No Saving Shallow, Mechanical 'Terminator'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Terminator Salvation" is a textbook demonstration of the very real difference between spectacle and grandeur. It's a great display of everything money can buy in modern moviemaking: The robots and explosions are impressive, the computer-generated effects are expressive and expensive. It's also a painful expression of what money can't buy in modern moviemaking: The characters and interactions don't make an impression, the human-generated emotions are shallow and shopworn. "Terminator Salvation" doesn't have the brainless bombast of "Transformers" or "Wolverine" -- which, ironically, winds up being all the more damning -- there are talented people here working on both sides of the camera, but nothing quite sticks.
There are great throwaway images and ideas in "Terminator Salvation," but the problem is they're thrown away. Every time an interesting character note or concept pops up in the script, we're immediately jerked back to the story of John Connor (Christian Bale in this iteration), leader of the resistance of the wars against the machines, humanity's last hope -- all of which was established in 1984's "The Terminator," confirmed in 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and reasserted in 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." Director McG and the marketing department would like you to believe that "Terminator Salvation" is a new chapter in the sci-fi saga James Cameron kicked off with a low-budget, high-concept cheapie sci-fi flick 25 years ago. Instead, it plays like hastily scribbled and unclear notes in the margins as we read between the lines of a story we've heard before.
"Terminator Salvation" begins in 2003, as condemned prisoner Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) finally gives in to the entreaties of Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) and donates his body to science, part of her work for ... Cyberdyne Systems, the company that creates the artificial-intelligence network Skynet, which later decides to execute a first-strike on humanity. We jump ahead to 2018, when John Connor (Bale) is a head of the human resistance in a shattered world, and a raid on a Skynet facility leaves confused, dazed Marcus Wright shambling out of the wreckage with no memory and a good heart.
I'm loath to go into too much detail, but, then again, any surprises as to the nature of Marcus' genesis are spilled in the trailer. Marcus finds protection courtesy of fresh-faced youngster Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who will grow up to be a) played by Michael Biehn, b) sent back in time by John to protect John's mother from being killed by time-traveling robots before he's even born, and c) John Connor's father. But if Kyle dies now, all that will come undone ... and you would think that after three films of cause-and-effect chasing each other like a psychotic dog after its own tail, screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris might have come up with some new point to it all, but no. And after "T2" and "T3," we're also familiar with the scary-robot-who-helps-fight-scarier-robots plotline here, too. The ugly fact is that the past 25 years of science-fiction films have been made by people who watched a lot of James Cameron. The uglier fact is that "Terminator Salvation" feels like it was made by people who watched films made by people who watched James Cameron, a reflection of a diminishment of a riff on something original (and, considering that Cameron was sued, successfully, for lifting much of "Terminator"'s plot and principles from the work of Harlan Ellison, not even all that original to start).
The cast members are very good at doing what they have to -- namely, projecting brief flashes of charisma between the effects and explosions. Worthington's an instant movie star; the film even gives him a Steve McQueen moment as a gift. And Bale isn't given much to do here but shout, shoot and scowl: He's all Batman-style hoarse hyperbole, with no Bruce Wayne-style humanizing heart. There's even a gag that goes back to the origins of the series to digitally travel back in time to when we -- and California's governor -- were young. But the movie's so slack you can't help but have the time to worry and tug at the massive plot holes, and the bargain-basement clichés (hello, adorable mute child!) just make you sigh and shift in your seat, waiting for Worthington to come back into view to raise the film, and us, from weary-eyed near-slumber.
"Terminator Salvation" promised moviegoers a war between the human heart and the cold, cruel efficiency of machines. So why then is it so mechanical itself, so good at repetition, so preprogrammed and clunky? The movie purports to be about the war against the machines; the irony is, the movie itself feels like it surrendered before the first shot was fired.