James Cameron’s once treasured Terminator franchise has seen its ups and downs over the last few years. A second sequel that offered little more than a retread veering into self-parody and a sixty year-old Schwarzenegger, and an occasionally interesting and cerebral television show that was cancelled just as it was looking promising have diminished the series that once comprised of a low-budget classic and its superlative follow-up. The announcement that Charlies Angels director McG would be helming a fourth instalment, free of Arnie, hardly seemed the surge this series needed.
The good news is that on many levels McG triumphs against his detractors, rejecting the lurid CGI stunt work of Full Throttle for a gritty, barren landscape that could only be hinted at in the shoestring original. In many ways Salvation’s world, from its ruined cities to the increasingly inventive terminators themselves, is the star of the show. Unfortunately the plot, in which John Connor (Christian Bale) realises the importance of keeping his daddy-to-be Kyle Reese alive, feels exhausted beyond repair. For many, the movie’s almost-too-real effects and belting pace will be enough to overlook such narrative deficiencies, but beyond a few impressive set-pieces you’ll be forgiven for struggling to remember Terminator Salvation in several months time.
Bale growls and shouts his way through the movie in the only way he knows, but its relative newcomers Sam Worthington (soon to be seen in Cameron’s Avatar) and Anton Yelchin who steal the show. Given that it’s publicized in the film’s trailer, I won’t consider it a spoiler to divulge that Worthington’s Marcus Wright, a convict who donated his body to research before his execution in 2003, wakes up in 2018 a little less than human. Worthington may not have the acting chops for anything beyond big budget action features, but he’s a charismatic enough lead, and Marcus’s identity crisis proves to be by far the most interesting element of the movie.
Yelchin, who recently provided comic relieve as Chekov in Star Trek, again mimics another actor; though his take on Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese couldn’t be more different, capturing Biehn’s mannerisms without ever pushing it that little bit too far. While McG can definitely direct action, he seems to view his characters as dialogue links to the next battle sequence. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Rise of the Machines’ veterinarian Kate Connor (previously portrayed by Claire Danes) and pilot Moon Bloodgood aren’t developed beyond eye candy love interests, while the likeable Common, as Connor’s loyal right hand man, seems to have been added simply to fulfil Salvation’s rapper-per-movie quota.
The uninitiated may leave Salvation confused – despite the futuristic setting this is as much a prequel as it is a sequel – but there’s plenty of references for the fans, from Bale’s “I’ll be back” to a confrontation with a digitized likeness of everyone’s favourite time-hopping Austrian. Time travel has yet to be invented here, and that’s at the core of Salvation’s problem; it doesn’t feel like a traditional Terminator movie. The varied assortment of robots, many non-humanoid, look like concepts from a further Transformers sequel, while many of the intellectual themes that Cameron knitted into his two efforts are lost here to so many extended, if impeccably executed, chase sequences that there’s barely time for a conversation that doesn’t act as a bridge to the next fight.
As an explosive but forgettable summer action flick, Terminator Salvation is undeniably enjoyable. But unlike the beating heart beneath Marcus Wright’s steel chassis, it’s a strangely soulless affair. The original high-concept movie suggested that even the most inconsequential of individuals could be prove pivotal to the future, while the optimistic Terminator 2: Judgement Day gave us the possibility of a machine developing compassion. In Terminator Salvation a bloke discovers he’s a robot, and things get blown up. Still, at least they get blown up in style.