Speaking as someone who enjoys being bludgeoned into submission by summer movies, I can’t complain about Terminator: Salvation (Warner Bros.) on the grounds that it’s too loud, too long, and too full of airborne fireballs and 50-foot-tall cyborgs. My complaint is that the fourth installment in the Terminator series should have administered a more skillful drubbing to the senses. McG, a former music video maker, is an able director of action—when he films a fistfight or a battle sequence, you can at least make out who’s winning—but he lacks a sense of rhythm. A good summer movie isn’t just an uninterrupted crescendo of cacophony. You need stuff in between the fireballs and the cyborgs.
The movie opens in 2003, as Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a murderer on death row, donates his body to science at the bequest of a terminally ill researcher (Helena Bonham Carter). Flash forward to 2018, when Marcus wakes up naked in a postapocalyptic landscape, unsure of his existential status: Is he alive or dead? Human or machine? (Worthington’s fluctuating accent suggests another question: Australian or American?) Wandering through the ruins in pilfered clothes, Marcus meets up with a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and learns what anyone familiar with the Terminator series already knows: An evil robot empire called Skynet has taken control of the planet and seeks to eliminate all human life. Those humans who remain are organizing a resistance movement led by John Connor (Christian Bale). From cassette tapes left behind by his late mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton, unfortunately present only in audio), John learns that he must find Kyle Reese and send him back in time so that Kyle can save Sarah’s life and impregnate her, thus allowing John Connor to exist and save the world. (Oh, Lord, just watch this timeline of compiled clips from the earlier movies.)
Mastering this tricky time-travel chronology is completely unnecessary in order to follow the movie. All you need to know is that giant robots want to kill us all. And McG has them trying to do so in myriad cool ways: Some reach into moving vehicles to pluck characters out and lift them screaming, Fay Wray-style, into the sky, while others slither through murky rivers in the form of metallic snakes. The old-school steel skeletons that slug it out with John and Marcus at the movie’s end are the most staid of the bunch, although a digitally reanimated Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a brief and bracing appearance. The originality of the robots’ design is the best thing about Terminator: Salvation. If only the humans on-screen embraced as wide a range of behavior as the machines do, we’d be in business.
At some unfortunate story meeting, someone decided that the fleeing rebels should drag a mute child (Jadagrace Berry) in their wake—she’s essentially a piece of bait for the robots, and for the audience’s sympathy. Bryce Dallas Howard, playing John’s wife, Kate, stands around looking beatific, pregnant, and vapid, and the terrifically named Moon Bloodgood plays a slinky pilot who falls for the anguished Marcus.
Between this film and The Dark Knight, Christian Bale seems to be making a habit of playing stolid do-gooders upstaged by their own archrivals. Sam Worthington is no Heath Ledger by any stretch, but even the hint of internal conflict gives his character an edge over the steel-jawed, command-barking John Connor. Bale’s signature intensity is starting to collapse on itself; his definitive performance may turn out to be the tantrum he pitched at this film’s director of photography, Shane Hurlbut, during shooting. Bale’s paranoia that Hurlbut was getting in his way was well-founded. The monochromatic dystopia the cinematographer created is, ultimately, far more interesting than anyone in it.
Slate V: The critics on Terminator Salvation, Night at the Museum, and Dance Flick