‘Terminator’ Takes a Step Up

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
“Terminator: Salvation” director McG holds nothing back with his over-the-top action sequences to compensate for weak actor performances.

To answer the more pertinent question outright, yes, it does appear that Christian Bale’s now infamous on-set rant was more the result of spelunking too deep into character rather than just plain dickish-ness. It’s strange then, with all that pent-up rage successfully vented on cybernetic hordes throughout the film’s two hours, that Bale’s John Connor is less enjoyable and human than Edward Furlong was in “Judgment Day” 18 years ago. But if you are really hankering for deep character involvement and development, you’ve missed the point of this franchise.

Since the film rightly doesn’t care to pay too much attention to plot, I’ll summarize for the sake of those still caring about that kind of thing. It’s half past the apocalypse, and massive armies of human death-machines are roaming the landscape and weeding out the last of the human survivors.

Connor comes into play as an aggressive leader of a band of hunted humans, and an even more aggressive fighter against these mechanized monstrosities. Things become important for the famous Connor as he must rescue and safely harbor a teenager who must live to become the linchpin of the human resistance. Oh, and he’ll grow up to be John Connor’s dad, adding another to the travel-back-in-time-to-save-a-younger-version-of-an-older-family-member-so-they-can-save-the-earth layer to the onion that is this franchise’s plot structure.

But, again, it’s abundantly clear from the film’s opening moments that we are here to rumble. And rumble we do. The film’s average run time is chock full of every conceivable action sequence known to stunt coordinators, and all is pulled with a grungy and explosive pizzazz that make the overall experience feel like a lengthy rollercoaster ride without any of the downtime.

McG’s direction is definitely something for the more observant viewer to enjoy, as the man takes many classic film moments such as a helicopter crash and tweaks them into a more unique experience, like filming a crash entirely from the terrified close-up perspective of the piloting Connor instead of the usual far-away observer’s prospective. With such an intriguing take on many action film conventions, it’s a robotic punch to the gut whenever the film remembers it has to connect these gloriously excessive action scenes with dialogue and character “interaction.”

It’s difficult to call any scene in this film that lacks something exploding as “character development,” as all actors seem to hone in most of their non-destruction scenes in the effort to get back to the gunplay and Terminator’s death quicker.

Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) all give airy and shallow performances that will mean as much to you in the film as they do in text here. There’s a subplot about the machines’ attempts to upgrade and pass off as more human (their goal is to eventually become an Arnold Schwarzenegger stunt double and travel to the past to the series’ prequels), but unlike man versus machine storylines present in films like “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix,” the actors playing humans are as robotic as the actors playing machines, making the entire attempt pointless.

The entire production crew seems to be giving considerably less attention to the down scenes as if it’s just a requirement they want to get over with, like children furiously gulping down gobs of peas to get to the quickly melting dessert. You weren’t planning to care about these people, and you won’t come close to doing so, but it’s OK because the film understands that and keeps the talkative scenes to a happy minimum.

In the grand scheme of one of action cinema’s grandest franchises, ‘Salvation’ easily trumps the series’ third installment, ‘Rise of the Machines’ (don’t applaud, it wasn’t hard), and sits slightly atop the first film’s hackneyed balance of explosions and dialogue. It’s eons away from “Judgment Day,” but, once more, you already knew that. McG’s alternative direction and the frenetic, constant pulse of action keep this film firmly within expectation: a gargantuan canvas for a special effects budget and rigged incendiary devices.

It’s the most self-aware film in recent years, in that it eagerly placates the hardcore action geeks in all of us without hesitation and without apology. Its shameful attempts at characterization and its lack of ambition keep it from becoming worth anything more than a one-time see in theater— but it’s going to be the best one-time see you’ll get for a while.