EARLIER THIS WEEK, when Fox unceremoniously canceled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the show's fans could at least console themselves with the knowledge that in a few days, they'd be standing in line to see Terminator Salvation. Salvation should have served as a bit of comfort—a sort of geek-approved salve—for jilted Terminator nerds. But rather than a salve, Salvation feels more like jagged chunks of rock salt, ground into a fresh wound. In other words, it kinda blows.
Okay, "blows" might be too strong of a word—but goddammit, I'm one of those aforementioned Terminator nerds, and I'm kinda pissed. It's not that Salvation is terrible—there have been worse movies this summer, and there'll certainly be more—but it is flat, clunky, and depressingly underwhelming.
The lousiest part is that Terminator Salvation is full of good ideas: Set the story in the future, in the midst of humanity's war against hyper-advanced machines? Good idea! (Too bad the war turns out to be totally lame.) Cast Christian Bale as John Connor, "the prophesized leader of the resistance"? Good idea! (Alas, prophecy or no, it turns out future John Connor just isn't a very cool character.) Hire a supporting cast that includes Bryce Dallas Howard, Anton Yelchin, and Helena Bonham Carter? Good idea! (The number of interesting things these actors are allowed to do? Zero!) Give some terminators wheels and turn 'em into badass robo-motorcycles? Good idea! (But brace yourself for stupid "hydro-terminators" that slither around underwater, and a giant, lumbering mecha-terminator that looks like it accidentally wandered over from the set of Transformers.)
Like all things Terminator, Salvation resides in the massive shadow of genre auteur James Cameron, whose original The Terminator (1984) was a love story disguised as a horror movie, and whose sequel, 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, was a drama disguised as a blockbuster action flick.
When Cameron left the series, we got our first shitty Terminator film, Jonathan Mostow's shiny, forgettable cash-in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Luckily, Salvation's better than that, thanks to some killer production design and Shane Hurlbut's impressive cinematography. But overall, Salvation isn't quite a sequel, and isn't quite a reboot. It just sort of... is. Director McG offers a ton of action sequences, all of them bewilderingly bland; in between, John Brancato and Michael Ferris' cluttered script stubbornly refuses to make sense. By the time McG resorts to shoehorning in a cameo by a CG Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bloodless Salvation has become something no other Terminator film is: boring.
This will probably inspire a few eyerolls, but regardless: I'm a big Terminator fan not because of the killer robots (which are, admittedly, pretty fucking cool), but because of the characters who fight them. For all their flashy special effects, genre clichés, and ludicrous action sequences, Cameron's surprisingly emo Terminator films (and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, too, despite its missteps) told stories not about murderous cyborgs, but about a mother desperately trying to protect her son—and all of humanity—from an apocalypse. The best Terminator stories are ones about desperate, doomed people who are trying to survive; Salvation is just a movie about shit blowing up.
Throughout Salvation, there are glimpses of a better movie: Along with John Connor, one of the key roles is that of an ex-con, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). Halfway through Salvation, we discover what the filmmakers have been not-so-subtly hinting at: that Marcus, unknown to himself, is actually a terminator. As Marcus struggles to determine what role he has in this war, his story proves to be roughly a billion times more interesting than John Connor's. Had Salvation focused more on Marcus, it could've ended up being something new, weird, and exciting—and, if the angry, intense charisma that Worthington gives Marcus is any indication, something that could've tapped into the emotions that made Cameron's Terminator films unique and engaging.
But instead, we get a ramshackle story, heaps of wasted potential, and a half-assed ending; like pre-programmed robots, we're expected to sit back and cheer when Bale says, "I'll be back," practically winking at the camera as he does so. Considering Salvation is merely the first film in a planned trilogy, that phrase somehow seems even more ominous now than when an emotionless killing machine with a goofy accent said it 25 years ago.