In Terminator Salvation, the year is 2018. The sky is ashen; there’s only a smattering of humans, and a resistance is afoot. “Resisting what?” a new guy asks. “Machines!” he’s told, with approximately the same tone normally reserved for “duh.”
That’s the simplified synopsis of this fourth installation in the Terminator franchise, the one that nobody wanted, that Charlie’s Angels helmer McG certainly should not have been chosen to direct, and that everyone eventually got excited about anyway. The full story, of course, is much more complicated. The first film set up the gist: In 2029, a corporation’s worth of evil robots have become self-aware and would like it if humans no longer existed. But word on the circuit is that a guy named John Connor is organizing people for a fight, so the machines send a killing machine back to 1984 to murder John’s mother, Sarah, before he’s born.
Didn’t quite work out that way, though, and now the prophesied nuclear Judgment Day has arrived, and John Connor (Christian Bale) is an adult. Earth is a desaturated wasteland. Connor and his scattered troops—including pregnant wife, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), and photogenic soldiers Blair (Moon Bloodgood) and Barnes (Common)—are trying both to destroy the ’bot manufacturer, Skynet, and find Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), Connor’s father. See, if Reese, currently younger than Connor, is killed, then John won’t be born and history will be reset, and…as Sarah herself says, “Thinking about this can make you crazy.”
Throw in an ambiguously human stranger, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), and you’ve got one dull sequel. From its leisurely start, during which we sorta see where Wright has come from (alongside a distracting—and bald—Helena Bonham Carter), Terminator Salvation feels like it’s building up to something, with small pockets of action punctuating otherwise low-key interactions between characters you’re not familiar with.
Alas, the climax never comes. And can we really be surprised? Because Batman + Hype alone does not a blockbuster make—at least not a good one. For all of Bale’s public insistence that McG is more talented than his dumb stage name suggests and that even the father of the Terminator franchise, James Cameron, directed crappy movies back in the day, this is still the guy who gave us Full Throttle. Screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris might have been natural picks considering they worked on 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but the duo went on to pen Primeval. And Catwoman! And besides Spider-Man 3, has Howard ever been in anything that didn’t end up a huge disappointment?
The sum of these parts is a story that is too muddled upon analysis (try not to zone out during the Headlines of Explanation near the film’s end) yet too simplistic at its surface (basically, Connor trying to rescue Reese). Bale can unleash his Gotham Growl all he wants, but he can’t inject life into his sullen, one-note character, nor his similarly sleepwalking co-stars—though to be fair, it’d be downright laughable if the actors tried to deliver lines such as “You have a strong heart. I like that!” with too much verve.
McG borrows heavily, with scenes that seem straight out of Salvation’s predecessors. The real stars of the film are the machines, black and silver skeletons with those strong jaws and freaky eyes, repeatedly rebooting and often dragging themselves, legless, toward their targets as if crawling straight from hell. But it doesn’t matter how cool the bad guys are: Without a compelling drama, an ounce of humor, or even a character to sympathize with, Terminator Salvation may as well be the next Transformers.