Terminator Salvation (2009) / Sci Fi-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running time: 115 min.

Cast: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Ironside, Jadagrace, Jane Alexander
Cameo: Terry Crews

Director: McG
Screenplay: John Brancato, Michael Ferris
Review published May 25, 2009

The Terminator franchise gets dusted off once again, this time without the one sure-fire way to bring people back again for more, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It doesn't have that big gun, but somehow, Christian Bale (The Dark Knight, 3:10 to Yuma) was convinced to sign on board. Though his involvement is dwarfed somewhat by the gargantuan special effects design and set pieces, it's the first portrayal of future savior of mankind, John Connor, that actually is an asset tot he film rather than a detraction.  Such a character has big shoes to fill, and to the credit of director McG (We Are Marshall, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) and the producers, Bale lends the gravitas required to anchor all of the rest of the Road Warrior-esque story and ambitious production.  Even so, it's similar to 3:10 to Yuma, as Bale is upstaged by a charismatic Australian tough guy, this time being Sam Worthington (The Great Raid, Hart's War).  Worthington lends his character, an unknown stranger who the resistance hasn't figured out if he's a friend or foe, a sympathetic portrayal, despite establishing from the very first scene in the film that he's a heinous murderer. 

The setting is 2018, years after Judgment Day.  John Connor is a soldier in the Resistance against the mechanical horde that has all but completely annihilated human civilization, Skynet.  Connor's mission is to track down and ensure the safety of the man who would become his father, Kyle Reese (Yelchin, Star Trek), before he is terminated by one of the many machines in the onslaught.  Meanwhile, a new player has entered the scene, a confused Death Row convict named Marcus, who finds himself 15 years in the future with a desire to find Kyle Reese himself.  Trouble is, for both parties, that Kyle has been abducted by Skynet and put into a roving prison enclosure that contains many of their human brethren aboard.  That enclosure is rumored to be the Skynet base of command, and the Resistance is ready to take it down at the cost of Reese and his fellow captives, which would negate Connor's existence and jeopardize the ultimate victory in the war foreseen by his father in the future/past.

McG is one of those directors that almost invites derision.  First and foremost, his name creates the feeling that he is so good, he can be branded as a label.  Second, his background had been in music videos prior to making feature films, and once he did make the leap, he crafted two of the more superficial eye-candy releases in the early part of this century, Charlie's Angels and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.  Third, he executive produces such glossy television shows as "The O.C.," "Chuck" and "Supernatural."  Fourth, and to a lesser known extent, he's dabbled in songwriting for the band Sugar Ray for use on various soundtracks to bad films.  His contribution to films and television has been in entertaining in the most vapid ways possible. 

However, he is also a director who appears to know how he is perceived, and is trying very hard to overcome his image as all flash and no substance.  His underappreciated We Are Marshall is a respectable entry in the sports film genre.  And now one can count Terminator Salvation among the works that suggest he just might have it in him to trade in his quest for fame and success for a little bit of respect.  It isn't a breakthrough, but given what the film has going against it, it's remarkable that he turned in an effort that should please the more tech-head fans of the series.

It's clear that McG is striving so hard to be a serious filmmaker that, unlike the previous three Terminator efforts, he steers entirely clear of the trademark humor that made the James Cameron works so enjoyable.  There's also a vital emotional component that is all but completely squashed out by the action in this film that makes the few attempts at something deeper than the surface seem curiously unmoving.  McG has delivered an efficient sci-fi/action film for genre buffs, but it's not likely to please many outside of that demographic, as without the humor, romance, and colorful personalities, there's not much else for more traditional moviegoers to relate to. 

There is an assumption on the part of the screenwriters that anyone who catches this film has seen the others, so be prepared to watch them if you haven't, or just need a refresher.  Terminator Salvation also tosses in allusions to the Cameron Terminator films, such as young Kyle Reese saying, "Come with me if you want to live," which is an effective way for us to know who the character is given that a different and younger actor is portraying him.  The T-800 makes an appearance during a key moment in the film as well, modeled exactly as Arnold Schwarzenegger, though completely a CGI rendering.  The characterizations are minimal.  We're supposed to know these characters and the importance of the role they will play, so there isn't an effort to reestablish just what makes them tick inside.  Interestingly, screenwriters Brancato and Ferris (Catwoman, The Game) had also worked on the previous entry, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which played often for laughs, while this one has very little humorous content.

There are a few questions that I pondered during the course of the film, mostly from a logic standpoint.  For instance, I wonder about Skynet's insistence on creating machines, such as manless motorcycles, that can still be ridden and steered by humans.  And why choose to create most of the fighting force with the size, build and limitations of human beings.  I suppose there might be experimentation to try to represent a human form as closely as possible in order to hope to infiltrate, such as the T-800, but that doesn't explain the ones that are the size of a medium-sized building.  I also wonder why, in an all-out battle to stop human extinction, women still shape their eyebrows and wear makeup.  Rather than go for a plausible future, this is a movie future, striving for the typical doses of "cool factor" and handsome characters that is par for the course in a Hollywood production.  It's not necessarily a negative, but going for gritty realism would have definitely upped the level of awe and power to scenes of explosive destruction.  Its PG-13 rating, the first in the series, also keeps the violence from becoming truly harrowing, as it feels like homogenized, safe-for-TV fare throughout.

There is a level of predictability during a couple of key moments in the film, meant to be revelations, but anyone that has seen his or her share of these sorts of films will likely have guessed would happen prior to them actually taking place.  However, even if the tells are enormous, after the answers are revealed, there is a definite changing of the chemistry of the film that adds layers of intrigue and suspense that had been absent previously.  It's a satisfying storyline, where it could have been nothing more than a scrap metal bang-up battle flick.  If there is one major component that is curiously flat, it belongs to the emotional realm, as there are attempts to inject pathos and even a bit of romantic dabbling, but given the lack of depth of the characterizations, they tend to ring hollow.

Terminator Salvation is dominated by its computer effects and lengthy action sequences, but there is an attempt made to make this something more than just an action flick in a lucrative franchise setting.  The filmmakers actually are trying to make a good, interesting, and worthwhile film. While Brancato, Ferris and McG can't capture the essence of what made its predecessors riveting entertainment, they have turned in a solid action/sci-fi piece that works better as a genre flick than it does in comparison to the more populist works that were the Cameron entries.  If you go into it expecting an action/adventure/romance/comedy/thriller/sci-fi/fantasy/social commentary bonanza, you're in for a disappointment.  However, if you love action films set in a futuristic or post-apocalyptic premise, it's worthwhile, even if superfluous.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo