Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Helena Bonham Carter
(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 22 May 2009; UK theatrical: 3 Jun 2009; 2009)
Are we just counting the days until the announcement comes that Mad Max IV is on again, only now with Christian Bale replacing Mel Gibson as the burned-out wanderer of the endtimes? The casual and authoritative ease with which Bale (already the new face of Batman) slips into the warrior skin of Terminator Salvation‘s John Connor clues you in to the fact that he\‘s the new millennium’s action-hero everyman.
Not for a moment does Bale’s Connor seem anything less than the very soul of the human resistance against the machine apocalypse. When he stands up to his superiors to stop a bombing raid that could cripple Skynet but also kill many human prisoners—saying that to do so would make the resistance no better than the mindless machines they fight—the heart jumps a little with pride in the race. It’s a proficient but not particularly moving performance, even much of the plot revolves around Connor’s trying to save the teenage Kyle Reese (aka, his father, eventually) from Skynet. Bale keeps his eyes lidded and his powder dry, exploding only on command. This is a man you would follow into battle and do stupidly heroic things for, but probably could never know.
Because of that, Bale’s Connor fades into the background during Salvation. This leaves a good stretch of film into which the filmmakers (particularly director McG, going a good way towards atoning for his Charlie’s Angels sins) pack squadrons of Terminators and metal-shredding battle scenes that outdo anything the previous films could throw at you. What remains is ultimately a retro-dystopian war film, in which a ramshackle human army using patched-together helicopters and bombers fight pitched battles against a toy store’s worth of Terminator models (primitive ones predating the first film’s T-800, airborne transporters, marine units, and so on).
Christian Bale in Terminator Salvation
McG stages his action scenes with impressive élan. Unlike most modern action directors, he knows how to frame wide shots and hold them for dramatic purpose, not mistaking a quick edit for excitement. He’s able to keep the action coming as the story has many more moving parts than previous installments. There are a couple intertwining plot lines running here, keeping Salvation from turning into another series of endless showdowns between the heroes and a single unstoppable killing machine. In one, we see Marcus (Sam Worthington), a death-row inmate executed in 2003 after promising to donate his body to science, who then appears in 2018, rather confused by turning up alive after the apocalypse and having to play protector for Reese (a nervy Anton Yelchin). Meanwhile, Connor, an officer in the human resistance, needs to locate Reese before Skynet can assassinate him, stop Bale from being born, and create another fun time paradox.
Despite an unsurprising surprise about one character that launches the film into a spirited round of (surprisingly heartfelt) ‘What Does It Mean To Be Human’ soul-searching, the screenplay does not spend a lot of time thinking about consequences. The immediacy of the raging firefights keeps that sort of thing to a minimum. And while Salvation certainly moves like a freight train, by cutting the time-paradox tomfoolery of the original trilogy, the filmmakers may well have left one of the series’ most interesting components behind.
The resistance leads an airborne assault on Skynet in Terminator Salvation.
Certainly the film’s spare, grey-green camo and grime-chic palette might speak more effectively to the future (and Cameron’s original) than the last two film’s TV-friendly Technicolor SoCal feel. There’s some actual acting going on here between the fireball explosions, particularly on the part of Worthington and Yelchin. And McG’s sources for filching, whether for visuals (Children of Men and Apocalypse Now) or story (Battlestar Galactica, whose moral investigations about differences between Cylons and humans appear here almost whole-cloth), are unimpeachable. (The occasional Transformers feel of all the fluctuating machinery is the only real misstep in terms of identifiable influences.)
But Salvation sometimes feels more like just another link in a chain to nowhere. Say what you will about Terminator 3 and its considerable camp factor, there was a cleverness to its script, particularly in those final braintwister moments when Judgment Day approaches, that speaks more to what was so fundamentally fascinating about James Cameron’s initial premise.
The original trilogy could certainly be big dumb blockbusters in the worst way—Salvation being Ahnuld-free certainly helps limber it up—but they also had a truly tragic worldview, in which human folly inevitably leads the race time and again to its own potential demise.
Salvation, as dirty and battle-scarred as it might look, is a much more optimistic piece of work. In this more straightforward telling, good seems much more likely to prevail, as does the continuation of the series. After all, Salvation is set in 2018. The first Terminator was sent back from a future of 2029. That leaves 11 years’ worth of film-ready fighting in between. Unless Bale goes off and gets himself another franchise in the meantime.