The original Terminator kicked off this universe with darkly horrific sci-fi underpinnings. T2 drove it home with engaging character interactions and development (especially in the director's cut), cutting edge effects, and an antagonist that seemed invincible until the last few moments of the film. T3 kind of took a dump on the franchise by recycling concepts and bringing little new or innovative to the series, and despite some appealing female leads (I'm looking at you, misses Danes and Loken), stuff blowing up, and capping it with the only possible ending that would satisfy, the overwhelming cheese of it (the "Talk to the hand" line comes strongly to mind) made the whole affair only tolerable to see where the larger story was going. Now Salvation is upon us, with Christian Bale filling the boots of John Connor, at the cusp of the machine militia going from all metal men to fleshy cyborg cavalry. Does it redeem the third movie? Has it reinspired faith in the franchise? Does it stand a chance of topping the caliber and appeal of T2? Kind of, sort of, and not really, in that order.
They lined up a good cast, each of whom generally fit their roles well. Of particular note was Anton Yelchin (aka, Charlie Bartlett) as teenage Kyle Reese; with the right dye job, I could see similarities to Michael Biehn's older rendition of Reese. Bale's Connor is as gruff as you'd expect, and takes the weight of the world on his shoulders more here than in any previous installment. Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright kicked ass in every situation, though he didn't really know why he was so capable until later. Michael Ironside is always good as a grizzled war veteran, though his character is about puddle-deep here, and things surrounding him go predictably awry as a single-minded automaton blindly following orders at the helm. Helena Bonham Carter — a gem in every role I've seen her partake — felt a bit wasted here, though. She only appears twice (once only virtually), and the part really didn't require someone of her talent.
Typically the whole steampunk post-apocalyptic aesthetic just doesn't do anything for me. It's all about gangs with biker garb and spiky haircuts drinking their own pee, exuding airs of macho stupidity, or gimpy children limping around killing one another, about three seconds from resorting to cannibalism. It's frenzied and chaotic, but manages to bore the hell out of me. Salvation exists in a similarly post-apocalyptic America, but with much more gravity to the trappings and less silliness. That's not to say it's changed my view on stories set in bleak, barren wastelands, but at least the pace kept up enough that I didn't have time to experience the usual nausea at the setting.
With that in mind, some of the shots captured here were fantastic, especially a few during a chase between Ducati-nators and resistance fighters trying to evade in a tow truck. The dogfights between Hunter-Killers and resistance A-10 Warthogs were exciting to watch as well. Generally speaking, most of the action sequences were well done, relying more on slick effects and choice camera placement than shaking the viewpoint to make things seem more exciting than they were. Industrial Light and Magic does what they do best again, giving us computer generated effects that are virtually seamless with the real world upon which they're digitally overlaid, including a digital rendition/makeover of the original Arnold terminator, returning him virtually (yet photorealistically) to his younger years.
Story-wise, the bigger picture works well here (what differentiates man from machine?), though it's not terribly deep and doesn't afford too much development. It wisely doesn't have aspirations to unseat T2 as the crowning jewel in the franchise, and gives you just enough to watch and think about without getting bogged down. It's the finer points of the plot and moment-to-moment interactions where it can start to break down.
For instance, Connor and Reese go toe-to-toe numerous times with terminators in their various incarnations. Rather than go for the quick kill, the machines seem more inclined to beat the crap out of their prey and throw them around a dozen times before going for anything resembling a kill shot. Terminators have metallic hands with pneumatic joints that could crush concrete, but instead of tearing these men limb from limb, they opt to just rough them up a bit. Makes no sense.
Similarly, you find out early on in the flick that a number of prominent figures in the resistance (Connor and Reese among them) have been marked for death within a few days' time by the machines. Despite being clearly identified by the machines several times throughout the movie, more often than not, the machines simply try to pester, capture, or contain these soldiers rather than killing them. I guess it could be argued that they'd be more effective if converted to cyborgs and inserted back into the resistance as spies or saboteurs, but that's never really addressed in the movie. All we know is that the machines want these guys dead, but forgo it at every available opportunity.
Then there's the "signal" discovered by a human that can shut down machines. It seems to have worked awfully well right up to the point that it's needed to great effect (possible spoiler, skip to next paragraph if you're wary), then we find out apparently all the machines knew they were supposed to play dead whenever they heard it and let themselves be blown apart. Instead, the one thing driving the movie up to that point gets nixed and they fall back on the same thing used to kill a terminator in T3. Meh. Given the great mistrust of humans toward machines, how this information got planted in human hands is a mystery.
Last, when Marcus goes to infiltrate Skynet, it's clear that he's granted access to the facility, no questions asked, yet he still sneaks around from cover to cover as if, at any moment, someone is going to reveal him as an intruder when he clearly fits right in. Also, it seems it's now accepted as fact that people can stand within 100ft of a nuclear blast and walk away unscathed, a concept oft-mocked since its inception in the last Indy Jones movie.
There's a final "exchange" between Marcus and John toward the end that not only felt predictable, but also gave it sort of an all too convenient "wah-wah" feeling to me. It started out very well, but began to run out of steam toward the end, leaving viewers with a whimper rather than a bang, without a cliffhanger or any other great impetus to tune in for the next inevitable chapter in the franchise.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, and it's certainly stronger, darker, and more serious than T3, though that entry has earned its place in Terminator canon by establishing that the war couldn't be prevented, and opening the door for this movie to be realized. Is Salvation the best in the series? No, but it's certainly not the worst, either. I admit having had low expectations when I heard this movie was being made, but the final product is something entirely watchable and enjoyable for action, sci-fi, or franchise fans. It's not T2-good, but short of getting James Cameron back on board in the universe he created, this is probably about as good as it's going to get.