(No longer in theaters)
Warner Bros. Pictures
May 21, 2009
In Terminator Salvation, machines have exterminated most of humankind and run the planet; I think they made the movie, too. This isn’t storytelling, it’s programming—inorganic matter passing for life. James Cameron’s 1984 original and its showy sequel were also mechanical, but their killer ’bots had charm: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s metallic readings and lumpy-jawed bodybuilder arrogance meshed riotously well with the part of a cyborg assassin, and Robert Patrick’s T-1000 was a witty, preternatural blank—with adorably incongruous teacup-handle ears. The fourth time out, the bad machines are steel-skeleton FX, the humans less compelling. It’s not wholly the fault of the director, McG, who decently storyboards the clashes and explosions. As I said, it’s the machines—or, more precisely, the Hollywood Machine that sifts through books and old movies in search of the holy “franchise,” and at strategic intervals generates nonessential sequels.
The Terminator began with a villain and a hero traveling back in time, and the fourth installment isn’t so much an advance of the story as a footnote: This is how we got to where we’ve already been—for 25 years. John Connor (Christian Bale), prophet of the resistance, must defeat the machines and send Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) to 1984 to save his mom and deliver a payload of sperm that will grow up to be John Connor. Of course, every time trip has its perils—just ask the Vulcans in the new Star Trek. Maybe in this time loop the machines will kill John before he can kill them. Maybe Kyle will stand too close to an X-ray machine and become infertile. As Sarah Connor exclaims to her son (via cassette tape): “God, a person can go crazy thinking about this”—a line that must have given everyone on set a good laugh. Onscreen, alas, nothing lightens the mood. With McG’s migraine-inducing jerky-cam and monochromatic palette (livened only by splotches of rust), Terminator Salvation puts the numb in numskull.
Minus a fun new terminator, the movie offers a second protagonist, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who’s executed by lethal injection in a nineties prologue after signing away his body to whey-faced scientist Helena Bonham Carter—and then mysteriously bounds naked from some wreckage in a post-nuclear-holocaust 2018 looking remarkably buff. No spoilers here: I won’t deprive you of the pleasure of figuring out his secret for yourself about an hour and a half before the Big Reveal. Worthington, an Aussie, has a brief but vivid role as a studly hooligan in Greg Mclean’s delectable killer-croc picture, Rogue, and he manages to suggest a soul in torment with a minimum of inflection. It’s not that he’s all that winning—it’s that the competition never gets out of the gate.
Millions have viewed via YouTube Bale’s abusive tantrum on the set of this film, and he’s virtually the same on-camera: Chewing out an insensitive cinematographer or snarling at a fellow fighter, he’s equally unpleasant. Bale is a Method guy who tries to become his roles, and in principle that’s fine. I’m in the minority in liking his Batman: His humorlessness resonates with Bruce Wayne. But as the hero of an outlandish sci-fi thriller, he lacks imagination and dash. John’s mission is the apogee of nuttiness: to find his dad, a teenager, and keep him alive to impregnate mom and save the world from an army of titanium-girded Austrian musclemen. But Bale is such a dour prig you wonder why he just doesn’t abort himself in spite.