From the beginning, when cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger first arrived in our present nude, greasy and heralded by what now seems like a very quaint series of lightning strikes it was a bad idea to dwell on the time-traveling twist that has him pursuing a target, John Connor, who is still unconceived yet also alive in the future. Better to focus on key information from The Terminator, like the fact that a seemingly simple statement of intent"I'll be back"is actually quite a nice little joke. (See the top 10 movie catchphrases.)
The adult John Connor (Christian Bale) utters the same words in the fourth movie in the franchise, Terminator Salvation, but it's funny only in the context of the original. Terminator Salvation has no time for jokes. It's an action movie wrapped in an action movie, with a side of bombing. It is so riveting on a visual and aural level that taking in its dialogue, even though it's laudably economical ("Where's the Terminator?"), feels akin to being forced to listen to chitchat during an earthquake. (See the 100 best movies of all time.)
The movie was directed by McG (Charlie's Angels), who is staking his claim on the series begun in 1984 by James Cameron. But instead of taking on the big questions that have been bugging us all these years such as, What's so great about John Connor, and how did/does/will he save mankind during the war with the machines? the screenplay shimmies into the upper third of the Terminator timeline. The year is 2018, things are grim, per usual, and the birth of Connor remains a top priority, although his designated father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), is still far too young to head back in time to frantically knead Sarah Connor's breasts in a California motel room (see movie No. 1). Movie No. 4 is all about keeping Kyle safe, so that in the future he can serve as Sarah's sperminator.
Given that the original Terminator is tied up balancing California's checkbook, McG needed a strong man to do his thing with Connor. (For the five Terminator innocents out there, that varies from attempted mother assassination to kindly protection, depending on the mood of the director.) Australian actor Sam Worthington, who looks something like a young Dennis Quaid, makes an appealing stand-in. He plays Marcus Wright, a convicted murderer who donated his body to science just before getting a lethal injection at San Quentin back in 2003. In 2018, Marcus emerges from a mushroom cloud nude, naturally and strides off across the desert, looking for whoever it is that was responsible for his rebirth. He's the movie's only real mystery, and a good one at that.
Connor might be the Messiah, but Bale plays him as surprisingly soulless, hitting the same dour notes he uses for Batman. He's expecting his first child with doctor Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), introduced in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and played then by Claire Danes. Howard seems to have only half a dozen lines certainly no more than that register and she is dull enough to have cyborg potential. The script keeps most of its women silent (there's even a helpful mute urchin named Star), and when one of them, fighter pilot Blair (Moon Bloodgood), does open her mouth, you wish she hadn't. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)
Many devotees complained that Rise of the Machines, the first installment that wasn't directed by Cameron, crudely violated the creator's intent and messed with the overarching plot. Call me a clod, but I didn't see it as all that insulting. It may have been overly eager to show off its special effects, but it was entertaining enough in that big, stupid way. The new movie has much more impressive effects and is far more slavish in its homage. (It's a pleasure to learn that even as a teen, Kyle was using the "Come with me if you want to live" line.) Like the new Star Trek, it's a gift for fans.
But what's lacking is the sense of emotional balance and urgency that the original Terminator, though just a B movie, was blessed with the quality that earned it fans in the first place. It was cheesy, but it never pretended to be otherwise. In Terminator Salvation, we don't bother worrying about teenage Kyle; we know he'll make it. We're too busy thinking about how cool that stunt was, the one where that body skimmed the river's surface like a skipping stone.
So McG knows how to slap an audience into awed submission. But at a certain point, you may feel so pummeled that you check out and begin pondering things like the time-travel question. Or when did radiation from nuclear blasts cease to be dangerous to human beings? Or what exactly is Terminator Salvation's stance on the death penalty? Or how is it that even after the apocalypse, someone is still churning out cute maternity wear and hot leather outfits? Maybe in 25 more years, we'll get the answers.