- Directed by McG
- Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris
- Starring Christian Bale and Sam Worthington
The first thought in walking out of Terminator Salvation, the fourth movie in the series begun with James Cameron in 1984, is that it would be interesting to see the colourized version. Using a palette that emphasizes shades of grey and black, except for the occasional orange burst of flame or gunfire, the movie has all the visual delight of an army blanket under a fluorescent bulb.
In compensation for the colour deprivation, Salvation is so loud it suggests a two-hour-long, heavy-metal drum solo as various kinds of robots, airplanes, cars, motorcycles and artillery clang, rattle and smash across the screen. You can imagine the different conversations that went on with different parts of the crew, with the set designers asking, "Shall we add a little more grey to that rubble?" while the sound editors wonder: "Can we make the flare hiss like a cobra?"
Though competent in its B-movie way, Terminator Salvation lacks the humour, heart-tugging moments and visual pleasure that made the first two movies of the series modern pop masterpieces. Director McG (aka Joseph McGinty Nichol), who previously made the Charlie's Angels films and the feeble football movie We Are Marshall, seems determined to put his fluffy movie past behind him. This is his big war movie, depicting the long-awaited showdown between the humans and the machines. That means the audience is in for a relentless sequence of disorienting action sequences and massive conflagrations and terse do-or-die conversations spit out between the characters.
As a mood-setter, the movie starts with a prologue scene with a man in prison, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who is visited by a waxen-looking, bald doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) who is dying of cancer. That's well before the artificial-intelligence computer system, Skynet, has unleashed nuclear weapons to destroy most of humanity. The current movie properly starts 14 years after that apocalyptic event when Marcus, the executed prisoner, unexpectedly wakes up and finds himself alive again.
Or, possibly, in Hell. Against the dusky skies and desert landscape, various kinds of black metallic robots and cyborgs (primitive skeletal versions of the specimen played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the previous movies) are scouring the earth, picking off the last remnants of the human race. Some of them are being put in transport ships, to be subjected to experiments at their headquarters. Is there any relief from so much horror?
Well, for the theatre audience, at least some of the robots are kind of cool-looking. Especially the spidery one called a Harvester, which is about as tall as a hydro tower and plucks people up with its many tentacles. For the humanity in the film, the only solace is a prophesized new leader of the anti-machine Resistance, a man with the same initials as Jesus Christ. He's John Connor (played by Christian Bale, in a role handled previously by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl).
In the current movie, Connor's mission isn't just to save the human race in general, but to rescue a particular teenager: Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the new Star Trek film). If Kyle gets to grow up, he'll travel back in time to save Sarah Connor from the original Terminator (Schwarzenegger). Then Kyle can impregnate Sarah so she can gave birth to John, who will grow up to save Kyle Reese and it will go around again. As Sarah says in a cassette tape message from the past to her son: "It can drive you crazy."
What McG's not so good at is forging a compelling or even coherent story from his combustible action sequences, or getting good performances from his actors. Bale, employing his Dark Knight growl without even a Bruce Wayne change of pace, is a one-dimensional. Australian actor. Worthington, who plays Marcus, is more blunt and brawny than Bale, but not different enough to provide a lively contrast. The two men growling and shoving their stubbly chins at each other does not add up to dramatic tension.
Powerful maternal women were part of the Eighties sci-fi ethos that director James Cameron created, with Linda Hamilton in Terminator and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Here, we've reverted back to hair-flipping and cleavage, with Moon Bloodgood as a downed pilot who has to be rescued by Marcus from being raped by some random yahoos. Bryce Dallas Howard's role is so weakly defined it was an hour and a half into the film before I realized she was supposed to be John Connor's wife, not his pregnant second-in-command. Her character's main purpose seems to be to set-up Christian Bale to say a familiar line from an earlier film.
The trouble is, every reference to one of the previous Terminator films, including an archival cameo, is a reminder of when the Terminator movies were a less visually and emotionally single-minded and a hell of a lot more fun.