Terminator Salvation (Warner Bros., PG-13)

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terminator-header-sm.jpgBut of course, people don't go to a Terminator film hoping for plausible plots and Oscar-worthy acting, they go to see malevolent robots and larger than life action.

 

 

 

Christian Bale and Bryce Dallas Howard in Terminator Salvation.

 

 

Twenty-five years after the release of the first film, the Terminator franchise is back again, only this time, it's missing, well, pretty much everything that the franchise is known for: no Arnold Schwarzenegger, no James Cameron, no R rating. It should come as no surprise then that, while Terminator Salvation is a fun, action-packed flick for much of its runtime, it feels like there's something missing.

It's the year 2018, and John Connor (Christian Bale) is a leader in the human resistance forces battling Skynet, the malevolent sentient computer system that seeks to eradicate humanity with its army of Terminator robots. Unlike the prophesy of previous films, however, Connor is not the guy in charge, or at least not yet. But after discovering a Terminator base that is experimenting on human subjects, he starts butting heads with his commanding officer, General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), a relationship that gets even more strained after Connor meets Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington).

Wright, a convicted murderer in the present day, had signed his body over to Cyberdyne Systems (the creators of Skynet) before his trip to death row. He's as surprised as anybody when he wakes up alive and well in 2018, surrounded by an unrecognizable world ruled by machines. While dodging Terminators, he meets up with a young orphan named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who is ultimately captured and taken to Skynet headquarters. After teaming up with a soldier named Blair (Moon Bloodgood), Wright steps on a landmine and wakes up in the custody of John Connor and his human resistance army, his lower half blown off, revealing that despite once being human, he has been transformed by Skynet into a Terminator himself. Connor is ready to kill him outright, but when Wright reveals the fate of Reese, who Connor knows will grow up to travel back in time and be Connor's own father, the two strike an uneasy alliance as they attempt to infiltrate Skynet in time to save Reese before Gen. Ashdown executes a plan to blow the compound to kingdom come.

The first hour or so of Terminator Salvation is a visceral thrill ride and a visual treat. Everything is bathed in a slate gray wash that captures the desolation and grittiness of the world post-apocalypse perfectly, while Wright and Reese are put through the ringer in a series of escalating action sequences. In his fourth feature as director, McG (Charlie's Angels and its sequel, We Are Marshall) does a great job of ratcheting up the suspense in Wright's half of the story, and the big reveal of his true nature is easily the film's best moment. (Which, of course, makes it an even bigger shame that this secret was given away so easily, the scene shown in its entirety in the film's trailer. Stupid, stupid move.)

But once the siege on Skynet begins, things start to go off the rails. Coincidences start to pile up, each more preposterous than the last, leading to an ending that tries for tearjerker but ends up at total cheese. The cheesy ending isn't helped by hammy acting from both Bale and Worthington; both actors do such a fine job at channeling the same gritty realism as their surroundings that when the movie turns to the fantastic, neither one seems able to wrap their heads around it. Yelchin fares better as Reese, showing a determination that makes the idea of him growing up to be Michael Biehn's character in the first film at least halfway plausible.

Unfortunately, none of the female members of the cast fare as well, mostly because they aren't given a whole lot to do. Both Bryce Dallas Howard and Helena Bonham Carter's characters could be excised from the film entirely without affecting the plot in the slightest. Bloodgood at least gets in on the action as Blair, but her character totally fails the feminist test by falling into Wright's arms after he foils an attempted rape—haven't we outgrown that tired cliché yet? None of these characters are in any danger of taking Linda Hamilton's place as the franchise's resident bad-ass, that's for sure.

But of course, people don't go to a Terminator film hoping for plausible plots and Oscar-worthy acting, they go to see malevolent robots and larger than life action. And the film certainly delivers on that, with even the final battle, as preposterous as it is, plucking at the right nostalgia heartstrings to make it more than satisfying.

But still something's missing from Terminator Salvation, and that's a sense of danger. The lack of realistic violence of its PG-13 is a part of it. But more than that, it's missing the singular dread that the first two films captured so perfectly. The first two films were less action movies than they were horror movies with sci-fi action movie trappings. As the killing machines played by Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick stalked the heroes in the first two films, they did so with the single-minded zeal of any great horror flick serial killer, making the plight of the heroes in the face of such an unstoppable force all the more gripping. With Connor and co. facing off against a vast, faceless army of generic killer robots, Terminator Salvation may score some great action set pieces, but it can't hope to compete with its own franchise's rich history. | Jason Green

 

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