A post-apocalyptic man vs. machine war movie, Terminator Salvation plays out like many a video game, its thin plot little more than an excuse to string together one action scene after another. And yet, for what it is it’s surprisingly well-handled. While this Terminator doesn’t hold a candle to the first two in the series, it’s at least on a par with the third.
This Schwarzenegger-less sequel begins in 2003, with death row convict Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signing over the rights to his corpse to Cyberdyne doctor Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter). Flash-forward to 2018: the world has been taken over (and mostly destroyed) by machines.
A small group of resistance fighters fights to preserve humanity, including Christ-like figure John Connor (Christian Bale), who plots an attack on the machine’s Skynet headquarters. Wright “wakes up” to discover the now-scorched earth in LA, and runs into Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the man who Connor will eventually send back in time to save his mother (and father Connor himself, as revealed in the previous films).
They make their way to Connor and Skynet, meeting resistance fighter Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) along the way. But the plot is just an excuse for mindless action, which includes chases on cars, trucks, motorcycles and planes, gunplay and hand-to-hand combat with the machine’s T-600 Terminators, giant “Transforminator” robots, aquatic snake-like bots, lots of explosions, and an appearance by the familiar T-800 Terminator, with a Schwarzenegger CGI cameo.
And director McG, of Charlie’s Angels fame (or infamy) shows a surprisingly deft hand: using a steadicam and fluid editing, we never lose track of what’s going on in these scenes, something that occurs far too often in contemporary blockbusters.
Bale makes for a surprisingly bland Connor, presented here as an uncomfortable cross between Jesus Christ and Master Chief; the film takes for granted the fact that the Terminator series depends on his survival, and a rather unsympathetic characterization gives us little rooting interest in his fate. I half-thought this would lead to some unexpected conclusion, like the ballsy finale that saved Terminator 3, but no, this one plays it pretty safe.
Instead, the film belongs to Marcus Wright and his internal struggle with life and death, man and machine. Worthington is the heart of the film, and (despite occasionally slipping into his native Australian accent) he’s excellent, delivering a legitimate and empathetic action hero. Leading roles in this and James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar should make him a star.
Dialogue is consistently awful, and some of the acting is downright poor: Common as Connor’s right-hand man, Michael Ironside and Ivan G’Vera as resistance leaders. Others, like Jane Alexander and Bryce Dallas Howard (as Connor’s wife), have almost nothing to do despite notable screen time. But Yelchin makes for an effective Reese, the character played by Michael Biehn in the first film.
There are a lot of surface references to the previous Terminator films, characters and designs, lines of dialogue (“I’ll be back”) and music cues, but there’s almost none of the substance: the man vs. machine aesthetic plays out a lot closer to Michael Bay’s Transformers. Fans of the series will likely be disappointed by Terminator Salvation, but this is perfect fare for action aficionados.