Back in 1984, James Cameron's low budget sci-fi action film The Terminator seemed to be just about the coolest movie of its time. Borrowing heavily from two classic episodes of the television series The Outer Limits--"Soldier" and "Demon With a Glass Hand"-- Terminator offered the mind-bending tale of a time-traveling killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent from the future into the present to kill a woman whose son would lead a rebellion against the machines that overthrow mankind. Much like Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien, The Terminator kicked off a science fiction franchise that started out strong, hit its apex with the sequel (both Terminator 2 and Aliens were directed by Cameron), and then lost much of its energy--only with the Alien films, there were more sequels and spin-offs to measure the downward spiral.
Twelve years after Cameron's impressive sequel to his original film came Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Not nearly as impressive as the first two films, T3 offered a grim final scene that left audiences depressed, but left the door open for future installments. Although the film performed poorly at the box office in the United States, its global haul was impressive, which all but ensured a returned of terminators to the big screen. The problem, of course, is that when films do well overseas, leading to the inevitable sequels geared for a global audience, it almost always means said films will cater to the things that sell well in the worldwide film market--action, explosions, action, violence, more explosions, action and violent action. Sadly, things like story and character development generally take a backseat to the action; the train of thought being that you don't have to speak or understand English to appreciate shit blowing up, and most people don't want to read subtitles when they're watching shit being blown up.
Sadly, it is this sort of global filmmaking strategy that is guiding Terminator Salvation, the fourth film in the franchise that now includes a television series and countless comic books. Set in the not too distant future, when the deadly machines have already overthrown much of the human race. Skynet, the self-aware computer system has struck and continues to strike against the remnants of the human race, using deadly machines to hunt and kill people. John Connor (Christian Bale), is a member of the human resistance, and has been prophesized to be the one person who will destroy the machines. But we all know this, because we've seen all the other movies. This time around, Connor is fighting the good fight, when word gets to him that the terminators have targeted him and a teenager named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). Of course, we all know that Kyle Reese will grow up to be the man Connor sends to the past to protect his mother, and in turn get her pregnant with John. As Connor helps plan a massive assault against Skynet, using a signal transmitter that provides the sort of plot device that can be easily translated to the film's global audience, Reese crosses paths with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convicted felon that was executed and whose body was donated to science before the rise of the machines. As it turns out, Wright's body was used by Cyberdine, which we all know is the company that designed the machines that destroyed humanity, and through he doesn't know it, he's actually a terminator. All of this plot comes together in an extended chase that is punctuated by lots of explosions, and over simplified ruminations on the humanity of Wright, who refuses to accept his status as a terminator, and instead chooses to fight along side the humans.
Terminator Salvation is a film that is entertaining, but it stops short of actually being a good movie. The script is both heavy-handed and light weight at the same time, and it doesn't deliver anything more than what is needed to keep the franchise alive. The story jumps back and forth between John Connor and Marcus Wright, but the film really is more about Wright than Connor. In fact, there comes a time when the movie starts to feel like perhaps Connor had a smaller role in the original script, but the part was beefed up when Bale signed on. Whether or not that's the case, Connor himself is pretty boring, lacking the sort of gravitas you'd expect from someone who is destined to lead the rebellion against the machines. Wright's character is far more interesting, but his story feels as if it's been trimmed here and there to give more time to Connor, which is part of what weakens the overall story.
As far as big budget summer movies go, Terminator Salvation provides a mildly entertaining distraction, much better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but not nearly as good as Star Trek. The script itself is flawed to the point of being weak, but the sensory overlaod caused by McG's hyperactive direction makes it difficult to notice the pedestrian writing. The movie doesn't really suffer from Schwarzenegger not being in it, but it also has problems defining itself as a Terminator flick without him. Schwarzenegger's absence--other than a computer generated cameo--might not be so obvious if the movie itself tried harder to define itself as its own cinematic entity, rather than just another entry in a franchise that is now twenty-five years old. Bale's performance lacks anything of true merit, and he is overshadowed by Worthington, who has his own problems, not the least of which is his Australian accent that comes and goes throughout the course of the movie. Still, Worthington seems to actually be acting, while Bale is clearly figuring out how to spend all the money he was paid for being in the film.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]