By John Lichman
[Terminator Salvation is now playing nationwide. What follows is one of likely many reviews.]
It's almost redundant, but the opening of Terminator Salvation is a harsh reminder that we're not under the watchful hand of James Cameron or even witness to Jonathan Mostow's ham-fisted glory. Thematically, it should be the same: orchestral tones, the slow-burn title sequence and jolting futuristic action. Instead we're given a computer code-inspired sequence littered with colons, dashes and brackets to remind us that we're about to see something involving robots and lasers. Instead of focusing on the actors, like the original, the first thing we're told as an audience: this is "A Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek production." Two minutes later, as the familiar "DA-DA DA, NUH NUH" blares across the THX, it is confirmed: this is "[Directed by McG;]"
If you didn't catch that the first time, there'll be a credits sequence redux after we're introduced to Marcus (Sam Worthington) and Brief Female Cameo (Helena Bonham Carter) with a uniformly creepy bit of foreshadowing ("This is what death tastes like"). The entire credits sequence begins again in the same order, but still takes the time to transition to a completely white screen after Marcus' Christ-like murder to make sure we understand: this film is "directed by McG."
So what exactly does this phrase mean since it's important enough to be brought up twice? It means explosions, Virginia.
A McG film is tough to describe. On one hand, it's argued that he's the forefather of the meta-action films that would inspire such incredible works of art as Crank/Crank High Voltage. Despite this, his two other films ripe for comparison are enigmas: Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle is a parody and continuation of the action movie as pop culture non sequitur; We Are Marshall is an attempt at "SERIOUS FILMMAKING" to prove to a mainstream audience that he can show Matthew Fox looking serious while discussing serious things like death and how serious death is.
Salvation officially starts when we're looped into current events via text exposition: it's the future, SkyNet became self-aware, killed people, etc. These are all things that should be public knowledge by now. From there, we're given a P.O.V. shot from a missile and then our explod-o-fest is underway. Very quickly, John Connor (Bale) is established as the gruff, whispering soldier that he morphed into by the end of The Dark Knight. He isn't the prophetic leader that inspires humanity yet, but still has unquestionable sway over all troops despite the plot reinforcing that he doesn't. Actually, it seems like a majority of people follow him because to not do so means instant literal death from off-screen missiles, guns or whatever else is floating around in the future.
Sam Worthington also grunts the film's best line ("so, that's what Death tastes like") before grunting other tough guy staples: "I'm going after 'em!"; "If you point a gun at a man, make sure you're ready to fire"; and "I'm a MAN." He also is consistently reverting back to his natural accent, so his name is in fact "MAHR-KYUSS." But it's beyond the point that he's also a quiet bad-ass like Christian Bale.
And what of the action film's other staples: the B-Level names who truly do nothing other than offer plot progressing dialog or filler for Electronic Press Kits, Press Junkets and New Media marketing campaigns for $15.99?
They're fine and shoved to the side to allow the metaphoric ascensions of John Connor and SkyNet to continue. In fact, the most fascinating part of Salvation is that, for the first time in its fictional existence, SkyNet gambles on a cyborg that is the prototype for an android. This is fascinating just as a sci-fi concept, as normally it would be the other way around—the Man-Machine interface has long been a favorite genre subject, as in Johnny Mnemonic or The Matrix. In fact, compared to the first two films, the future is merely dirty instead of streamlined and gunmetal gray. SkyNet's entire design suggests that it intends physical interaction, which is dumb of course, but is full of speculation. And in the end, this is what McG's Terminator thrives on.
The rumors of the original ending involving John Connor becoming a machine were given some speculative credence, but ultimately wind up as nothing more than entertaining press junket quotes. There's even potential for speculation since the gas station that Marcus, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, who actually does a noteworthy job) and Mute Child (honestly, too lazy to even acknowledge the real character name or the actor. Could've been a CGI monster for all I care) find themselves at could be the same gas station from the end of The Terminator. And there's an old woman who says little, but cares for the young kids and is responsible for marking the outpost as a Resistance location. By the way, this film doesn't tell you how Sarah Connor dies. So, SPECULATION.
It's lazy to say "if you like dumb action films, turn your brain off and enjoy this!" Because you will enjoy this if you like loud—literally, seats shook in the theater—and faux-grit action films. But god help you the second you start thinking about this film again. You may punch the person next to you in the heart and start screaming until explosions happen.
John Lichman is the online producer for Current.com/Movies and The Rotten Tomatoes Show. He's wandering around the current_movies blog most days, but has also written for Spout, IFC and once co-hosted a podcast about Armond White and drinking.