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Terminator Salvation Review – A Mechanical Melee, A Stake-Free Spectacle

Terminator Salvation Review – A Mechanical Melee, A Stake-Free Spectacle” width=”560″/>

Consider Terminator 2: Judgment Day‘s mind-blowing truck-bike chase scene — perhaps the crowning achievement of modern action cinema. What makes it so timelessly awesome? The question is neither academic, nor a lazy attempt to dis Terminator Salvation. But as it turns out, Salvation gets wrong everything that particular scene got right. This fourth chapter of the franchise is big, handsome, loud and dumb — and it dishonors everything that preceded it.

Salvation picks up some years after Skynet’s nuclear rebellion and the human apocalypse, and gives us our first sustained look at the War with the Machines for which John Connor — now played by Christian Bale — had to be spared. Connor and the other leaders of the human resistance have discovered a weapon that could give them an improbable advantage in the war, but before they can use it, Connor must find the teenager who will become his father to send back in time to protect his mother (remember The Terminator?). Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger (Sam Worthington) comes stumbling naked out of the muck — and we all know what that means.

Back to T2‘s chase scene, where John Connor — the little punk version played by Edward Furlong — has to ditch a mall arcade when he is suddenly attacked by the implacable T-1000. Bewildered, Connor takes off on his little Honda motorbike, and the shape-shifting cyborg hijacks a lumbering tractor trailer to pursue. Just as things like to look dire, the original Schwarzenegger model, sent to protect Connor, comes to the rescue on a Harley.

What makes that scene so special? Apart from James Cameron’s unmatched sense of rhythm and tension, it has a tangible menace: An indestructible enemy in a monstrous truck bearing down on a kid on a bike. It has high stakes — not only the future of humanity, but also the life of a scared, unwitting boy. And it moves the story forward: When Arnold intoned “Come with me if you want to live,” he didn’t (merely) coin a catchphrase, he introduced the heart of the picture.

Terminator Salvation has enough action for five summer movies, and enough cyborgs for thirty. It has garden-variety humanoid Terminators, Terminator snakes, sky-scraper-sized Terminators with little motorcycle Terminators that pop out of its metal legs. There are futuristic planes and submarines, minefields, humvee chases, and the obligatory climactic showdown in a factory. If this isn’t the biggest movie of the summer, Michael Bay has a lot of work to do.

But, there is no menace. Director McG (Charlie’s Angels, We Are Marshall) — who met plenty of justifiable skepticism when he was announced as the choice to helm Salvation — works his ass off to prove himself a competent action stylist, and mostly he succeeds. The movie’s post-apocalyptic universe is appropriately vast and grimy, and the action scenes are impressively lucid. But they’re all so elaborately staged and drowned in CGI that they have no weight or substance — they’re not half as scary as T2‘s barreling Mack truck. Terminator Salvation‘s action is choreographed spectacle.

There are no stakes in the movie, not really. The human race may be in grave danger, but the characters are interchangeable. We’re told that John Connor must live, but after watching Salvation, I don’t know John Connor from Adam — even in Christian Bale’s hands, he is your standard-issue, noble, poker-faced action hero. There’s some promise in Anton Yelchin’s spunky Kyle Reese, but after a spirited intro, he retreats into the background and waits to be rescued. And Sam Worthington’s “Marcus Wright” introduces some thorny issues about the difference between humans and machines, but the movie is ridiculously literal-minded about it (the answer, it turns out, is “the human heart”). The story and characters feel hokey and hastily assembled; they don’t matter. And so neither does the surfeit of action.

Finally, the fireworks almost never move the ball forward. Among other things, Salvation has the temerity to recycle the series’ most well-known dialogue in other contexts with a smug, knowing wink. When Arnold Schwarzenegger said “I’ll be back” or “Come with me if you want to live,” it meant a lot to the story and to his relationship with young John Connor — that is why those lines are remembered. McG and his screenwriters just cynically plop them on the screen, as they do many other iconic elements of the franchise (including a whopper I don’t want to ruin, but you’ll know it when you see it).

It’s just sound and fury. By the end of the movie, almost nothing has changed — the series’ mythology is in a holding pattern. Terminator is meaty, dynamic, exciting science fiction. This movie is an impostor.

To get an alternate movie review of Terminator Salvation, go to AMC Filmcritic.com

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