Terminator Salvation: Only the audience needs saving

Both warning and advertisement, the Terminator films are technophobic teases, selling tickets by promising this decade's model of killing machine: the classic V8 1984 Schwarzenegger; the bullet-streamlined, liquid-metal '91 Robert Patrick of T2: Judgment Day; Kristanna Loken's 2003 T-X (with burgundy pleather upholstery).

Terminator Salvation, a departure in many ways, is the first Terminator with no upgrade. The hardware is clanky and runs on diesel. Schwarzenegger is present only as a CGI mask. The franchise's creation myth—the toppling of humanity by Skynet computers—has finally come to pass. It's 2018—time enough, apparently, for survivors to start dressing like drum circle squatters. Christian Bale's John Connor is a maverick officer in the human resistance. Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright, last he remembers, donated his body to Cyberdyne before a lethal injection. He wakes to a blasted world, carrying a plot twist familiar to anyone who knows their Philip K. Dick.

Looks like those Hollywood diets finally went too far.
Looks like those Hollywood diets finally went too far.

Details

Terminator Salvation Directed by McG. Written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris. Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Helena Bonham Carter, and Bryce Dallas Howard.

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Change was inevitable—the established Terminator formula has been squeezed dry in Fox's prime-time The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But among the many things junked in director McG's chop-shop is the notion of pleasure: He describes cutting that "gratuitous moment of a girl taking her top off in an action picture" (God forbid) to get a franchise-first PG-13.

Salvation rolls along with Marcus on the road, his journey toward resistance radio transmissions honoring the series' paranoid momentum. The action set pieces, cut with overdone hectic percussion, are engaging enough. It's when Marcus and Connor intersect—trekking to strike at Skynet's Silicon Valley nerve center—that the movie slackens, with McG tugging at emotional connections he never stuck in place.

The Terminators have always respected female durability, from commando-mom Linda Hamilton to T3's intimation of masculine obsolescence, with effeminized Arnold modeling a pair of Elton John sunglasses. Salvation is comparatively anti-girl. Moon Bloodgood's pilot is introduced shaking a luxuriant mane loose from her flight helmet, making a Jennifer Beals–in-Flashdance shocka out of something the preceding movies took for granted.

But the essential problem here isn't the ladies. It's the no-frissons Bale-Worthington pairing. Bale, doing the Grrr voice, is a lesson in how clenched effort does not equal effect. What's remarkable about his leaked freakout is that it's over a performance in McG's Terminator Salvation. Did the dude sweat this much over Reign of Fire? Worthington, half-burying his Aussie accent under gruff bluff, is of the blunt Jason StathamDaniel Craig genus.

Judgment Day alloyed pathos and explosions by matching Arnold's impassivity with Eddie Furlong's silent film-dolorous reaction shots—for those of a certain age, it's impossible to remember the sentimental gambit of that final thumbs-up without getting misty. Salvation, terminally gray, doesn't do contrasts. This means monotony—as predictable as, when the movie tanks, McG telling an interviewer it was "too dark" for the multiplex.

 
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