Let's cut to the chase: is McG to blame for the semi-smoldering wreck that is Terminator Salvation? For whatever it's worth, not in the eyes of this died-in-the-wool fan of the series—not enough, that is, to warrant making him a scapegoat for the entire mess. Surely this is, at the very least, a problematic film. I've half a mind to call it an outright bad one, and I'll admit bias enough that it might simply be beyond my critical lexicon to put the words “bad” and Terminator next to one another in the same sentence. (You see, Cameron's original is half the reason, if not more, that I am the way I am now, and yes, count me as a fan of Jonathan Mostow's Rise of the Machines.) Don't think I'm blind, though—there are parts of Salvation that “bad” would be too good a descriptor for, and some of the sins committed here are unforgivable. But like a rodeo performer up against an angry bull, I find myself tipping my hat to McG for his sheer willingness to take on this wild beast of a movie. He gives it his all, though I can't imagine anyone's “all” being nearly enough to repair the damaged goods that went into this production.
Fittingly, one of the most telling aspects of Terminator: Salvation's numerous problems are the Terminators themselves. Among the most chilling villains of the medium, the T-800 and T-1000 always struck me as most frightening in their cold calculation and absolute reliance on logic. Locate. Acquire. Kill. No pity, no remorse, no fear. By comparison, Salvation's machines simply fuck around, and such simple inanities continually eat away at the film's foundation. In an early skirmish with a half-destroyed endoskeleton (echoes of the original's climax), John Connor gets tossed about like a rag doll when he should by all rights be the recipient of an easy killing stroke. This happens ad nausea over the next two hours, and I say, bullshit.
The whole of Salvation lacks a clear purpose or drive. Only a few scenes pass before it becomes clear this script was the work of a Hollywood team (a dash of Haggis, a pinch of Nolan, etc.) in which seemingly every party vied for his own stake in the matter—essentially a collective “fuck you” to the creative singularity the series has long been known for. The result is a lot of narrative bumbling and halfhearted melodrama that stands far and away from the naturalistic urgency Cameron infused into his chase-writ-large storylines, and while Salvation's original conclusion—in which John Connor dies (the script was reworked when supposed fans went berserk after a draft leaked online)—would have doubtfully improved the material much, it still would have been an instance of bold creativity.
Excessive characters abound (including that most embarrassing of devices, the Mute Child), many of them existing but for plodding expositional purposes (and marquee padding, I suspect). Not one bears much in the way of identifying personal traits—the wordless performance by Michael Edwards as the elder John Connor in the future war opening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day has more meat on the bones than the sum of Christian Bale's superficial brooding (his failure might be the biggest disappointment; where's the mad eccentricity we saw in American Psycho and Rescue Dawn?). Only new character Marcus Wright, a resurrected convict now fused with a Terminator chassis (to which he is unaware), bears any kind of dramatic or thematic weight, to which we can thank the excellent Sam Worthington. He gives the part infinitely more soul than was ever genuinely conceived at the writing stage. It's no help, though, that the film neuters its own attempt at a gut-punching reveal as per his existential crisis by essentially giving it away outright (see below).
Salvation starts off so badly—essentially, the film shoots itself in both feet—that it's almost easy to think fondly of the rest by the end. An opening credits sequence seemingly meant in homage to the original's horizontal text crawl instead dookies all over it with an idiotic scramble effect complete with colons, ampersands, and commas, as if to remind us that, you know, computers are important to what's about to unfold. Following is the entirely ill opening scene in which Marcus Wright—on death row, and at this point still entirely human—donates his soon-to-be-perished body for research at Cyberdyne, the company responsible for creating the soon-to-be-malevolent supercomputer SkyNET. McG may not have had a direct hand in this screenwriting atrocity, but damn it, the man should have known better than to deem it acceptable in the first place.
From here, it's almost completely uphill, albeit not without the occasional pitfalls. In the single worst scene in the series, John Connor listens to the tape we heard Sarah Connor record at the end of the first film (a key passage if there ever was one), only now the dialogue has been expanded upon so as to spell out in plain terms the series' central time travel paradox. Surely, my affection for the original film contributed to the wretched sensation I had at this moment, but it's always been a pet peeve of mine (actually, I prefer the George Carlin designation of “Major Psychotic Fucking Hatred”) when films condescend to their material. Here, I can't quite tell if the filmmakers meant to catch up younger audiences on the previous films (because 25 years is, like, so long ago) or if they themselves are poorly versed (if at all) in Terminator mythology. Prime example: John Connor must have forgotten the entirety of the previous two films, so slow are his realizations about time travel implications. Either that or the post-apocalyptic food supplies are so low that everyone's brains have atrophied a bit, but given how Moon Bloodgood's Blair Williams looks like she's just had a perm throughout, I somehow doubt that intention.
If there's a singular saving grace to the material, it's McG's full-hearted (if decidedly misguided) belief in it. At its best, Terminator Salvation could have almost convinced me that something important was on the line; McG's approach is almost religious in tone, and had someone had the state of mind (or a big enough pair) to reject this stillborn pile of organs posing as a script, it might've been able to hold a candle to Cameron's unwavering assurance or Mostow's cheeky subversions. But like the film's other, relative successes, it's never enough. What should have been the unquestionable star of the film—the Road Warrior-esque landscape—proves nearly a bore given how little the script lets us soak in the post-apocalyptic hellfire. Not a moment of Salvation compares to the first three films' future war sequences (let alone any of the PC games produced by Bethesda Softworks in the mid '90s). Instead, it amounts to something of a hollowed-out retread, complete with familiar soundtrack choices, popular one-liners, and—in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment of special effects mastery—a cameo by Arnold himself, perfectly recreated in his 1984 likeness. Too bad it wasn't in service of something worthwhile. No small tragedy, this is the first Terminator film without a heart.
House contributor Robert Humanick's writings appear in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth.