McG, director of particularly insufferable music videos and equally insufferable films like Charlie's Angels, recently proclaimed to Entertainment Weekly, "The old McG is dead!" You see, he wants to be taken seriously. He wants to do something mature. He admits that "I have a body of work that would not suggest that I am a credible storyteller" before imparting the timeless words of wisdom, "Before you can be Johnny Depp, you have to do your time on 21 Jump Street." This gives you an idea of the quality of the dialogue in his movies.
It is true that with Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in the venerable Terminator franchise, McG tries to do something a little different. Where his old films were flashy and stupid, here he's learned to bleak up his color palette so that this one is instead gritty and stupid. I suspect that this is as much growth as McG is capable of experiencing as a filmmaker.
He's not the only one to blame for the overall terribleness of Terminator Salvation, though. The first warning sign is that the script was written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, the duo that wrote the unfortunate Terminator 3, a film that just about nobody seems to like, certainly not fans of the series. First of all, for a story that places as much importance on John Connor (Christian Bale) as this one does, it doesn't turn out to be much of a John Connor story.
You'll remember that John is the man who in the previous films had been foretold to turn the tide of the man vs. machine war. He's such a key player that Skynet, the sentient computer network, has been sending Terminators back in time to kill him or his pregnant mother since 1984. This time, however, we're thrown into the thick of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, where John battles hundreds of Terminators of varying shapes and sizes (and yet none of these computerized creations begin to approach the creep factor of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Robert Patrick). The story of how John rose up to take down Skynet is a story that deserves to be told, but not like this.
Because much of the focus is on Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). Marcus was a death row inmate in 2003, right before Judgment Day, and had donated his body to science. It turns out that by "science" his contract meant Skynet, and he's been resurrected as a Terminator. But he doesn't know it, and has no knowledge of Judgment Day or John Connor or his mission to take John out. 'Cuz, like, he's a man, but he's also, like, a machine, and he has, like, free will, so like, symbolism. Skynet actually thinks that making him a human being with apparently sturdy moral fiber, despite the criminal past, and giving him no Terminator-like traits besides the metallic exo-skeleton under his skin, will actually lead him to consciously kill John. Skynet's pretty fucking stupid.
Which is pretty true of the movie and all of its loooooong 130 minutes. The stuff with actual human beings is generally lame, and the CGI fight scenes fare no better. McG shoots it all in a rough-and-tumble handheld style, which through somebody else's lens might have been cool, but not when the action is as dull as it is here. And not when poor Christian Bale, given little else to do, is forced to take random action figure poses. Bale has helped bring Batman back to life these past few years, but any gravitas he might bring to the Terminator saga is rendered moot by McG's sheer tonal ineptitude. When McG said he wanted to make a serious movie, he meant it. This is a deadly serious picture with no sense of humor, ironic or otherwise; even the 15 millionth riff on "I'll be back" is delivered gravely. I appreciate that we don't have to sit through the painful sight of Ahnuld telling people to "talk to the hand" again, but the combination of action, heart, and humor that James Cameron managed to perfect with the first two films is entirely absent.
A highlight: Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, the soldier who John will eventually send back in time to become his father. Yelchin does an admirable job of mimicking Michael Biehn's performance from the first one while still giving his own spin on the character. Yelchin should have a good career ahead of him, because with this and Star Trek, he's brightened up two middling-to-terrible summer tent poles in May alone.
There's not much else bright about Terminator Salvation, that's for sure. Sam Worthington is a dud as the Terminator with a conscience. In real life, he's Australian, and suppresses his natural accent to play American here. Tellingly, at some point, he stops trying, so at times Marcus will speak like an Aussie and at others like a Yank. Story-wise, little more is accomplished than in Terminator 3, which itself was fairly pointless You could skip these last two films entirely and not miss out on any major part of the canon. This is a franchise that should've died with the T-800 at the end of T2. Everything since then has been utterly pointless.
The old McG is dead? Don't go readying the obits just yet, because from where I'm sitting, he's still a McFailure.