The fourth entry in the Terminator franchise suffers from a lack of humanity.
One of last summer’s biggest and most surprising flops, director McG’s Terminator Salvation lacks the emotional complexity that elevated the franchise’s earlier films above the standard action routine. The shabby result is a boilerplate genre piece bulging with sound and fury that eschews humanity in favor of tedious summer blockbuster sturm and drang. Sound, especially – between the incessant gunfire, explosions and crashes, this may well be the single loudest film released in years.
Going back to the beginning by way of a sequel, the film depicts the post-apocalyptic war hinted at in its predecessors, a conflict between oppressive machines and a straggling human resistance led by legendary soldier John Connor (Christian Bale). Amidst Connor’s difficult rise to prominence as mankind’s savior, an executed felon from 2003 named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) awakens to this nightmarish new world. Revealed to be a human heart and brain inside the body of one of the titular robots, Marcus joins forces with Connor to rescue a nest of human prisoners that includes Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the young man who paradoxically will travel back in time and become Connor’s father.
For a film ostensibly about the triumph of humanity over technology, the script by Terminator 3 scribes John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (and reportedly doctored by The Dark Knight co-writer Jonathan Nolan), focuses instead on effects-laden set pieces at the expense of characterization. And that’s where the film starts to really malfunction. Even though they were essentially chase movies, the first two Terminator installments remain classics thanks to finely-wrought character-driven moments nestled between the tentpole action sequences. There are often clues in this film to suggest a similar depth to its leads: Marcus briefly describes his guilt over the death of his brother, which presumably drives him to take the young, overeager Reese under his wing; likewise the persistent image of John Connor’s very pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) implies that Connor’s preoccupation with rescuing the man destined to become his father stems from anxiety over his own impending fatherhood.
But such hints of motivation and subtext are never completely explored, whereas the elaborate battles and chases are staged with a slavish adherence to bombast. McG’s (Charlie’s Angels) priorities seem inverted – the overcooked action sequences obviously received far more attention than the humanistic story elements that might have resonated with audiences or grounded the film’s stakes. At other times, you have to wonder if the screenwriters understand their characters at all, as evidenced by the completely out-of-character decision that Connor makes in the film’s final moments.
To be fair, Bale and Yelchin do their best to create some palpable empathy, and their compelling performances are almost enough to salvage the film. Bale portrays the adult John Connor as the stoically noble leader that audiences have waited to see since the original Terminator some twenty-five years ago. Unlike the hero of another film series who was likewise a temperamental mama’s boy of messianic importance, Bale does not disappoint. It is young Reese, however, who provides the film’s emotional keystone: unconcerned with abstractions like fate or free will, he simply wants to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Yelchin effectively conveys this altruism through a combination of earnest enthusiasm and carefully controlled fear, and in so doing shows a maturity and a craftsmanship beyond his young age.
Unfortunately Worthington fails to bring the same level of charisma to Wright. The character is intended to be a tough guy with a human heart of gold, but Worthington shallowly coasts on swagger and stature without showing credible vulnerability. That worked fine for Arnold Schwarzenegger – his role was that of machine, after all – but for a character that’s supposed to be redeeming his humanity, Wright appears that much more mechanical by comparison. Considering Wright’s status as a new character alongside the more famous Connor and Reese, Worthington should work twice as hard to earn his character’s keep in the story. As it is, his scenes amount to little more than a tedious diversion from the main event starring Bale and Yelchin.
And as if to further distance itself from the other films of the series, the women are equally uninspired and uninspiring. Moon Bloodgood’s (Journeyman) Blair Williams shows the most potential for a strong female character, but despite the actress’ best efforts the character devolves into a damsel in distress orbiting Wright. There’s also precious little explanation for why a battle-hardened soldier like Blair would ultimately betray everything she knows for a man she only just met. Admittedly, her character arc could be an intentional echo of Sarah Connor’s relationship with Kyle Reese in the 1984 original, but that film at least laid groundwork to explain why such a nice, lonely girl would fall for a perceived lunatic. Reese’s child sidekick Star (Jadagrace) doesn’t speak, but she doesn’t need to – she’s only there as an adorable accessory meant to spotlight Reese’s selflessness.
Bryce Dallas Howard’s aggressively bland Kate Connor proves most distracting. Unlike Claire Danes’ feisty portrayal of the same character only six years ago, Howard’s doe-eyed and boring Kate shows no indication of being Connor’s mental and spiritual equal, let alone able to remind either Connor (or the audience) of his mother. Along with Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor is the matriarch of independent action heroines, and that makes it all the more disappointing to see the character’s sci-fi proto-feminism so blithely discarded.
At least in terms of spectacle, the film lives up to its pedigree even if the numerous actions sequences recycle elements of the other Terminator films. It’s also odd that no one realized that Connor crashes two different helicopters in exactly the same manner over the course of one film. For that matter, the digital reconstruction of a familiar face in the final act is not only technically stunning, but also provides the film’s singular moment of genuine terror. Still, actual non-digital sets and scenery appear painfully fake, which ultimately sum up the film’s flaws – meticulous attention to the artificial, sloppy disinterest in the corporeal. Truly, the machines have won.
- Stephen Kabel