There’s a certain McExuberance about "Terminator Salvation" that both successfully reinvents the franchise and blows human complexities out of the picture with the force of a CGI-delivered atomic bomb. And that’s both good and bad. After three successively less interesting prequels and a critically-acclaimed but emotionally overwrought television series, we’re ready for a bright new world for John Connor and his archenemy Skynet. This film is an imperfect invention: along the path towards a fully-realized post-Judgment Day war picture, McG and his team forgot that James Cameron’s Terminator films were always at their best when they contrasted machine and human, especially when the two look exactly alike. But there’s enough of a cogent approach to "Terminator Salvation" to make the picture stylish, thoughtful and fun; certainly sufficient entertainment for your ticket price.
Here’s a college try at a plot synopsis. The movie takes place shortly after Judgement Day, the term used for the moment when defense supercomputers called Skynet became self-aware and decided to execute a nuclear first strike on the human race. The human resistance is, of course, tenacious; under the visionary leadership of John Connor (Bale), the remnants of society band together to fight the machines. Insofar as Connor is a pesky thorn in the machines’ plan, they have attempted to assassinate him repetitively in the past (see all three previous Terminator movies, plus the TV show) - and having failed, are attempting to undo his future here in the present. Their latest idea is to capture teenager Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, last seen on the bridge of the Enterprise) and kill him before Connor is able to send him back through time to protect his mother from killer machines called terminators before she can give birth to mankind’s savior. Thank goodness for Marcus Wright (Worthington), who has been granted a new chance at "life" courtesy of Skynet years after his execution - he’s a machine (no spoiler there) who, with human emotions and morality strangely intact, may ironically be the key to rescuing the boy and saving the world.
If that synopsis confuses you, then you’re probably not a Terminator addict. Not to worry - while it helps to know T-lore, the basic plot remains simple: the machines are trying to kill us, and we’re trying to kill the machines. The fact that an ex-Terminator is running the state of California is really not all that germane - but if you’ve seen the previous movies, there are plenty of "in" jokes and one significant role reprisal that will tickle you.
McG and screenwriters Michael Ferris and John Brancato arguably did sustain the franchise’s brand of sly humor, which occasionally injects badly needed moments of levity to offset the film’s action-based intensity; when it comes to brute thrills, McG delivers in a way no ’09 summer flick has to date. The machines in this film might not have the quiet, seething hatred that seemed to emanate from previous incarnations, but they’re certainly frightening in their numbers and callous disregard for life. We’ve seen this all before - in movies such as "The Matrix" and "Transformers" - and McG is clearly still developing his visual style with regard to storytelling via digital technologies (because to develop a digital style is no insignificant task). But he admirably focuses his will to entertain directly between the eyes of his audience; he’s good at the mechanics of powerful action sequences and enhancing his work with a sturdy, highly effective feel for mood, and that makes "Terminator Salvation" an appealing good time.
Bale and Worthington have the only two characters with any thematic meat to them; supporting actors like Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood and Helena Bonham Carter might bring their A-game, but their characters have comparatively nothing to do. They’re little more than the creations of their surroundings. And when it comes to the guys, Worthington is provided the more interesting role. He sinks his teeth far into it, occasionally overacting but always looking fine. Bale offers up a subdued, angry John Connor - which may fit the actor well but lacks the charisma of the born leader he’s meant to be. Perhaps that is a natural progression: back in the early nineties Edward Furlong played the role as a whiney, rebellious, self-centered teen, and in the last two years Thomas Dekker upped the anger quotient to nearly unbearable levels.
Despite character shortcomings, however, "Terminator Salvation" manages to get the job done: that is, to re-register the technological warning originated by Cameron in the 1980s even as the film glorifies CGI. It might not be as thoughtfully conceived as Cameron’s original pictures; yet a healthy respect for the dangers of artificial intelligence is hardly a concept that requires intellectual innovation in 2009. We’re well aware of the ethical and practical issues that similar movies brought to the table in the past few decades, and in this era I think we can enjoy an action film that exploits the possibilities of AI without over-burdening its audience with moral exposition. "Terminator Salvation" is just that: great fun at the movies.
John Connor :: Christian Bale
Marcus Wright :: Sam Worthington
Kate Connor :: Bryce Howard
Kyle Reese :: Anton Yelchin
Blair Williams :: Moon Bloodgood
Barnes :: Common Howard
Star :: Jadagrace Yelchin
Dr. Serena Kogen :: Helena Bonham Carter
Virginia :: Jane Alexander
Gen. Ashdown :: Michael Ironside
Gen. Losenko :: Ivan G'Vera
Morrison :: Chris Browning
David :: Dorian Nkono
Lisa :: Beth Bailey
Mark :: Victor Ho
Tunney :: Buster Reeves
Gen. Olsen :: Kevin Wiggins
Hideki :: Greg Serano
Director, McG Serano; Screenwriter, Michael Ferris; Screenwriter, John Brancato; Screenwriter, Paul Haggis; Screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan; Screenwriter, Shaun Ryan; Screenwriter, Anthony Zuicker; Producer, Moritz Borman; Producer, Derek Anderson; Producer, Victor Kubicek; Producer, Jeffrey Silver; Executive Producer, Peter Graves; Executive Producer, Mario Kassar; Executive Producer, Andrew Vajna; Executive Producer, Joel B. Michaels; Executive Producer, Dan Lin; Executive Producer, Jeanne Allgood; Cinematographer, Shane Hurlbut; Production Design, Martin Laing; Film Editor, Conrad Buff; Costume Designer, Michael Wilkinson; Original Music, Danny Elfman; Casting, Justine Baddeley; Casting, Kim Davis-Wagner; Supervising Art Direction, Troy Sizemore; Set Decoration, Victor Zolfo.