It’s actually somewhat interesting the way this latest in the once glorious Terminator franchise very loudly and very brightly snuck up on everyone, and there are a few contributing factors. Firstly, a really good cast was cobbled together. Christian Bale is a star and Sam Worthington is a star on the rise. Secondly, to their credit they cut a really good trailer filled with the tease of possibility and some slick, pulsating action. Then as the release date began to loom large on the horizon the entire project was overshadowed by that now infamous rant that saw Bale relentlessly berate DP Shane Hurlbut in a wide variety of different accents for walking through a shot. A rant laced with such mean-spirited overkill it will likely define Bale for sometime.
Finally, in the weeks leading up to opening weekend, anyone who truly gave a shit about the franchise was busily sweating the will-they-won’t-they cancellation of the sorely underrated television series (It’s FOX – guess how that one turned out). The cumulative effect of all this, judging by fanboy ire and mass critical pacifier spitting, was a shield of noise, buzz and distractions that somehow made everyone forget that this thing was being directed by the guy who brought us Charlie’s bloody Angels. How could we have all been so blind?!
For sure this is Charlie’s Angels: The Post-Apocalyptic Years; a bloodless, ear-splittingly over-the-top fairground ride with no sense of restraint, no sense of itself and dialogue so tinny you could hand it a mini-gun and call it a T-800. But as someone who would gladly crawl on their belly across broken glass with their zipper undone in honor of what James Cameron accomplished – the industrial horror, the fields of scorched bone – it’s hard to hate this. It doesn’t piss all over Cameron’s legacy for the simple reason that it never bothers to take enough of it into consideration to begin with. What McG has in fact created is an above average, post-apocalyptic action flick with malevolent machines. It’s Transforminators. It’s Mad Max with killer robots. Whatever you call it, it’s not a proper Terminator movie and once you embrace that and let the disappointment go, it’s hard to hate this film. But, it’s also hard to bring yourself to care that much about it either.
In much the same way Abrams did for Star Trek, McG has elected to tear up the rulebook and start over, throwing out enough candy-coated references and in-jokes to please the faithful in the process (we get a blast of G’n’R, Bale gets the line, and the Governor of California fucks shit up). Where as Cameron’s vision of the future was a rag-tag army of half-starving conscripts hacking a hardscrabble existence out day-by-day amidst the charred wreckage of civilization, McG’s future is one of full blow war.
This resistance is strong, it’s organized, it’s well equipped with an armies worth of military hardware, and most crucial of all John Connor isn’t the man leading it. Savior to some, false prophet to others, Connor commands a unit in the field and under the instruction of Sarah Connor’s library of audio messages, searches for Kyle Reese, the man who will one day be his father. Also wandering the wilderness in search of Reese (Yelchin) for entirely different reasons is Marcus Wright (Worthington), a new breed of cyborg – one who thinks he’s human – who just might hold the key to victory for the deeply divided resistance.
It’s nothing if not a great idea and the Sarah Connor Chronicles handily showcased how going your own way and finding your own voice within the Terminator universe can work wonders. But while that show took some liberties with the timeline, it was never so reckless as to commit Salvation’s cardinal sin and abandon the franchises’ defining characteristic – the relentless chase. They absolutely will not stop! Ever! Ring any bells, McG? Sadly, Salvation’s machines do stop all too frequently and the adrenaline fueled, kinetic urgency of the hunt is replaced with your bog standard men-on-a-mission war movie fodder. Again, we must stress that this is a Terminator film in name only.
Cameron’s magic of storytelling lay in a refined sense of forward momentum that was as ruthlessly efficient as the machines he envisioned. Replacing that heart-racing fear factor with some Machiavellian scheme involving half-breed cyborgs, secret radio transmissions and frequent pit stops to muse on the politics of war just doesn’t elicit the same nerve-shredding effect. If fact by painting such a sprawling picture of the future war, he halfway succeeds in marginalizing John Connor into the role of bit-parter in his own story.
The action sequences, and there are plenty of them, are pure hi-octane mayhem – the standout being a surprise attack on a gas station sheltering a pocket of survivors that gives way to a three way chase featuring a trucking rig, a Hunter Killer, and the resistance’s combat air patrol. Hmmm, the best sequence in a Terminator movie is a chase, who would have thought it?
Ultimately, though, McG’s choice of tools are his downfall. Cameron, for anyone who didn’t know, was an accomplished special effects artist long before he was a writer/director. He worked with miniature models, puppets and prosthetics. CGI was a last resort. Cameron’s intricately detailed model work gave his movies a tangible, tactile sense of realness that McG’s digitally painted fireballs simply cannot hope to match, no matter how high they go or how frequently they occur.
Lastly, there is the ratings issue. And while we would be the last ones to ever campaign on behalf of gore for gore’s sake, there is something about McG’s sanitized, bloodless, version of genocide that just rings hollow. We’re not asking for severed heads on pikes or graphic scenes of torture and mutilation. But by that same token, if you’re making a film about the eradication of the human race and yet each and every one of your death scenes feels decidedly unaffecting, then your film has failed. In fact we would go so far as to say that unless a director emerges with the clout to fight the studio on behalf of taking back the action movie in the name of adults, we feel confident in our prediction that there will likely never be another good Terminator film.
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter
Runtime: 130 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros