Judgment Day finally happens in Terminator Salvation, and as Sarah Connor predicted, anybody not wearing two-million sunblock has a really bad day. Connor’s all-important son John is now a thirtysomething man (Christian Bale) in a sun-bleached rubble-world, a doom-prophet and military wannabe having yet to fulfill his destiny to lead a rabble of survivors against the pitiless machines. This raises a (spoilerish) question: How is it that Skynet is actively targeting Connor in Salvation, fully aware of both his future centrality to events and his childhood escape from their robot assassins? The established timeline does not support this. Armed with this knowledge, why would Skynet even commence with their eventual plans to attack the Connors in a different time, knowing as they must that such plans will fail? Another question: Why am I putting more thought into this than the screenwriters did?
To say that Salvation director McG fails to successfully deepen the timeline grooves in James Cameron’s magnificent duology or to approximate its intricate storytelling and heavy heart would be true, though in fairness, he really isn’t even trying. Instead, McG opts to use the reset potential of Judgment Day as pretext for uncoupling the series from its grimly personalized, mano-a-machine architecture in favor of a significantly lighter Transformers milieu in which a multitude of one-note characters are arrayed against a toy shelf’s worth of impractically-designed but ain’t-they-cool-looking Terminator prototypes. That most of these impersonal machines, which come in one color—rust—but many varieties, including metallic water snakes, driverless motorcycles, and lumbering, hundred-foot-high behemoths, are suspiciously escapable and/or programmed to capture instead of kill humans seems less the result of their natural destructive potential and more the requirement of the film’s PG-13 rating, which puts a crushingly low ceiling on the amount of actual terminating that can be accomplished.
Given the nigh-impossibility of series hero John Connor being picked off by a lucky T-600 in this film, the suspense factor is low throughout. The only time Connor’s jeopardy feels viscerally real is in a well-executed battlefield helicopter crash sequence, which McG shoots almost in the first-person, creating a kind of flight-simulator experience; it’s a creative demonstration, though a bit too self-conscious for its own good. Back in his bunker with very-pregnant wife Kate (a shockingly underutilized Bryce Dallas Howard, who spends most of her screen time staring at things), Connor acts as a one-man political opposition party, grudgingly taking orders from bona fide resistance leader General Ashdown (Michael Ironside), who commands his meager troops from the relative safety of a roving submarine. Sending out radio signals to potential survivors, Connor manages to snag the attention of a few such stragglers, including plucky Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, his face in a perpetually upturned sneer to suggest a teen Michael Biehn) and mysterious stranger Marcus (Sam Worthington), whose arrival shakes up the dynamic of the resistance, hastening a confrontation with Skynet that feels deliberately scaled down to ensure a potential sequel, an increasingly common and silly event-movie gambit.
Marcus’s identity as a cyborg that thinks it’s human, which is revealed midway through the film but is easily discernable from an outlandish prologue in which he trades horrific dialogue with Cyberdine toadie Serena Kogan (an embarrassed-looking Helena Bonham Carter), is a remarkably clunky conceit coming from a series rife with grand ideas, both visual and thematic; it also stands Marcus up as a very poor comparison to the previous “good Terminator”—i.e. the guy who the producers hope you’re not thinking too much about while watching this film. When that familiar face from the past does finally pop out for a much-rumored cameo, it’s a remarkable piece of visual-effects work, though also a completely random event, in a film loaded with them.
Salvation is a film that draws its inspiration from other, inferior franchises instead of its own, much-beloved mythology. It’s rife with the dumbest callbacks imaginable (that Guns n’ Roses song again, really?) and is often propelled by neither internal logic, nor the kind of storytelling magic that can cause us to forgive the odd plot hole or two. As a whole, it compares unfavorably even to Cameron’s teasing flashes of the future war in his own films, in which Brad Fiedel’s propulsive, noirish score conveys a sense of monotonous, numbing fear as survivors gather in dirty hovels, trembling and steeling themselves for the next appearance by a too-tall stranger in a conspicuous overcoat. Like the human skulls crushed under sleek metal feet in those feverish sequences, the Terminator film series is finished.