There’s a reason that James Cameron has spent the last 10 years essentially developing an entire new technology for filmmaking before unleashing his latest movie (Avatar, which opens in December) on the world: The guy has vision. Watch Cameron’s first two entries in the now-quarter-century-old Terminator franchise (1984’s The Terminator and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day), and you’ll get a clear sense of what he’s trying to accomplish. Sure, they’re big action movies, but they’re big action movies with tons of thought behind them, in terms of both philosophy and moviemaking technique.
Cameron has long since departed this lumbering sci-fi franchise (his name doesn’t even appear in the main credits of the latest film), and the vision clearly went with him. For 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it wasn’t necessarily a problem; the new filmmakers merely rehashed the plot of the first two movies (implacable killing machine comes back from the future to exterminate future resistance leader), added a hot chick as the new baddie and called it a day. For a dumb action movie, T3 worked perfectly well. Cameron’s films were all about the efforts to thwart Judgment Day, the ever-shifting date on which artificial-intelligence network Skynet would become self-aware and wipe out nearly all of humanity. T3 took the risk of actually letting Judgment Day occur, which means that in the new Terminator Salvation, we’re firmly in the post-apocalypse; the machines have risen, humanity is on the run, and prophesied leader John Connor (Christian Bale) is heading up the ragtag resistance.
After three runs through the same story, it makes sense to try to move things forward, but the progress in Salvation is purely illusory. What we end up with instead is two hours of characters flailing about, with little resolution and even less sense of purpose. On a basic storytelling level, the movie lacks a compelling villain, or really a villain of any kind. Sure, there are implacable killing machines everywhere now, but they’re commonplace, just cannon fodder for the heroes. John’s foe is now Skynet itself, which is intent on wiping out both him and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the young freedom fighter who will eventually travel back in time and become John’s father. But Skynet is a big, literally faceless entity, and instead of another badass terminator in the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Robert Patrick/Kristanna Loken mode, we get Sam Worthington as angst-ridden Marcus Wright, who (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the trailer) donated his body to science and ended up as a terminator with an actual heart.
Marcus isn’t a bad guy, so he only poses a threat to John in the abstract. And Skynet’s plan is left so vague that it’s hard to see what’s at stake in the incremental victories our heroes work toward. Bale, the fourth actor to play John (after Edward Furlong in T2, Nick Stahl in T3 and Thomas Dekker in the recently cancelled Terminator TV series), gives a thoroughly one-dimensional performance, dusting off his Batman growl for virtually every line of dialogue and spending half the movie yelling. Worthington yells just as much; he and Bale seem to be engaged in some sort of grimness contest, and both of them lose. Worse, Aussie Worthington can’t hold his American accent for more than a few minutes.
At least the two lead actors get to do something; the miscast Yelchin whines incessantly as young Kyle, and poor Bryce Dallas Howard, inheriting the role of John’s wife Kate from Claire Danes, is completely wasted, just standing in the background gestating the next generation of robot-fighter. In place of interesting characters and fleshed-out ideas, new director McG (the Charlie’s Angels movies) fills Salvation with more explosions per minute than a Michael Bay movie, nearly all of them gratuitous and none of them exciting. A series of callbacks to the earlier movies (including a CGI-enabled cameo of sorts from Schwarzenegger) serves only as a reminder of how the franchise has fallen. For all its disposability, T3 at least had a few cool action set pieces; Salvation just has a lot of running around. Yet despite the constant motion, no one ever gets anywhere, and the movie ends right where it began, without a clue what it’s meant to be about.