20 May 2009
It is telling that when McG, whose directing resume includes the two Charlie’s Angels movies, made his pilgrimage to James Cameron to ask for his blessing to make a fourth Terminator film, the writer-director of The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) refused.
The story was fully told after T2, its message one of hope for the future—“no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
Twelve years later, along came Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, under the direction of Jonathan Mostow. Now “Judgment Day,” the day the supercomputer Skynet becomes self-aware and declares war on the human race, is inevitable—optimism replaced by its opposite. You can see why Cameron wouldn’t want to be involved.
(There also was the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which FOX canceled earlier this week, but the less said about that the better—this mere mention is already more than it deserves.)
Clearly, seeking Cameron’s approval was nothing more than window dressing—after T3 brought in $433 million worldwide without him, you knew that wouldn’t be the end.
There’s someone else missing, too, and his absence is felt just as much as Cameron’s, maybe more. Say what you want about his acting skills or his politics, but Arnold Schwarzenegger has been the face of the franchise since its birth 25 years ago. Through computer effects, McG finds a way to get that face into his movie for a few fleeting moments, though that only emphasizes how much this film doesn’t need to exist.
We pick up the action in 2003, when convicted murderer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signs his body over to Cyberdyne Systems moments before his execution.
Fast-forward to 2018 and humanity’s war against the machine rages on. John Connor (Christian Bale), who we know will become the leader of the resistance, is a mere soldier in this war. Many believe he is the one prophesied to save them all, but he’s as petulant and impulsive as he was when Edward Furlong played him as kid in T2. His limited knowledge of the machines comes from audio recordings his mother made for him before she died (Linda Hamilton’s voice makes a cameo). Someone needs to pull this guy aside and say to him, like Tom Hanks to Private Ryan, “Earn this.”
While Connor and his pregnant wife (Bryce Dallas Howard) fiddle with a new gizmo that can essentially flip the machines’ off switch, a more interesting story develops when Marcus awakens a decade and a half after his execution. Without giving anything away, Marcus has ties to Skynet not immediately known to him.
Wandering through this new post-apocalyptic world, Marcus runs across a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, also on screen now as the young Chekov in Star Trek), the hero from the original movie who will father John Connor, and resistance fighter Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood, who has maybe my favorite name in show business).
On their way to rendezvous with Connor, Skynet captures Reese. That’s a problem for Connor because if Skynet kills Reese, which it most certainly will do, he will not be able in the future to send him back to the past to protect his mother and conceive a child who grows up to be Christian Bale.
So there is nothing particularly noble about Connor’s mission to rescue Reese—he just wants to save his own skin. He repeats the mantra “no fate but what we make” at the end of the movie, but how much does he believe it when he is so certain he will become humanity’s savior just as he’s been told so many times?
With the main character contradicting the theme of the film, it feels like screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also wrote T3, didn’t think everything through as thoroughly as they should have.
Everything feels underwritten, from the characters to the central conflict. Bale overcompensates by trying to Act every moment he is on screen, a rare misstep from one of our best, most consistent performers. I’m not surprised he went berserk on set one day in an infamous rant, the audio of which is widely available online.
Worthington, who ironically will be seen next in James Cameron’s Avatar, has the meatier role. McG originally offered it to Bale, and one wonders why he wanted to be Connor instead. It’s all but a moot point, however, as the movie is more concerned with being as loud as possible than exploring Marcus’ inner conflict in any depth.
The Terminator and T2 were big action extravaganzas, too, but their action was imaginative and, in T2’s case, boasted revolutionary special effects. Even T3 had its moments. In Terminator Salvation, a lot of stuff blows up without any style or visual flair. Each action set piece is a deafening attack to the senses.
The movie is technically sound. The bleak cinematography of Shane Hurlbut, the target of Bale’s rage on the set, does a fine job capturing the wartorn landscape, and the Terminator effects are convincing if not as eye-popping as T2’s liquid metal T-1000.
Yet it all feels so wrong. Any investment we have in the characters or story comes from Cameron’s work—the very work this movie and the one that preceded it do their best to destroy.
(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language. 115 minutes.)