In Terminator Salvation, humanity is knocking at the door of extinction. Machines have taken over the planet and only John Connor can save us.Any of this ring a bell? It should, because it’s the basic premise for the entire Terminator saga. And in this just-begun summer, which is already basking in the shiny blue, warp factor one optimism of Star Trek, the bleak outlook of mankind’s future as depicted in Terminator Salvation seems strangely outdated. Having humanity trying to outfight machines for control of the planet seems so…1991. The fourth Terminator movie is a grim, single-minded actioner with some impressive set pieces and powerful performances from its two leads, Christian Bale and especially Sam Worthington. What it isn’t, however, is a game changer, like Judgment Day was. In fact, much of the movie seems very … familiar. As in the other films, the action begins in a different time period, with Marcus Wright (Worthington) on death row. He is convinced by a researcher, Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter, in a small but crucial role) to donate his body to science. Flash forward to the year 2018, where L.A. is a wasteland after "Judgment Day". Humanity’s final survivors spend their days scrounging for food, hiding underground from the Terminator killing machines. During a raid on a Skynet facility, John Connor learns that the machines are harvesting human prisoners, using them as guinea pigs in their experiments to bridge the gap between the T-600s and the human-like T-800 Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed in the first two films. Still a front-line fighter and not yet the leader of the Resistance, Connor finds himself at odds with General Ashdown (Michael Ironside, crusty as ever), who doesn’t seem to buy Connor’s ‘I know what our future is going to be’ story. The Resistance believes they have found a way to permanently destroy Skynet and prepare to mount an attack, with Connor leading the way. [BIG SPOILER REVEAL HERE – although if you’ve seen any of the recent ads for the film, you already know this] Marcus’ arrival throws everything into chaos. He’s a cyborg, a precursor to the T-800, with a human heart still beating inside his steel-encased body. And he claims to have no idea how he ended up this way. Connor doesn’t believe him. He only knows that Marcus is a machine like the ones that have been trying to kill him – in the present and the past – as long as he’s been alive. Moreover, Marcus represents a new piece of Skynet’s history of which he was unaware, and it causes him to doubt what has driven him for most of his life – his knowledge of mankind’s future. Director McG talked early and often about how Worthington was cast because he needed someone who could hold his own against Bale. The Aussie rewards McG’s faith in him by lifting the film from Bale like a skilled pickpocket. Despite a shaky accent which comes and goes, Worthington lends heart to Marcus’ struggle to come to terms with who – and what – he has become. In doing so, he becomes the character audiences relate to. Perhaps the least egocentric A-lister in Hollywood, Bale has the challenging task of portraying the prophet of the Resistance. John Connor is basically the ultimate party-pooper, a futuristic Schleprock who knows humanity’s future and well...let's just say he thinks Timbuk 3 was way off base with regards to a bright future and sunglasses. The irony in Bale’s intense, steely-eyed performance is that it renders Connor more robotic than Marcus. Even his attempt at uttering a franchise catchphrase is uttered through gritted teeth. The filmmakers need to work on this character more if he’s going to be the anchor of a planned trilogy. But just as in The Dark Knight, Bale is outshined by a more fleshed-out adversary. How much of that is his fault or the screenwriters’ fault, is up for debate. As Connor’s wife Kate, Bryce Dallas Howard isn’t given much to do. We know she’s a surgeon who can dress a field wound in no time, but there’s barely any interaction between her and her onscreen husband. And her noticeable baby bump is barely acknowledged, which is peculiar, considering he’s the heir to the throne of Resistance Leader. The scene which set off Bale’s infamous rant against the film’s cinematographer reportedly involved an emotional moment between Bale and Dallas Howard. We won’t know until the Director’s Cut DVD, since it was edited down to little more than a ‘Be Careful’ scene. Common and Moon Bloodgood fare better as members of the Resistance. Bloodgood especially, gets to carry Linda Hamilton’s butt-kicking torch. But her romance with Worthington’s character felt rushed and reeked of a last-minute script addition. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Anton Yelchin’s uncanny work as young Kyle Reese. Channeling Michael Biehn, who of course played the adult Reese in the first film, Yelchin delivers as the man who grows up to be Sarah Connor’s baby daddy. If you were one of those online petitioners predicting Judgment Day when McG was entrusted with the keys to the franchise, you can rest easy. The director shows a keen understanding of the film’s complex mythology, and ensures the story fits into continuity (though sometimes that is accomplished through lengthy chunks of expository dialogue). In McG’s vision of the future, polish and shine are not high on the priority list for either side in this war. The machinery is battered and bruised, the landscapes charred and damaged. The war between man and machine we kept hearing was coming, is played out in smaller skirmishes between the guerilla-style Resistance and Skynet’s machinery. McG’s decision to limit the CGI effects work pays off with some impressive sequences overflowing with bullets and explosives. The ‘hardware worship’ that McG talked up during advance publicity is on full display, too. From the early version of the Hunter-Killer flying ships we caught glimpses of in the earlier films, to underwater Terminators, Skynet’s assembly line is impressive. Then there’s the Harvester unit, a giant Terminator that has the misfortune of making its onscreen debut after Transformers, so the comparisons are inevitable. But Optimus Prime doesn’t have Terminator cycles as accessories. These Moto-Terminators race after Marcus and Kyle during the high-speed chase-and-crash sequence that’s a franchise staple. And that gets us back to what I said at the beginning. We’ve seen a lot of this before. Machines chasing John Connor, who tries to get away in – surprise! – a truck. Is it impressive? Yes, no question. And the accompanying sound effects are truly breathtaking. But Terminator cycles aside, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The same goes for the climactic battle inside Skynet’s R&D facility, which outside of a clever nod to past Terminator history, is a clear reminder of the T2 finish. Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who also wrote T3) stick too closely to the Terminator template, as if worried about taking too many creative liberties. The result is a movie that entertains but falls short of memorable. The moment you walk out of the theater, the explosions, the gunfights, all start to recede into the background, blending in with other moments in Terminator history. Man vs. Machine. Judgment Day. Skynet must be defeated. John Connor is the future of mankind. Tell us something we don’t know.
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