I wondered, having just left the theater, “What audience was this film engineered to please?” The giant, translucent grey shapes coming across the screen, revealing themselves to be letters, remind us of the original Terminator title sequence. The grainy cinematography and post-apocalyptic set design makes us think of Blade Runner and the various films it inspired. The terribly-stilted, overtly expository dialogue reminds us, rather painfully, of Star Wars. Fans will be unnerved by the volume of dialogue that informs them of things they already know. Newcomers will be lost in a sea of references and nods that, put together, don’t impel them to care about the characters and situations in this film.
For me, the bad metaphors began the moment we see Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) strapped to a cross-shaped table. We don’t, however, get any preamble as to why this murderer is being symbolically crucified. We only know that he killed his brother and is offered a “second chance” by a woman, Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), bearing release forms from Cyberdyne Systems. Those steeped in James Cameron’s 1984 B-movie creation recognize this is the company fated to destroy mankind through the creation of Skynet, a defense network that becomes self-aware. Fine, but it still doesn’t tell us anything about Marcus as a person—who he was before he committed murder, why he did it, why we ought to regard his chemical crucifixion as anything but precognition of events yet to befall him. If you thought Skynet was the most self-aware entity in this film, wait until you get a copy of the shooting script! Watch for Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) who, trusting Marcus in advance, seems to come equipped with every tool necessary to help Marcus make a superfluous getaway to advance the plot. I bet she had a copy of the script in her flightsuit!
Ironic, it is, that it’s Marcus with whom we empathize most. We next find him in the dystopian landscape of 2018. We know why he is there. More puzzling is why he finds a sudden urge to save those he finds in peril in this new world—survival in numbers, perhaps. As a cyborg, Marcus raises some interesting ethical questions about how we define humanity, none of which are really explored to the extent possible in 130 minutes. Instead, he is used principally as a prop in endless action sequences. Every other character is a scaffold, including the mythical John Connor (Christian Bale), whose very name not only suspiciously resembles James Cameron, but betrays even greater hubris as an analogue of Jesus Christ. Joseph Campbell must be rolling in his grave.
After an agonizing introductory scroll at the beginning of this fourth installment, to inform the few people who cared enough to skip the previous three, we join the resistance fighters, commanded by General Ashdown (Michael Ironside). They have located a facility that is preparing the next generation of terminators. They’ve discovered a signal that can disable the machines. Given that the terminators scour land, sea and air, the resistance knows enough to keep radio contact minimal and run their command post from a submarine in the deep sea. As perceptive as their counter-offensive is, wouldn’t it be appalling to think that they never once pondered that the use of a detectable signal might be a trap?
While Christian Bale as Connor delivers radio addresses to the freedom fighters in his hilariously gruff Batman voice (one wishes for the unintentional satire to go a step further and have Bale lapse into Patrick Bateman, urging the armed militia to “try the arugula”), Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard looking pregnant but otherwise useless) is given the thankless role of Female Support System. Anton Yelchin tries his misplaced affection for previous actors in his role here, and makes the mistake of co-opting Michael Biehn’s corny enunciation in his potrayal of Kyle Reese—the resolute fighter who travels back through time in Terminator to save Sarah Connor, John’s mother. At times, he’s almost funny in an otherwise all too serious film, “Two day-old coyote… better than three-day old coyote.” Most of the time, however, you find yourself wishing he would go back to trying to one-up Walter Koenig’s hammy Russian accent with an awesomely bad Russian accent of his own.
The fault is not entirely the actors’. John Brancato and Michael Ferris, the same dynamic duo that brought you the dreadful Catwoman and Terminator 3 (redeemable in hindsight, comparatively), have put together a script of dialogues that give none of the characters gravitas enough for us to be genuinely concerned with what should or could become of them. McG’s direction seems to have rendered emphasis on every wrong syllable or word imaginable. And just when an interesting subplot or intellectual dialogue appears to unfold, it is abruptly interrupted in favor of explosions and fights.
There are some creative strokes, as in establishing Skynet’s western command in San Francisco—i.e. Silicon Valley. When Connor first confronts Marcus after discovering that he is not human, and tells him, “We’ve been at war since before either of us existed,” it sets an epic tone that isn’t at all followed through—not helped by Danny Elfman’s hopelessly derivative, see-sawing strings of anticipation. The relationship between Connor and Wright is slapped together so haphazardly that Wright’s hero streak is inexplicable, and we are unmoved when he attempts to redeem himself. At the two hour mark it felt as if time elapsed quickly and not because I was having fun. It was as fascinating as chewing styrofoam… with the occasional firecracker jammed in to make you chew faster.
Terminator Salvation • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 130 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures