Terminator Salvation roars to life on screen with enough gutsy firepower to literally shake you in your seat. She's a mean, loud metallic beast that hasn't eaten in years, and the only commands she understands come in the form of growls, snarls, bullets and explosions. You can't really ask for more from an action picture (well you can, but we'll get to that); with Terminator Salvation, director McG proves that he's more than a punchline for online jokes -- his action scenes are fierce and eye-popping; he gives us the post-apocalyptic Skynet world we've always wanted to see and then asks if we want seconds or thirds. This is the Terminator film for a generation that expects over-the-top; an audience who likes it rough, but still PG-13, so we don't get carded at the door.
And that's all well and good if you also don't need to care -- because while Terminator Salvation is a gnarly little actioner, this movie about robots lacks, well, life. There's a fantastic scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day when Sarah Connor runs right into her son John and the T-800 exiting an elevator in the mental institution, and her eyes pop as she drops to the floor; frightened to her core. She doesn't yet know that this T-800 is a good guy -- instead, all she sees is failure, death and desperation. And we feel that; we're so sold in that moment and our hearts do a freak-dance as the T-1000 closes in behind her. That scene is one of the single greatest of this franchise, and that panic, that momentum, that edge-of-your-seat, full-body experience is what's absent from Terminator Salvation.
She doesn't bleed when we kinda need her to. Set in 2018, this Terminator sequel is about what happens after Skynet supercomputers became self-aware and launched a nuclear attack on the human race (otherwise known as Judgment Day). With most of the world destroyed, small pockets of survivors have formed the resistance; a make-shift army with one sole purpose: destroy Skynet and save the world. John Connor (Christian Bale), featured prominently in the previous two Terminator films as his younger self (played by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl, respectively) is who's supposed to lead the eventual war against the robots, but right now he's a foot soldier who's not yet in command and like one or two guys away from really taking charge of this sucker.
When we drop in on Connor, he's shooting at robots, looking after his pregnant wife-doctor Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard; Claire Danes in part three), flying around on helicopters and trying to help develop a weapon that will block the robots' signal, thus making them inoperable. At the same time, he's also beginning to search for Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), his father. Kyle's just a teenager now, but will eventually grow up and be sent back in time by John to save and boing John's mom. The outcome of that is the first Terminator film. While all this is going on, a dude named Marcus (Sam Worthington) wakes up feeling fine and dandy after being executed by lethal injection for murder in the opening scenes. With his last memories being of the 1993-ish variety, Marcus roams around dodging robots on a mission to find the cancer-stricken women (Helena Bonham Carter) who asked him to sign his body over to science before the lethal needles were injected.
As we jump back and forth between Marcus' story, John's story and Kyle's story, the machines are becoming tougher, smarter and more dangerous. There's lots of them, too, like the giant Harvester whose job it is to snatch up human beings and do very R-rated things to them. There's also the nasty, snake-like Hydrobots who patrol the waters, and the real snazzy Motobots who shoot out from the Harvester and race after anyone (or thing) that sneaks away. The film's greatest moments involve these three robots, with one scene -- featuring Connor in water with Hydrobots closing in -- rising slightly above the rest. One thing Terminator Salvation gets right are its robots, designed by Stan Winston (before he passed) and his team. The T600 models look fierce, but clunky (as they should), and the brand new (for its time) T800 is a ridiculous giant -- frightening and overpowering. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cameo is seamless, timely and a little bizarre -- it definitely works, but by that point we really don't care much about this version of John Connor.
We don't care because he never gives us a reason to. His wife Kate's giant pregnant belly is barely mentioned (if at all), and the two spend maybe four minutes together the entire film. He listens to his mother's voice (Linda Hamilton, in a small cameo) on a tape recorder with little reaction, as if they're instructional do-it-yourself recordings bought on sale at Sears. This version of John Connor is rough, loud and angry; a perpetual road-rager. Honestly, he's a little bit of a dick. And that would be fine if he was likable, but he's not -- with the exception being: "Hey, look, it's the guy who plays Batman!"
As much as we love Christian Bale right now, his performance in this film is dry, boring and lifeless. Yelchin, on the other hand, is a treat to watch as a young little-engine-that-could. His Kyle Reese is engaging, and it's sad we don't see more of him. Worthington stoner-plays his role; lost within a spin-cycle of random glances and frozen stares -- while Moon Bloodgood looks and acts like the kind of a chick with the name Moon Bloodgood; hot, sexy, edgy and dangerous. Lots of characters, similar personalities. We get it: life is rough ; the robots suck. But when your film's themes are tied to discovering the 'human' in 'humanity', then we need to feel that, not just hear it.
With Terminator Salvation, McG set out to make a film that was as good (if not better) than the previous models; a new direction for the franchise and what he hoped would be a definite improvement. Problems arose, however, when the film began to take on a life of its own; with internet leaks and pressure from the studio, lead actor and fanboy elite. The outcome is a product that lacks a cohesive structure and suffers from too-many-hands-in-the-cookie-jar syndrome. She made it to Oz with courage, but forgot to ask the wizard for brains and a new heart (um ... never mind). Here's hoping that with the next film (and I'd certainly watch a sequel), McG manages to go back in time and fix the problems with this one.