It’s 2018, and Skynet, the extremely pro-death-penalty artificial intelligence network, is just about finished scouring humanity from the face of the Earth. Robots of various sizes, shapes, menace and volumes are dispatched to eliminate whatever people might be left alive from the nuclear “judgment day” of a few years earlier.
Ground control to Major Schwarzenegger! John Connor (Christian Bale) keeps the Resistance alive in Terminator Salvation.
Eliminate them, that is, or harvest their parts to make stealthier robots. How that works is a little fuzzy, especially to this guy Marcus (Sam Worthington), who thought he died on death row in 2003, just after donating his body to science, but woke up in the here and now feeling a lot like the experimental prototype of a genocidal cyborg. That’s not cool. But hey, maybe that conspicuously cancer-stricken doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) who visited Marcus’ cell to work out his dubious last-minute deal was onto something: The 2018 atmosphere is full of fallout, yet radiation sickness apparently is a thing of the past! Onward and upward!
Oh, right—the robots. With their beady red eyes, creepy electronic-whalesong war cries and ludicrously heavy artillery, they really are terrifying. Good thing John Connor (Christian Bale), the “prophesied leader of the Resistance,” is here to, well, resist them. With Marcus as a wrench in his works, or maybe a useful tool, Connor must track down Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the teenager he’ll later send back through time to protect his mother Sarah Connor—and impregnate her, with him.
There is the suggestion that Skynet has gotten wise to Connor’s elaborately pre-emptive defense, or at least to Bale’s general aura of futility. But all is not lost: With so many time-travel plots interlocked in the Terminator apparatus by now, even sentient super computers seem prone to exploitable confusion about the chronology. It also helps that Yelchin, who also recently rebooted Star Trek’s Chekov, has such a knack for reinvigorating cherished sci-fi characters. His scrappy survivor Reese very plausibly might grow up to become Michael Biehn and throw down with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984.
Whatever gets him through this movie. Director McG, himself possibly named for the experimental prototype of a genocidal McDonald’s sandwich, and trained in the art of narrative mess-making through music videos and Charlie’s Angels movies, reassembles this franchise of diminishing returns in an approximation of working order, but with some pretty essential-seeming parts (such as sense) left in a pile on the floor. Amidst all the shrapnel, Schwarzenegger does make a brief, mute appearance, and it looks like just another item on the homage checklist.
Otherwise, with a grimy gun-metal monochrome to match Bale’s gravelly monotone, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut gets that post-apocalyptic look just fine; maybe Bale’s infamous on-set tantrum should’ve been aimed not at him but instead at screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, mysteriously asked back after Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Just because a movie is about mechanical, impersonal, marauding things doesn’t mean it should behave like them.