For all the explosions, gunfire, firestorms, and manly gnashing of teeth, TERMINTATOR SALVATION has an overriding weariness to it. The franchise, while robust box-office wise, has essentially been telling the same story now for a quarter of a century. A tale of time-travel, murderous cyborgs, and a father born decades after his son’s conception is one that is not without charm. Filling in the empty blanks of a story whose plot is a given, is not without its perils. This time, the perils have won.
Primarily set in 2018, after Skynet, the military artificial intelligence computer, has become conscious and decided that the world would be better off without its humans, it begins in the past. That would be 2003 when Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is about to be executed for having caused the death of his brother along with two policemen. Aside from the perhaps meaningful imperative tense of his name, Wright himself has some complexities. They are hinted at and never fully developed in an interesting way. There are too many explosions and humans v. machine v. other humans battles to squeeze in. So, without further ado, he has signed away the rights to his corpse to the mad scientist of the piece, Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), who is just as interested in using him to save humanity as she is in saving herself from the cancer that is killing her.
Once Wright has been dispatched while gazing on the beatific if pasty face of Dr. Serena, the action moves to the future where machines have run amok and there is only John Connor (Christian Bale), the prophesied savior of humanity to put them back in their collective place. Connor, who lived his early life on the run from terminators, has grown into a serious man not given to submitting to authority, which is a problem. For the authorities. He may be the symbol of the resistance, but he’s not its leader. That would be General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), another imperative of a name attached to an officer who has little patience with Connor’s insubordinate attitude. Fortunately, he only larded through the film enough to spout off about that attitude, and to give Connor the opportunity to look grimly defiant.
Connor’s latest operation against the machines makes the startling discovery that they are taking human prisoners in order to use them in research and development. He also uncovers Wright, though he takes no notice, and has long since departed when Wright wakes up to a world he never made. Because it’s a film fraught with convenient coincidences, the first human being Wright runs into after stumbling away from the destroyed machine base is Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). For those who are fully versed in the franchise lore, there is no need to explain that he is the one who will be sent back in time to meet Sarah Connor, woo her, win her, and impregnate her with John. For those who don’t, the film makes the point several times, including an interlude where Connor listens to tape number 28 left to him by his mother.
What exactly Wright is doing alive after being executed should be apparent from the get-go, but the film does take the time to set it up with all the requisite sense of impending surprise, even though there isn’t much of one. It takes little quality time, however, with anything else that isn’t martial in quality, and even then, a certain baseline intelligence is missing. The terminators and their creepy crawly robot pals, are singularly inept when it comes to killing John Connor or anyone else. One gets its metal claws on him in the very first reel and instead of instantly snapping his neck, decides to bat him around like a ball of yarn. It’s a move that makes even less sense when one considers that the terminator in question has lost its lower extremities. One understands completely why R&D is so crucial to the machines, but one wonders why such a glitch in programming can’t be fixed by an otherwise fully sentient Skynet. Ditto the swarm of robot snakes, the ones with the fistful of claws where a face should be. When presented with Connor, on all but a silver platter, do they all attack at once? Oh no. One at a time so that Connor can, with that manly grimace, take them out in the order received.
The look, as well as the pacing, of the flick are leaden, the feeling, despite large vistas of ruined Los Angeles, claustrophobic. The writing and plot structure isn’t much better. The inclusion of the cute little girl (jadagrace) as Reese’s silent sidekick is a maudlin a bit of pandering to the audience. The inclusion of the woman warrior (Moon Bloodgood), who befriends Wright and then some, is a painful cliché. The inclusion of Connor’s adoring wife (Bryce Dallas Howard), is necessary in order to have someone look at him adoringly, if only slightly less grimly, than the rest of the cast. As for Ms Howard, while the rest of the crew of resistance fighters living under dire conditions are presented as grimy, gritty, with three-days worth of sweat apparent, and wearing clothes that might never have been introduced to detergent, she appears to have stepped out of a perfume ad in an upscale and glossy fashion magazine. Her skin is lustrous, her makeup understated but devastatingly well applied, her wardrobe draped over the pregnant belly, chic with stylish accessories. Perhaps that’s why Connor fell for her. The ingenuity of keeping oneself that smartly groomed under such adverse conditions, well, it’s impressive.
TERMINATOR SALVATION pays homage to what came before. There are familiar lines spoken with the proper conviction. There is the familiar, if computer-generated, familiar face stalking Connor. Yet it is all very much going through the motions while telling essentially the same story as the first three. Humans fight. Machines fall. Machines rebound. Humans vow to fight on. To be continued. Even the terminators seems bored.