Directed by McG
This review contains Terminator series spoilers.
With Charlie’s Angels helmer McG becoming the third director to tackle the once-venerable sci-fi-action series concocted by James Cameron, we can at least be thankful that he’s found an original way to screw up a franchise. Where most series end up with an entry lacking in drive or vision, we find Terminator Salvation seems to lack neither; it has a unified visual style, a ridiculous number of action sequences, and even a high-powered prestige star calling the shots. The truly fatal flaw here is that McG, through omission, has discovered the series’ most important theme; its unflappable femininity.
That’s a problem that rears its head early on in this fourth entry, when it becomes clear that Helena Bonham Carter (as Sam Worthington’s amorous doctor) and Bryce Dallas Howard (as John Connor squeeze Kate Brewster, replacing Claire Danes, who wisely opted out), both strong screen presences, are going to be relegated to ephemeral roles in favor of the script’s bland twin behemoths, Connor (Christian Bale) and murderer-turned-savior Marcus Wright (Worthington). And while one might think that fulfilling the three-film promise of the post-“Judgement Day” man vs. machine war is a logical step for the series to take, the post-apocalyptic setting actually makes for a less unsettling experience than the banal 80s America of Cameron’s films; when we set eyes upon McG’s meticulously color-drained landscapes, we might appreciate the follow-through from the eerie flash-forwards of the first two films, but we find ourselves with no reason to care about who’ll end up the last men (or machines) on the cinder.
Salvation also suffers from a distinct lack of wit; where scribes John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris at least threw in some broad humor in T3 (check the Verhoeven-worthy deleted scene on that film’s deluxe DVD), here they opt for glum heroism and empty stabs at meaning, most glaringly in the form of Wright’s am-I-or-ain’t-I-a-man nonsense. Compared to T3‘s (admittedly flimsy) nods towards Connor’s existential anxiety at knowing his ultimate destiny hinges upon global genocide, it’s not very compelling material. It’s still more interesting that the film’s other main plot thread, however, which involves Connor having to find and rescue the teenaged version of the original Terminator‘s protagonist, Kyle Reese (here played by Anton Yelchin); if you find yourself waiting for a cutting reminder that Reese will have to eventually face a guresome death after being sent back to the Reagan years, you’ve already put more thought into the film than those actually involved.
Moreso than McG or his screenwriters, however, it might actually be the meticulous Bale who is to blame for the film’s shortcomings. He publicly slammed the (superior) third entry in the series, telling his handlers that its approach would have to be thrown by the wayside if he was going to be involved. As such, that film’s attempts at maintaining the female agression and existential doom of the previous films – however occasionally misguided, are shucked away in favor of all war, all the time. It’s telling that the only real moment of terror to be found in the film (besides the kind of “gotcha” scares that startle thirteen-year-olds) comes courtesy of a ghostly late-film appearance from Bonham-Carter, who effortlessly throws in more menace than the army of Terminators at Skynet’s disposal. Try as she might, she can’t salvage the least ambitious, least imaginative, and least necessary entry in a franchise ready to be decommissioned.