The first two Terminator movies are considered classics of the sci-fi genre, and so they rightly should be. Although I tend to classify the first one as a tad on the overrated side, it's still good, and the second one is most definitely an astonishing achievement in the genre, one that has rarely been matched since its release in the early '90s.
The third in the franchise was a big letdown, and although fun, was nothing compared to what had come before it. So now we have the fourth instalment in the franchise, which is essentially both a sequel and a prequel (try and wrap your head around that one), and it finally gives us the war with the machines that we've been told about for three movies now. So does it live up to its hype, the quality of the trailers, and the potential? Well, sadly, no. It's undoubtedly entertaining but when it comes down to it, it's just a movie about blowing stuff up… and not much else.
Terminator Salvation is set in a post-apocalyptic world in the year 2018, a time when the war between man and machine has already begun and the world is ravished by destruction and endless battle. The group of people defending against the machines, controlled by Skynet, are known as the Resistance and are led by John Connor (Christian Bale). When trying to find a way to disable the machines and end the war forever, Connor comes across a man (Sam Worthington) whose last memory is of being executed while on death row. Connor must decided whether to trust this man when a revelation about his true nature becomes apparent, all the while trying to lead the Resistance against the machines.
The main concept of the first three Terminator movies involved an entity, man or machine, being sent back in time to help or hinder John Connor. It would have been pointless to continue that on with Salvation, simply because we've been there and done that. So they finally give us the war we've all been wanting to see in full swing, and like a child in a playpen, we want what has been taken away from us. Not exactly back to the back in time storyline, but we want the heart and soul that the first two had, the feeling of empathy and humanity. It is sadly lost on Salvation. Director McG (I find it hard to utter his name without snickering) really knows how to blow stuff up, but that's about the extent of the intelligence of the movie; it's shoot first, asks questions later, all action, all the time. There's nothing remotely deep about the proceedings, and it's something that, in a rare case for a sci-fi action franchise, is badly needed.
What does a $200 million budget buy you? Well, explosions, guns, car chases, explosions, gunfire, mangled machine parts, explosions, gunfire, oh, and did I mention explosions? It's an action-fest of the highest order, with brilliant special effects, and it's fun for what it is. It's got an action/rest, action/rest, action/rest rhythm that makes it predictable. But at the very least the action is done well, for the most part sans the irritating shaky cam that plagues modern day action movies. Even if depth of character or a strong storyline are not what McG is good at, at least he knows how to throw together an entertaining action sequence.
Although most action movies aren't exactly aiming for any Oscars in the acting department, it must be said that a lot of the acting in Salvation is sub-par (which is down to the cheesy, groan-inducing dialogue which makes far too many appearances), for the most part from the supporting players. The likes of Moon Bloodgood (is that really her name?) and Common (yes, the rapper) are, at times, eye-rollingly bad. Christian Bale seems to be doing his overly gruff Batman voice heard in The Dark Knight, and it's the first time since Reign of Fire that I didn't think he was fantastic. He is sort of flat and "so what?" as Connor. I guess it's the big paycheck and giant explosion movies that bring out the worst in him as an actor.
Sam Worthington, as the prisoner with a troubled, mysterious past, is the only one who shines here. A relative newcomer to the acting world (his first appearance was in 2000), Worthington exudes a certain star quality that should carry him in the movie business for a long, long time (read: the next big thing). His upcoming stint in James Cameron's sci-fi mega-blockbuster Avatar is sure to put him even more in the spotlight than Salvation has. His character here is, ironically (considering a pivotal plot point of which I won't give away), the only one we feel any empathy towards, with the human members of the Resistance not instilling any in the audience. And that's a problem for a movie that's supposed to be about the hope of humanity surviving against attacking machines. When a movie is, at its core, about blowing stuff up and shooting anything that gets in its way, an attempt at anything humanistic is simply in vain.
Numerous attempts are made to make sure we know that this is a Terminator movie, by throwing in references and links to the past movies (well, except for the third one, which it almost completely ignores). But rather than smirking because you recognise something – a name, an object, a plot point – it just feels very forced and contrived. It tries too hard in that respect, with, for example, an appearance from a certain actor/politician not unfamiliar with the franchise being laughably ridiculous (they use CGI instead of the real guy… go figure why they did that). Okay, McG, we get it, this is a Terminator movie that's linked to the first two, there's no need to shove it in our faces left, right, and centre.
So although Terminator Salvation isn't a bad movie per se, not when it comes down to what it ultimately is – a summer action blockbuster – it nonetheless is riddled with problems. A lack of heart and soul leaves us with nothing but a movie about blowing stuff up. And some people may say that's okay, and in some ways it can be enjoyed for exactly that. But for it to have any weight to it, as the first and second movies did, it needs more than copious amounts of action and usage of every gun in the armoury. The world where man and machine are at war sure is a depressing place. I miss Arnie.