Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight”) gained some undesired press this past winter when an audio clip of him having a nuclear meltdown on the set of “Terminator Salvation” aired on TV, radio and spread to every corner of the web. Meltdowns on movie sets happen all the time, so I’m sure Mr. Bale probably felt like he’d been de-pantsed and punched in the netherregions by the public, who months earlier were lauding him for his performance in “The Dark Knight.”
The vitriol levied against Bale, whether deserved or not, is understandable. Dropping the f-bomb a wince-worthy 36 times on a diminutive director of photography will earn you societal scorn and personal shame every time. But I have to feel compassion for Christian Bale because I’ve unleashed Hurricane Andy on a multitude of folks ranging from teenage punks to driving impaired senior citizens to small yappy dogs that nip at my heels when I’m outside running. I also understand now why Bale freaked out. He was stressed and rightly so. “Terminator Salvation” is a plodding mélange of explosions and cool CGI, but has little, if any, compelling substance.
Let’s review history, shall we?
There have been three previous “Terminator” movies in the last 25 years. 1984 is when Governor Schwarzenegger uttered the famous words, “I’ll be back” and seven years later he returned to headline James Cameron’s sequel “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Where Cameron’s first movie was campy and fresh, the sequel was hi-tech, groundbreaking and bested its predecessor with greater brawn and brains. 12 years later, and without James Cameron at the helm, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” opened and flopped both commercially and critically. An elderly, plastic-faced Schwarzenegger popped up in “Rise of the Machines,” battling a sophisticated Victoria’s Secret terminator who could morph herself into all sorts of dangerous goodies.
This brings us to 2009 and “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth and newest film in the Terminator quadruplegy. Between the inordinate amount of nuclear blasts, helicopter crashes, car chases, hulking robots and gunfire, the wispy storyline revolves around two beefy dudes – John Connor (Christian Bale) and Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) – who find themselves at odds with the “machines,” also known as Skynet. These machines, as we heretofore know, became “self-aware” and nuked the entire world and now its minions, ranging from hulking battleships to three-eyed bullet bikes to clunky pirate-looking robots, patrol the ruined landscape looking for human survivors. The difference between John and Marcus is one has been told his future since he was a little boy; the other is waking up in the future with no idea how he got here or where he is.
John Connor, and I know the screenwriters meant for this, is sort of a Christ figure in the post-apocalyptic resistance against the Terminators. Many believe the prophecies his mother, Sarah, has been divulging on tapes and in person since he was born. Others, namely the big wigs, see him as just another hot headed, impetuous soldier in a war that must be won, no matter the costs. Resistance leadership has found a signal they believe shuts down the Terminator machines and they enlist Connor and his team in leading the attack on Skynet’s San Francisco headquarters. Conner’s group of freedom fighters includes his wife, Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard), and trusted warriors Blair (Moon Bloodgood) and Barnes (Common).
And then we have the matter of Marcus Wright, a convicted murder, executed on death row and now reborn in 2018. He pops out of a mudhole and becomes our travel guide, eventually linking up with Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a mere teenager, but according to prophecy, and of course all the other movies, the father of John Connor. Skynet had Reese on its must-kill-right-away list, because, of course, if they kill him, they subsequently destroy John Connor. It is so obvious these guys never watched “Back to the Future” because they have so jacked with the space-time continuum. At any rate, Marcus and Kyle set off to find John Connor, one hoping to join the fight, the other to find out why he’s alive at all.
I had high hopes for “Terminator Salvation” because I have a fondness for the story and I’m always excited to see new vision and direction given to a disheveled franchise. This movie does nothing of the sort. It falls into the wink-wink trap and throws nods to the old movies by pulling out familiar one-liners and even goes so far as to plop a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger into the ending of the movie. Yeah, I spoiled it for you and guess what? I don’t care. That was the lamest part of the movie without question. And I’m not a stuck up critic, like some emails I get like to claim. I like explosions and fighting and the pomp and circumstance of loud action movies just as much as the next dude, but all the bombastic notes have to be tied with some semblance of a story. You can’t raise philosophical questions in a movie and then not explore the answers. When you do that, all that remains is paper faces.
Director McG (pronounced like “Mick Gee”) was initially hesitant to helm “Terminator Salvation” because he didn’t want to, in his words, “flog a dead horse.” But that’s exactly what he’s done. There is nothing different from the craptastic “Rise of the Machines” and “Terminator Salvation,” just updated special effects and new actors. And that’s a real tragedy, because this could have been good.