The Terminator film series finds itself curiously torn between fate and free will: Although the overriding message of each successive film has been “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves,” that only seems to get each set of protagonists so far in their ongoing struggle against the machines that will one day rise up against their flesh and blood masters in a nuclear holocaust and launch a decade-spanning war for the survival of the human race. Every victory against Skynet — the artificial-intelligence system that becomes self-aware and strikes out at the humans — only seems to delay the literally inevitable battles of the near-future. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was in a real sense retconned into pointlessness by the infinitely less entertaining Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which spent two clunky hours telling its hero, John Connor, that he would never be able to stop Judgment Day, the day of nuclear reckoning he and his mother had spent previous film trying to prevent.
The point is that with Terminator Salvation, director McG has inherited a troubled franchise that wants to offer success in the human battle against the machines but not so much that the entire future might be safe for long (which given the machines’ eventual ability to travel through time, which is how this whole mess got started, is pretty much a lock). As such, he constructs his film around the exploits and leadership of John Connor — now played by Christian Bale — using the de facto leader of the human resistance as the film’s emotional and narrative anchor. But McG and the screenwriting team of John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris fail to bring anything new to the mythology, and their John Connor winds up being the flattest imagining of the character to date. His motivation is ported over from the other films, and though McG can coast a while on some admittedly dazzling action sequences, the film lacks the spark of inventiveness that made the first two films rightful sci-fi classics of the late 20th century. McG tries to make a movie about a man, but he just creates another machine.
The film opens with a prologue in 2003: Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), on death row and minutes from his execution, concedes to donate his body to science after being persuaded by Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter[!]). She isn’t clear on what she’ll do with his body, saying only that it’s a “noble cause.” It’s a necessary scene that sets up a major character and his possible fate, but Brancato and Ferris bludgeon the emotion with comic book-level dialogue, which given the duo’s work on Catwoman isn’t much of a surprise. In fact, though McG demonstrates throughout that he’s got a solid command of visuals and can carry off an action set piece, the script’s hamfisted speech and expository patchwork in certain transitions hold the film back at almost every turn. Marcus is put to death shortly thereafter, at which point the film skips ahead to 2018, explaining in brief title cards how the Skynet system of computers and fighting machines became self-aware early in the 21st century, and how mankind has now banded together to fight them, often taking orders from John Connor, prophesied by some to be the man who will one day end the war.
McG opens the main story with a fantastic battle sequence, a chest-rumbling and completely believable skirmish between human members of the resistance and all manner of Terminator machines, which range in size and strength. The cinematography from Michael Fitzgerald and Shane Hurlbut makes everything look washed out, turning the world into the brown and gray wasteland it would be in the aftermath of a near-apocalypse. Connor and his fellow commandos land via helicopter in a Skynet facility and engage in a costly and arresting fight with the machines, wiping out one of their positions before managing to flee. But after they’ve left, a naked and mud-covered Marcus emerges from the wreckage, screaming nonsensically. It’s obvious from some of the tech Connor and his team discovered that Marcus is the latest development in Terminator technology, a fully integrated human-robot hybrid that would go on to become the model brought to life by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first two films. But McG takes this for granted, blowing an opportunity to create real suspense: Does Marcus know he’s part machine? Is he being controlled by Skynet against his will or knowledge? Will/can he eventually snap and start killing people? Marcus’ nature is the kind of inherently tense device a successful screenplay turns on, but the filmmakers are content to act as clueless as Marcus seems to be about his apparent purpose and design, and they treat him for the first act like he’s any other character.
Marcus eventually falls in with local members of the resistance, including Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the young man who will one day be sent back in time by John Connor to save John’s mother, Sarah, and whose tryst with Sarah will result in John’s existence. (Just let it wash over you.) Again, though McG packs their time together with several exciting escapes and impressive effects sequences, this could have been so much more: This is the prototype of the murderous machine sent to kill the son of the man standing next to him, and it comes off like a buddy comedy. Brancato and Ferris eventually merge the plotlines and bring Marcus into contact with Connor and the other resistance fighters, and engineer it so that Connor’s mission becomes wrapped up in his desire to find and save Kyle, a name he only knows from the audio cassettes his mother left him.
The actors do what they can with the limited material they’re given, though that’s not saying much. Yelchin eventually grows into his role as Kyle, though he starts out doing a really weird Michael Beihn impression, and it takes a good 20 minutes of screentime for him to stop talking like Clint Eastwood. Bryce Dallas Howard has the thankless task of playing Connor’s wife, a role that could have been filled by anyone. Worthington brings an interesting dimension to Marcus, especially in the scenes that actually look at the definition of humanity, but the moments are sadly few and far between.
The film wants Connor to be its savior, a guiding light and conflicted hero, but the mix of lazy writing and amateurish direction hamstring Bale, who’s proven time and again he can convincingly play everything from a superhero or prisoner of war but is here given just enough rope to hang himself. McG assumes that three films’ worth of dodging psychotic robots is enough to make the adult Connor sufficiently fixed in his course, and though to some degree that’s true — this film is after all a canonical part of the series —it’s not enough to set him in motion this time. All Connor knows is that he has to keep Kyle safe because otherwise he’ll never be born (true) which will lead to the downfall of humanity and the victory of Skynet (never even once remotely proven or evidenced). Why Connor? What does he do, or know, or create, that could make him so vital to the cause? The screenwriters and McG never explore this, and the result is a tightly paced action movie that’s fun to watch but narratively worthless.
In fact, the filmmakers seem hell-bent on trying to work in as many visual and spoken nods to the first three films as possible instead of creating their own: Marcus teaches Kyle to secure a shotgun to his arm with a length of rope; Kyle pumps his shotgun with one hand, as Sarah Connor does/will do in Judgment Day; Kyle uses the line, “Come with me if you want to live”; Marcus punches out the windshield of a large truck he’s driving; etc., etc. Even without the presence of John Connor, the film feels like every one that’s come before because it’s a frenzied mash of all of them, and as such it never finds its own way. The film is often fun to watch, but does nothing to forward the series’ larger story, and because of that, it might as well not even exist.