There's a certain, sad sci-fi irony when one considers that the first Terminator film to feature a robot with a human heart is also the first film in the series that feels like it has no soul. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was no masterpiece, but at least Jonathan Mostow's direction was fairly assured, and the grim apocalyptic coda still felt loyal to James Cameron's technologically paranoid original concept. The spark was still there, even if it had already begun to fade.
Unfortunately, it takes more than competent direction and a few nukes to follow the vision of certified sci-fi genius, and many opinionated fans made no attempt to mask their open contempt for Mostow's glossy crowd pleaser. Odds are they'll be even more disgruntled by the fourth installment in the series -- a bombastic but boring summer tent-pole featuring some fascinating ideas that ultimately get cast aside in favor of metallic melodrama and lifeless, listless action scenes. There's beauty in the simplicity of those first two films, and it's beginning to look as if any attempt to expand on that bleak simplicity is doomed to failure (case in point: the short-lived television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles).
The story opens on Death Row. Condemned convict Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is about to be executed as his doctor makes one last attempt at convincing him to donate his body to science. Despite scowling that he isn't looking for a second chance, Marcus signs the consent form and lies down to face his fate. Flash forward to the year 2018, where man and machine are at war. Resistance fighter John Connor (Christian Bale) is leading a raid on one of the machines' key bases when he discovers that they are harvesting humans in an attempt to engineer a hybrid robot/human Terminator that will help them win the war against humankind. But the resistance has a secret weapon, too, and they're preparing to use it in a raid on Skynet headquarters when an amnesiac Marcus arrives in the future on an unknown mission. After his true android nature is revealed to him after he accidentally steps on a land mine, he vows to track down and kill his creator. But just staying alive in the future is a struggle in and of itself, and it isn't long before Marcus and John realize that in order to breach Skynet, they'll need each other's help.
And therein lies much of the problem with the film's screenplay: the story simply feels unfocused, as if screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris weren't able to decide whether they wanted to continue following the John Connor plotline that's been the focus of the series from the onset, or branch out to follow Marcus Wright on his self-loathing mission of cybernetic vengeance. Ambition is a key component of any successful genre film, but in order to yield something truly great that ambition has to be focused. Here, Brancato, Ferris, and director McG seem all too eager to gloss over any of the really interesting concepts in favor of having Connor do battle with Terminator sea monsters, or having Wright engage in a Road Warrior-style showdown with Terminator motorcycles. Forget exploring the complex emotions a human would feel after discovering that he's been turned into a machine; a few lines of dialogue will suffice and give us a chance to get to the (yawn) final factory battle more quickly. It feels like a cop-out because it is. We've seen this all before, and done much better.
Yes, Terminator Salvation is an action film, but the action had better be pretty exhilarating if you're going to favor thrills over plot, and with the exception of one breathtaking sequence in a helicopter, the action in Terminator Salvation is astonishingly dull. In Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, McG went so wild with action and special effects that he essentially created a live-action cartoon. Perhaps a little dose of that outrageous energy might have gone a long way in keeping the Terminator series feeling fresh and exciting; instead, it feels like he has purposefully reigned in that penchant for hyper-stylized violence in an attempt to be taken more seriously, and the result is action scenes that are filled with movement, yet devoid of excitement.
On the surface, Terminator Salvation looks great -- the deliciously decrepit, post-apocalyptic art direction seemingly influenced by old Megadeth album covers -- though when it comes to the characters there's an odd kind of disconnect. As Connor, Bale's face is smudged with grease and grime in almost every scene; his wife, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), however, seems to have just stepped out of the makeup chair, despite the fact that she's been living underground for years and struggling just to survive. Those are precisely the kind of little details that -- despite having no impact on the story -- prevent us from becoming fully immersed in the film. Performances, too, are uneven all around, with Bale falling back on his tortured growl a few times too many, and Worthington inexplicably slipping into Aussie-speak in one of his most pivotal scenes. Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest asset to the film is young Anton Yelchin (fresh off the success of Star Trek), who makes the most of his role as a young Kyle Reese by convincingly taking the character from a frightened teenager to a courageous member of the resistance. It isn't too much of a stretch to envision a young Michael Biehn looking something like Yelchin, and it's easy to see how his character could evolve into the Reese of the original Terminator after a few more years of automaton-induced trauma.
With Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron made a point of pushing then-cutting-edge special effects to their absolute limit. That trend didn't carry over into Terminator 3, which displayed passable but fairly standard special effects back in 2003, and it doesn't seem to be a real point of interest for McG and company here, either. While the large majority of malevolent robotic creations indeed convey a sense of shiny, chrome-plated menace, a climactic special effect intended to deliver a big surprise instead delivers big laughs by looking completely artificial. (Note to filmmakers: CG technology is still not "there" yet in terms of making digitally birthed characters look believably human.) It takes more than top-dollar special effects to create a genre film that viewers will really connect with -- it takes genuine emotion from the filmmaker. When Cameron made the original Terminator films, his techno-paranoia was flowing directly into his creativity. His vision was fueled by a fear for all of humanity, and that fear came straight from the heart. WALL-E had more heart than any robot in Terminator Salvation, and not only was he completely CG, but his ticker was little more than rusted metal by the time we met him.