Sound and fury overpower story in Terminator Salvation, which applies big-budget defibrillator paddles to the hulking franchise but can't breathe fresh life into the now 25-year-old concept.
That's how long we've been hearing about humanity's war against the machines, a battle James Cameron first initiated in 1984 when he sent Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to terminate an unsuspecting Linda Hamilton. Armageddon was averted, then later triggered, in subsequent sequels before arriving at Salvation. But our predestined, apocalyptic future looks a lot like products from Hollywood's past. Specifically, imagine the love child of Mad Max and The Matrix as delivered by Michael Bay, and you're beginning to get this picture. Article continues below
Bay didn't direct the latest Terminator -- his raging-robots extravaganza, Transformers 2, hits theaters later this summer -- though credited helmer McG steals more than a few pages from Bay's playbook as he immerses us in mankind's skirmish against relentless technology.
Title cards remind us of Judgment Day, the moment a military defense system named Skynet deemed human beings a threat and launched global nuclear war. By 2018, bands of survivors turn to John Connor (Christian Bale) and the resistance's remaining leaders for protection as Skynet and its army of robotic Terminators scour the earth trying to finish the job. When he isn't rallying the troops, Connor tracks Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, scruffing his voice but still a boy among men), the man who will one day become John's father. But Terminators of all shapes and sizes impede his mission.
The roster of lethal machines tends to expand with each new installment, and McG's Salvation literally explodes with robotic additions. The effects team dreams up serpentine Terminators, motorcycle-shaped robots, and a roughly six-story-tall beast with metallic pincers for hands. The most sophisticated model in this new class is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death-row inmate who signed his body over to Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) in 2003 so she could turn him into a human-circuitry hybrid. But these updated Terminators, while visually impressive, are shockingly easy to subdue, and they never terrify the way Schwarzenegger's T-800 did.
Salvation doesn't advance Cameron's original story so much as it stages a portion of the mythology we'd already heard about but never saw. The outcome of Salvation has been covered in the previous three Terminator films – Connor finds Reese; Skynet is defeated -- so there's no suspense. Six credited screenwriters hammer away at the Terminator timeline but can't come up with a compelling reason for McG and his crew to go back to this future.
The franchise's pivotal characters are woefully shortchanged. Bryce Dallas Howard is a nonentity as Kate, John's pregnant wife. And Bale, his voice locked in that intense Dark Knight growl, spends the bulk of the film in a bunker shouting macho speak into a ham radio. New characters tossed into the mix, meanwhile, are inconsequential (Moon Bloodgood's feisty fighter pilot) or forgettable (Common's gruff soldier). The most offensive has to be Star, a gag-inducingly cutesy kid warrior played by newcomer Jadagrace, who is either a Fraggle or the tragic result of Will Smith getting wet after midnight.
Want to know how far the Terminator franchise has fallen? Consider the signature catchphrase "I'll be back," which once carried the chilling threat of carnage and death at the hands of a merciless machine. Because McG completely misunderstands the significance, he forces it in as a punch line, a phony wink -- alongside a recognizable but pathetically dated Guns 'n' Roses song -- to an audience that should be insulted by such patronizing nods.
Four has to be enough, right? You wish. Salvation leaves the door open to potential sequels as a closing voiceover hints at Connor taking his attacks on Skynet to a global level. No surprise, really. The Terminator series appears to be as unstoppable as its title character, and only a dip in box-office receipts can deliver a lethal blow. At this rate, should the Judgment Day prophecy fulfill itself and a nuclear blast consumes our civilization, cockroaches and Terminator sequels will fight each other for survival.