grunt taking orders from submarine-based General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), in-between making rousing radio speeches to disciples and listening to audio tapes of his late mother's somber prattling.
With less plot than T3 rattling between its ears, Salvation is a messy and curiously small-scale adventure, with little to no reason for existing. It's tough to find anything to like about demagogue John Connor, as they've removed Bale's charm and replaced it with a grimacing manqué with a buzzcut. It's even harder to care about his pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), who replaces T3's Claire Danes and seems to only exist so we won't be surprised when she gives birth in T5. So far removed is she from the plucky veterinarian from T3 that you'll be forgiven for forgetting she's a character we're supposed to have met already.
Faring better are Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin, two rising stars who miraculously make the weak script feel passable during their scenes. You can almost forgive the fact Yelchin doesn't resemble Michael Biehn from the original Terminator, although he might as well be a different character for all the relevance he has as John Connor's father-to-be. See, Salvation performs the impossible feat of making the Reece/Connor relationship its least compelling element. There's huge scope for heart-wringing emotion in Connor meeting the father he never knew, as a scruffy teen who has no idea he'll one day be sent back in time for a kamikaze mission to father the man he considers a folk hero, but Salvation avoids this juicy potential entirely.
All we get is acknowledgement from John that he must rescue Kyle from Skynet after he's captured by the automatons, in order to maintain the timeline and his own existence. Bizarrely, the Terminators appear to know of Reece's importance when they spot him in the crowd at an internment camp, which makes absolutely no sense given what we know of the mythology. Indeed, there are so many nits to pick in this movie it should be dowsed in Prioderm.
Worthington gets to shoulder the film's sole "idea", when (after a twist all the trailers spoiled, so I will, too) it's revealed amnesiac Marcus is actually a cyborg. Assumedly he was surgically-enhanced after his "death" at the needle, but that means he spent the intervening quarter-century... where exactly? And why hasn't he aged? Questions it would have been nice to get answers to, but Salvation doesn't play ball. Still, Marcus is the best character of a bad bunch and Worthington does what he can while McG was assumedly fondling himself to ILM's animatics.
Even on a superficial level, Salvation is a deficient and dull spectacle for a summer tentpole with a $200 million price-tag. Where did the money go? Was Bale's fee half that? The post-apocalyptic world is a bleached desert cliché and, while many of the CGI robots are neatly brought to life, none are even as threatening as the stop-motion T-800 from Cameron's '84 classic. The 'bots in Salvation either lumber around with mini-guns before getting flattened by scrap, scramble around in the dirt with no legs, or are otherwise mechanized toys that take the shape of a giant Transformer (the faceless "Harvester"), snake-like "hydrobots", or "moto-terminator" bikes attracted to Guns N' Roses music.
When you recall the fear Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick instilled in audiences with quiet stares, your heart sinks at the comparatively bland metal menaces here. They're also too easy to defeat -- a few bullets to the cranium, a knife to the back of the neck, a Looney Tunes-style booby-trap, that's all it takes. Whatever happened to the lasers seen in Cameron's movies, which I'd assumed were the only weapons capable of injuring cyborgs, considering the problems encountered with archaic guns in prior films?
The screenplay, by hacks John Brancato and Mike Ferris (The Net, Catwoman), fails when scrutinized regarding how its place in the franchise, dances around any mildly interesting subplots, steals the occasional idea from TV's superior Sarah Connor Chronicles, turns hero John Connor into a jarhead bore, and pins all its hopes on a reveal about Marcus' true nature that's in desperate need of rewrites. Terminator Salvation hoped to say something about the human condition with hybrid Marcus (who, notably, has a human heart that proves vital to the plot), but winds up saying nothing very loudly for two hours.
Near the end, a digitized Schwarzenegger makes a fun cameo that reminds you why the franchise once revolved around him, and when it was unthinkable to make a Terminator film without the Terminator. Even as pixels stuck on a body-double, Arnie's appearance makes you frustrated he wasn't around more, and Salvation leaves you with the deflated feeling that it's only succeeded in one thing: retroactively improving Jonathan Mostow's Terminator 3; which at least had pace, a story, a villain, a sense of humour, and an emotional ending that felt earned.
directed by: McG written by: John Brancato & Mike Ferris (based on characters created by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd) starring: Christian Bale (John Connor), Sam Worthington (Marcus Wright), Anton Yelchin (Kyle Reese), Bryce Dallas Howard (Kate Connor), Moon Bloodgood (Blair Williams), Common (Barnes), Jadagrace Berry (Star), Michael Ironside (General Ashdown) & Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor, voice) / The Halcyon Company/Warner Bros. / 115 mins. / $200 million (budget) terminatorsalvation.warnerbros.com