Pronouns and perceptions carry great weight in Terminator Salvation. A lot of frazzled brains and aching hearts pile up in the divide between “it” and “he.”
That potent idea peeks out from within a powerhouse packed with so many explosions that some merely introduce bigger, faster and louder sequences. So goes the powerful on-set pen of Jonathan Nolan – brother to Christopher, collaborator on The Dark Knight and “lead writer” here, according to director McG.
Salvation shares WGA-credited writers (John Brancato and Michael Ferris) and an invigorating mid-movie road chase with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. But this robot endoskeleton’s got more flesh. Kudos, though, to Brancato and Ferris if they conceived both chases, the most recent morphing into full aerial warfare.
Salvation ultimately is too patchy in plot and dragged down by co-lead Christian Bale’s increasingly tiresome glower to achieve greatness. While it doesn’t hit the heights of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (still a giddy delight 18 years later), its come-close ambition yields a smashing ride.
Atoning for the hellish Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, McG delivers a futuristic Apocalypse Now by way of Philip K. Dick. Cribbing, however impressively, from Alfonso Cuaron and Paul Greengrass, the film swirls around stalling helicopters, gigantic robots and cars torched and flipped like they were Hot Wheels.
There’s a fluid, discernible sense of space to every action sequence, along with mythology nods that are either impressively subtle or groaningly obvious. (The one that will generate maximum applause isn’t even the best.)
Despite a couple chuckles at franchise-favorite lines, Salvation also is relentlessly grim. Even an Alice in Chains song is chosen for maximum moping, and you can almost feel the throat-coating dust of the scorched earth left after a nuclear attack.
Clearly reaching for newcomers with a PG-13 rating, Salvation offers a story recap. Set in 2018, it’s a world where a network of machines, known as Skynet, has taken control, leaving only a small, if well-armed, band of humans to fight back. Their ideological leader is John Connor (Bale) – an emotionally burdened, battle-hardened soldier whose future is entwined with that of mankind.
Terminator acolytes know this as the future from which Connor sends his father, Kyle Reese, to the past to impregnate his mother and ensure his existence. When a Skynet kill list turns up Reese (Anton Yelchin, excelling as a scrawny, scrappy teenager) and Connor’s names, Connor seeks Reese while prepping an attack that could tip the scales.
The problem is that Connor musters no emotional flickers of time-crossing concern for Reese, nor does he hint at the humanity of a father-to-be. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Connor’s wife, offers perfunctory moments of comfort.
Is it too much to ask Bale to finally unclench his cheeks? Even procreative sex seems too enjoyable for this Connor. Gone is the character’s glee for on-the-fly computer programming, replaced by tiresome, one-note humorlessness.
Connor has the spiritual initials and angst, but the film’s Christ figure is Marcus Wright (Worthington) – a prisoner executed in a prologue, but who is resurrected. Roaming the desert, Marcus finds Reese, whom he reluctantly takes on as a charge. When Skynet nabs Reese, it unexpectedly brings Marcus and Connor together.
Worthington should work on keeping his Aussie accent in check. But if he’s lucky, his almost exclusively physical characterization could yield the same breakthrough success of Arnold Schwarzenegger from the original.
Plus, Marcus’s confusion and guilt complex sturdily evoke the film’s popcorn notions of fate versus freewill. In its own mass-audience rebirth, Salvation’s chintziest concession is its bogusly hopeful ending, but McG and Nolan’s stranglehold storytelling often blends the organic with the robotic in the best way possible.