In 1984, a fledgling filmmaker with one feature to his name, an inauspicious low-budget horror sequel, imparted to the world a humble little story a young woman, the time traveler who loved her and the big, oddly accented robot who had a different motivation for finding her. My marital vows strictly prohibit me from making disparaging comments about The Terminator, so know that I mean no slight when I describe James Cameron’s scrappy breakthrough as a solid action film with an agreeable flavoring of soft sci fi. Its ingenuity resides in its simplicity. Think back on that first film, with its wisecracking, beleaguered cops and focused carnage, and ask, “How much mythology can this slender premise really bear?”
Twenty-five years later, here we are. Studio movies are as much about calculated franchising in the same way that individually wrapper hamburgers are, and anything with sufficient brand recognition is fair game for the marketing machine that crafts teaser posters before a single frame of film is shot and printed. Cameron’s original vision (well, sorta original) has already spawned two sequels, a recently departed television series and a theme park ride (hey, Cameron was involved in its creation and considered it canon), not to mention the dozens of ancillary spin-offs floating around out there in the pop culture atmosphere. And now there is a concerted effort to revive the film series that seemed laid to rest with 2003’s dismal Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. That faulty thought process gives us Terminator Salvation, a clanking mess in a perpetual state of malfunction.
Christian Bale follows Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl and Thomas Dekker into the role of John Connor, the majestic freedom fighter for the human side in the war against the machines that clouds our rapidly approaching future. While previous entries have been set in current time, albeit current times increasingly populated with timeline-traipsing soldiers from that projected skirmish, this film is set in 2018, squarely in the midst of the smoldering wreckage of ongoing battles. John Connor is an up-and-coming warrior for the resistance and the one thing that can be stated definitively is that charisma is no longer an important quality for leaders nine years hence. If you’ve heard Bale’s notorious and widely circulated on-set tirade then you’ve effectively seen the performance he delivers in the film. He shouts, he glowers, he growls, he snaps off terse, tense dialogue with monotonous savagery. That’s the tone of the entire movie. It’s where every performance is pitched. It must have been an incredibly easy film to cast. Eager actors lined up for auditions, best grimaces win parts. This leads to a batch of performances as irretrievably bad as you’d expect, though it’s particularly worth noting, for those of you keeping score on your rapper-to-actor transition charts, that Common, by all evidence here, can’t act at all. Every line he delivers sounds like he’s trying it out after it was fed to him by someone just outside of the shot.
Terminator Salvation is the fourth feature film directed by McG, and he fully lives down to his filmography, which peaked with his debut, the first Charlie’s Angels. Beyond a couple of extended tracking shots that display a modicum of cleverness and capability, he’s turned in a dreadful, flavorless exercise in effects excess and narrative stalled on the “bludgeoning” setting. He’s certainly done nothing in collaboration with credited screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris–whose previous credits include Catwoman and Primeval, proving that Hollywood, despite its cutthroat reputation, can be too kind and forgiving–to make sure that his film makes a lick of sense. Every iron-thump step of the way, there’s a new a plot detail that flatly, painfully doesn’t bear up to any sort of scrutiny. What is logical, sensible, plausible is continually dispatched in favor of what is cool. The master plan seems to be inundating the audience with so much superficial awesomeness that the resulting din will drown out any qualms about the lack of coherence.
The din is there. There’s no doubt about that. Mission accomplished on that front. As to whether or not it’s a suitable distraction from the awfulness of what’s on screen, mileage will vary, I suppose. For this viewer, I was rooting for the robots by the end. I figured if they won, that would forestall any more abominable sequels.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)