When a young, cash-strapped filmmaker named James Cameron started writing a screenplay about a diner waitress being chased by a murderous cyborg from the future, he probably didn't expect to be launching a durable tent-pole franchise that would last (so far) 25 years past that first movie's debut. But when The Terminator became a massive hit for its relative tiny budget, a sequel became an inevitability. Still, Cameron had the good sense not to flog something to death just because it made him a bit of money, so when, seven years later, he wrote and directed Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he put in an ending that rather strongly argued against any further entries in the series, wrapping up all of the films' conflicts in an elegantly ambiguous bow, and suggesting that the fatalistic determinism which marked those stories had been replaced by an open-ended future dictated instead by free will.

To everyone's credit, it took a long time for anybody to figure out how to fuck that ending up. But figure it out they did, and now we're facing down the latest effort to wreck the legacy of Cameron's magnificent sci-fi action dyad.

Terminator Salvation represents the first real change to the series formula since it began: where the first two films and the ghastly Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines from 2003 all centered around the chase enjoined when a killer robot traveled to the past to keep John Connor from growing old enough to lead the human resistance against the evil sentient computer program Skynet in the first quarter of the 21st Century. Salvation begins in 2018, when Connor (Christian Bale) has already risen to a position of some prominence within the resistance, and the story of the movie is not at all that of a chase, but rather that of a miserable, grinding war, already years into the fighting with no end in sight. At its most basic level, this is a classic war movie plot: Connor and his team want to infiltrate the enemy base, and there's a man who may be able to help them, but there's good reason to believe that he's a double agent. In this case, the "good reason" is that the man, one Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) was executed for murder in 2003, and has been resurrected as a robot with human organs and flesh, the forerunner to the T-800 series machine played in the first three films by future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Adding to the fun, Wright met, quite by accident, a teenager who wants to join the resistance, one Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who Connor knows for a different reason: 11 years later, that same Reese will travel back in time 45 years to impregnate Connor's mother with the future savior of humanity.

It's charming that Salvation is thus both sequel and prequel to the 1984 Terminator, although this is the natural side-effect of an epic, multi-film narrative centered around a looping cycle. This focus on the weird effects of time travel has always been one of the most characteristic traits of the Terminator series, one of the little bits of flavor that serves to separate these films from all the other "implacable killer is hunting the weak protagonist" movies that cropped up like weeds during the '80s and '90s. I think, also, that this is the only element of Salvation that can be rightly called "charming", or any other adjective connoting a positive response; it is in the main a tremendously ugly assault on the senses in which none of the ginormous action sequence carry any real weight because the filmmakers have made absolutely no effort to convince us to give a damn about what's happening.

Directed by the notorious McG, Salvation assumes that since we have (theoretically) watched and rooted for the Connors for three films running, we're inherently anxious to see that John continues his ascent to the messianic role guaranteed him by fate and his initials. That's fine as far as it goes, which isn't far at all: as played by Bale in what is surely the least-charismatic performance of his career, this film's representation of John Connor is an impersonal gung-ho soldier who yells a lot and doesn't seem to have any emotions whatever besides gruff impatience. Worthington's Marcus Wright is a great deal more interesting, as you would expect a resurrected murderer placed into the body of an indestructible machine against his will to be; and yet Worthington also doesn't have much in the way of screen presence, and his biggest acting choice seems to consist of switching between his native Australian accent and the American accent he's taken on for the film at odd intervals.

Instead of characters, McG and friends give us explosions - CGI armies - giant robot planes zooming through canyons! - A roomful of T-800 prototypes! - and to be fair, the film manages to attain the minimum possible threshold of successful "crap is blowing up" setpieces to avoid putting the audience to sleep altogether (though it is powerfully boring for a summer movie, even making X-Men Origins: Wolverine seem wholly dynamic and exciting in comparison). It's PG-13 to the first three film's R-ratings, and that doesn't help; the hectic editing which leaves all of the setpieces incoherent doesn't help either. The biggest problem, though, is that McG isn't apparently making a big ol' summer action movie - he's aiming for a thoughtful and thematically evocative summer movie with some action in it, and he absolutely lacks the skills to succeed at that goal.

It's kind of cutely stupid how he goes about it, though. Did you see Children of Men? Because McG sure as shit did, and his trick for making a post-apocalyptic future action thriller is the rip-off that film's aesthetic in every detail, while managing to completely miss the reasons why Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki made it look the way they did. So we have the same almost-monochrome palette (leaning towards greys and browns here, rather than blues), and a smattering of really ambitious tracking shots that carry us all throughout the blown-up and blowing-up sets. All of which adds up to precisely nothing, unfortunately; though I suppose the tracking shots could be defended as "cool" if they weren't so obviously augmented by computer animation. The point remains, that where Children of Men very successfully married its cinematography to its production design and built up a complex and complete vision of the world in which it took place, Terminator Salvation is just fucking ugly.

And yet... it's still a solid step about T3, so one must give it points for that. Cameron's original vision has already been corrupted, and Salvation doesn't add anything worse to that. It thankfully backs down on the tonally-dissonant camp humor that hurt the third film so much. I am straining for other nice things to say, but I think that's pretty much it. This is a crap film, although summer films are capable of being a great deal worse. Is that praise faint enough?

Reviews in this series
The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow, 2003)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015)