Entertaining, serious Terminator Salvation is loyal to the film's franchise
I’ll speak directly to the faithful Terminator movie (and now TV series) fans first. You’ll love Terminator Salvation, a faithful entry and reboot to this aging sci-fi franchise with 25 years under it’s belt since the very first James Cameron Terminator film way back in 1984. For the rest of us, Terminator Salvation is a big, modestly entertaining summer action-film with a gritty, dark style and futuristic vision. The McG-directed movie and starring Dark Knight’s Christian Bale lacks a bold visual flair and is a little muddled, but it’s packed with action and plenty of enormously loud explosions to enliven the proceedings. It takes itself way too seriously, but most of Terminator Salvation works well.
Set in post-apocalyptic 2018, John Connor (Christian Bale) is the man fated to lead the human resistance against Skynet and its army of Terminators. But the future Connor was raised to believe in is altered in part by the appearance of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a stranger whose last memory is of being on death row and being visited by a mysterious doctor (Helena Bonham Carter). Connor must decide whether Marcus has been sent from the future, or rescued from the past. As Skynet prepares its final onslaught, Connor and Marcus both embark on an odyssey that takes them into the heart of Skynet’s operations, where they uncover the terrible secret behind the possible annihilation of mankind, and where Connor must save his own father Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) in teenage form.
Terminator Salvation is a huge summer action sci-fi film that’s enjoyable enough to stand it’s own but also apart from the other Terminator films. It’s heavy-handed and lacks visual boldness, but there’s enough to keep you engaged. Terminator knowledge is helpful but not essential, even if you don’t know the difference between a T-800 and a T-1000 robot (or in movie terms, the difference between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick). In Terminator Salvation there’s a clear distinction between the machines and the humans, and this time out the machines take the form of not only the evil robots, but also on motorcycles, airplanes and even in the water (a nifty addition); they were designed by special effects wizard Stan Winston in one of his last films (Salvation is dedicated to him).
Terminator Salvation’s plot, written by Terminator 3’s team of John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, is a tad muddled but faithful to this series of films, and continues to follow the war between the humans and the machines and it’s self-directed company, Skynet. But those going to see Salvation will likely go for the special effects and action, which there’s an abundance of. McG, whose biggest film to date has been the Charlie’s Angels sequel, has a lack of visual flair of someone like Cameron or Ridley Scott and he’s seemingly over his head here. He fills it with too many loud explosions and some of the non-machine visuals lack a fresh realism (in other words, they look a little fake) but the cast and plot keep it going.
Bale, fresh of the huge worldwide success of Dark Knight, helps to reboot this franchise as well with his usual, intense acting and he ably carries the film on his shoulders. However, the best new addition isn’t Bale, but Australian actor Worthington as Marcus, who’s also revealed to be one of the machines but who’s more human than machine. Also in Cameron’s upcoming film Avatar, Worthington lends a likable intensity that establishes a strong connection early on, even more so than with Bale. In addition, Worthington grounds Salvation’s most memorable scene (and one that Bale isn’t in), a breathtaking, fast-paced desert battle with some nasty machines that climaxes on a mile-high bridge.
As for Salvation’s story, it takes itself far too seriously and is a little confusing even for sci-fi fans, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the action and special effects. Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Claire Danes from the third film, has little to do as John’s wife Kate; Yelchin (also seen as Chekov in the new Star Trek), has a few convincing moments as Connor’s father. Bonham Carter’s role is little more than a cameo, and watch for Schwarzenegger’s likeness - though only briefly - in the climax that reveals more about his machine.
Salvation’s style is single-minded, dark and gritty, with a vision obviously influenced by Children of Men. Yet, as we’ve known in this franchise, Connor is this world’s savior, and as expected, Terminator Salvation is hopeful enough to leave it wide open for many more installments (“I’ll be back,” Connor says with a familiar tone). Terminator Salvation isn’t the smooth, well-oiled machine it strives to be, but there’s enough entertainment for the masses.
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