As titles of apocalyptic blockbusters go, Terminator Salvation has just the right touch of post-traumatic (and post-grammatical) doomsday cachet. It certainly sounds classier than T4: Attack of the Robots, which would have been more accurate. We’re in the year 2018, just after the fabled Armageddon known as Judgment Day, when the Earth’s machines, rising up as one, launched their assault on humankind. Red-eyed, gleaming-silver-skulled Terminators now roam the wasteland, mowing down the last humans who try to scurry away from their programmed firepower. Even ? a disembodied limb from one of these nasty droids can do damage. That’s how the centralized brain of Skynet has built them: to come at you like Energizer Bunnies of death.
There are other mechanized aggressors — ?one resembles a flying saucer crossed with an electric shaver, one is like a five-story, looming, gigantoid version of RoboCop, only with a gun in place of its head. Watching Terminator Salvation, there is never any doubt that the machines are alive. Maybe that’s because the whole movie is a bit of a machine.
The director, McG, is the wizard of whirligig whoop-ass who made the Charlie’s Angels movies, and here he dresses up what is basically a blowout-in-the-junkyard battle film as if it were a holy conflagration. The color is bleached to granulated newsreel white, black, and beige, for that dead-serious Full Metal Jacket effect, and a transport car of human prisoners is shot to evoke the image of a death-camp train. McG also devises grimly novel ways to shoot action, like depicting a chopper crash in a single shot from the POV of John Connor (Christian Bale) as he pilots it to a topsy-turvy landing.
As a hero, Connor is really no more distinctive than the gnarly, unshaven outcast ringleader of every retro-future fantasy from Escape From New York on. Yet Terminator Salvation is invested in treating him like a grunge messiah. Bale brings the role his usual stylish, seething edge. He seems ready to blow at any moment, making his infamous on-set tantrum look less like a case of star egomania than like a Method actor’s refusal to break character gone amok. Connor, leading a fringe of rebel fighters, is out to protect Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a teenager who has no idea how important he is: If he lives, he will grow up to be Connor’s father (the Michael Biehn character from the first Terminator), and will therefore sire the resistance movement. But all the loop-the-loop, boy-is-father-to-the-man-who-must-protect-the-boy-or-the-man-won’t-exist stuff is more fun to make sense of when you’re leaving the theater. On screen, it’s just a dimly revolving puzzle.
Time-tripping flimflammery aside, a good Terminator movie needs a hook that’s kick-ass basic. The 1984 classic had the vision of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a one-man demolition derby — an image that was also a Hollywood joke, since it turned Arnold’s lousiness as an actor into the core of his appeal. T2: Judgment Day had its rock-’em-sock-’em face-off and all that mercury-robot shape-shifting. Following the noise and faux fury of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation has more ingenuity but still a lot of noise. It’s basically a zombie movie with machines instead of the walking dead, and with Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright, a vicious criminal made over into…something else. Confronted with Worthington’s square-jawed stolidity, audiences may be forgiven for wondering if he’s meant to be a young version of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. It turns out, though, that he’s not so easy to read — nor nearly as entertaining. He’s a machine we’re supposed to feel for, but every time the film asks you to do so, you may taste metal. B?