James Cameron's 1984 film The Terminator is one of the great action flicks — resourceful, tense, even witty. It's a grungy, reasonably low-tech movie with a charismatic trio of leads, a well-paced structure, and a chewy sci-fi premise lending gravitas.
Cameron's 1991 follow-up, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, was similarly effective but had a totally different character — a big, bright, sleek, propulsive high-tech action juggernaut that set the bar — for good or ill — for Hollywood blockbusters to follow.
The fourth film in the series, Terminator Salvation, is directed by someone who insists on calling himself "McG" and has contributed such cheap, forgettable hits as Charlie's Angels and We Are Marshall to film history. Needless to say, McG is no Cameron.
Terminator Salvation gets points for at least pushing the story forward (or is that backward?) after the third film (2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, directed by Jonathan Mostow) was essentially a desperate rehashing of Cameron's Terminator 2.
Set largely in the year 2018, a few years before the future events that set up the "present-day" story of the original film, Terminator Salvation stars Christian Bale as John Connor, the character conceived in the first film and played by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl in the second and third. The film takes place well after the "Judgment Day" in which increasingly intelligent military machines ("Skynet") rained a nuclear fire on the planet to protect themselves against the humans who created them.
Small pockets of humanity remain, hunted daily by their machine overlords, and Connor is, at this point, a flashy subordinate in the resistance movement, considered either a savior or a false prophet for his radio broadcasts about the nature of the human vs. machines conflict. The story here ties back to the original as Connor tries to save his father, a teen Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who was played by Michael Biehn as a grown man in the first film. Skynet is tracking down Reese to keep Connor, in the future, from sending Reese into the past, where he will father Connor. If this is confusing to you, it's because you haven't seen the earlier films, in which case there's absolutely no reason to waste your time with a dutiful but entirely nonessential sequel. Nevertheless, the first film's other two stars have a presence here: Linda Hamilton (as Connor's mother) in still photo and voice form; Arnold Schwarzenegger in a well-placed CGI cameo.
Bale is well cast (he's like a hybrid of his and Matthew McConaughey's characters in the similarly post-apocalyptic but far more enjoyable Reign of Fire), but he brings no lightness to this grim story.
Terminator Salvation is visually numbing — blurry, chaotic action sequences playing out against a monochromatic, computer-generated or computer-enhanced backdrop of grays, browns, and blacks. A subplot cribbed from Blade Runner is an attempt to inject some poetry into the mix, but ultimately Terminator Salvation is as mechanical in delivery as it is in content. Ah-nold's comically flat line-readings are very much missed.
Opens Thursday, May 21st