The machines are winning.
That’s how I felt after “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth installment in a franchise that used to make us care about the characters but has now – in the hands of director McG (“Charlie’s Angels”) – turned into a mechanical exercise in pointless action.
Granted, it’s great action. Terrific special effects. Pulse-pounding pacing.
But it’s a case of diminishing returns. “Salvation” so keeps its characters at arm’s length that after a while it really doesn’t matter what happens to them.
The first three “Terminator” films were set in the “present” and were about preventing Judgment Day, when the world’s computers and machines would turn on their human creators.
“Terminator Salvation,” though, is set after Judgment Day. Earth’s cities are smoldering ruins.
The now-adult John Connor (Christian Bale) grew up being told he would lead humanity to triumph over the machines. But at this point Connor is only a regional guerrilla commander whose ideas are overruled by the Resistance’s hierarchy.
John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris’ screenplay pivots on two plots. The first is the development of the T-800, the flesh-encased Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original.
Human freedom fighters are accustomed to the more primitive T-600s, which have rubbery faces that don’t fool anybody. But the T-800 is so convincing, you’d never suspect it’s not human.
Marcus Wright (Aussie actor Sam Worthington) emerges from the wreckage of a bombed-out terminator manufacturing plant with no memories or clothing. He hooks up with a young fugitive named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, “Star Trek’s” Chekov) and his mute child companion, Star (Jadagrace), and proves effective at fighting machines.
The other plot is about the efforts of John and Marcus to rescue Kyle, who has been captured by the machines. This is important because at some point in the future Kyle will be sent back in time to protect (and impregnate) John’s mother, Sarah.
If Kyle is allowed to die at the hands of the machines, John Connor will never exist. The Resistance will collapse. The machines will win.
Yeah, it gives me a headache, too. And one of “Salvation’s” big problems is that the gnarly knotted mythology keeps us from getting into characters who are shallow to begin with.
Bale’s Connor is a flinty-eyed stoic and about as interesting as a two-by-four. Yelchin is, well, boyish as young Reese, but he’s not exactly overflowing with personality. The best performance comes from Worthington as the conflicted Marcus, torn between his conviction that he’s human and the growing evidence to the contrary.
Frankly, most of these roles could have been played by marionettes with about the same impact.
But the movie looks great, anyway. The production designers give us flying machines. Riderless motorcycles like machine guns on wheels. Nasty aquatic sentinels that resemble voracious metallic eels. And, of course, various T-600s and T-800s.
With all its noise and kinetic juice, “Terminator Salvation” dishes plenty of eye candy.
But it has none of the emotion or intellectual resonance of the first two James Cameron-directed installments.
It’s basically a cheap thrill. An expensive cheap thrill.