The climax of “Terminator Salvation” takes place in a factory where Terminator robots are made, and I believe Henry Ford will be glad to know that his assembly-line process still exists in the future. He’ll especially like that the human workers have been replaced altogether, so that machines are being made by other machines. This Terminator factory is a marvel of efficiency. The factory that makes “Terminator” movies, on the other hand, seems to have gone haywire. It’s cranking out stuff that doesn’t even make sense!
The “Terminator” franchise turns a corner with this, the fourth film. While the first three took place in the present and dealt with robot assassins coming from the future to kill various members of the Connor family, “Salvation” is set in 2018, at the beginning of the events that those cyberkillers were so eager to prevent. Without the time-travel element or Arnold Schwarzenegger starring (I guess he’s busy now, or something), it hardly feels like a “Terminator” picture at all. It stays faithful to most of the story’s mythology, but honestly, who ever cared much about that? Unstoppable killing machines from the future were the main attraction, not minutiae about what year it is when John Connor meets Kyle Reese.
For the record, though, it’s 2018. Skynet, a military defense system, became self-aware some years earlier and instigated nuclear war, wiping out much of humanity and bleaching all the color out of the cinematography. Since the apocalypse, Skynet-powered robots and other machines have been trying to kill the remaining humans, while pockets of resistance fighters — including John Connor (Christian Bale) — fight back.
Connor wants to find and protect Kyle Reese because he knows from the first “Terminator” that eventually he’s going to send Reese back to 1984 to save Connor’s mother’s life and impregnate her. Reese is John Connor’s father, you see. Or, rather, he will be, once Connor sends him back in time. If he doesn’t do that, then Connor will never be born, the resistance movement will fail, and the machines will win.
At this moment, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) is a teenager hiding in the bombed-out hellhole that used to be Los Angeles. (The only difference, really, is there’s no more smog.) He meets Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a fierce fighter who appears out of nowhere and seems to not know what’s been going on the last decade or so. Marcus repairs a long-broken radio just in time to hear a transmission from John Connor, and they head north to find him and his group, accompanied by a mute little girl named Star (single-named Jadagrace), who serves no purpose in the story whatsoever.
The crux of the film is the resistance movement’s attempt to destroy Skynet’s headquarters in San Francisco. Hidden radio frequencies are involved somehow (I didn’t quite get that part), and so is a submarine (see previous parentheses), which John Connor is able to locate simply by leaping from a helicopter into the storm-tossed sea and, I guess, swimming downward until he hits metal. There is also the matter of the mysterious Marcus Wright, and the fondness that resistance fighter Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) has for him, and whether that will turn out well for either of them.
McG, the goofy-named director, has taken a lot of heat for daring to take on this project when his “Charlie’s Angels” movies weren’t exactly the height of serious filmmaking. But he acquits himself very well, actually, with some killer action sequences, a fast pace, and an appropriate aesthetic for a summer blockbuster. I have no qualms about the direction.
The screenplay is another matter. Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (the duo behind “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “Catwoman”), it suffers from pedestrian dialogue and a surfeit of bad plot devices ranging from the merely too-convenient (how come the Terminators always throw humans around when they catch them, rather than just ripping their heads off?) to the laugh-out-loud preposterous. In that latter category are major elements that would comprise spoilers if I named them, so you’ll have to take my word for it. If you see the film, you’ll know the parts I mean, because you’ll be laughing out loud at them.
Ultimately, it’s a gloomy, lifeless story in which, despite the abundant talent on hand, no one ever emerges as a memorable character. Except for the action scenes, it’s a waste of a franchise. The film wants us to consider the question “What makes us human?” I say the answer is that humans have the ability to separate good stories from bad ones — which goes back to my original theory about “Terminator Salvation” having been produced by machines.
C (1 hr., 55 min.; )