The biggest hurdle
Terminator Salvation has to face is justifying its existence. It could be easily argued that the series reached a satisfactory conclusion by the end of the second movie, and many people feel that the third was largely unnecessary. And this fourth movie, while loud, flashy and ultimately competent, still falls short of feeling like a vital part of the series, providing little in the way of memorable characters or storylines. If you were just looking for explosions, though, you’ve come to the right place.
It is 2018. John Connor (Christian Bale) is leading a small band of resistance fighters in a war against Skynet, the sentient computer network that plunged the world into nuclear holocaust and raised an army of machines to hunt down that last human survivors. He learns from recordings left to him by his mother that he needs to look for Kyle Reese and keep him safe. But the key to finding Kyle Reese lies in the hands of someone Connor cannot bring himself to trust: Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a new kind of terminator; one that believes he is human.
The story is decidedly barebones, mostly relying on the long history of the Terminator movies to provide context for all the conflict. The movie is quick to get dialogue out of the way to make space for giant action sequences featuring the titular machines. In true blockbuster fashion, the movie appears to have started as just a set of action set pieces; the story later poured into the gaps to hold things together. It’s not an ideal approach, and the result is pretty dismal. The characters are difficult to care about, and the big reveals generally fall flat. The movie also reveals Skynet to be one of the most incompetent villains in movie history, acting with no logic or purpose, unable to execute even when all of the right pieces are in play. All of the plot’s weaknesses become evident in the third act where, despite all the robot-bashing goodness, interest clearly wanes. Skynet explains too much, and the characters start to feel more than a little ridiculous.
But yes, the action sequences. McG, best known as the director of the Charlie’s Angels movies, drops his trademark kitsch and color in favor of muted colors and a serious tone. His action scenes are pretty immersive, using long, handheld takes that keep us in the action at all times. The machines are wonderful creations, full of weight and danger, sharp edges and creaking joints. The sound design is terribly aggressive, between Danny Elfman’s booming score to the sheer sonic assault of the action sequences. McG does have trouble with scenes that don’t feature some kind of explosion, the more conversational scenes lacking any sort of directorial zip, making a lot of it feel tedious. Combine that with the general weakness of the characters, and you’ve got a real handicap for the actors. And you can see it in Christian Bale, who just falls back on his default exasperated rasp, shouting through most of his scenes, lacking the joy and humanity of previous incarnations of his character. Sam Worthington is actually given a lot to chew on, but he doesn’t have the charisma or talent to pull it off. His character is central to the plot, and Worthington’s flat performance is one of the main reasons it’s difficult to care about any of it by the end.
Your enjoyment of Terminator Salvation relies solely on how much you actually care about story. For all intents and purposes, this is an unnecessary part of the whole Terminator mythos. From a narrative perspective, this movie only serves to muck up an already muddled timeline and undermine the theme that fate is only what humans make of it. But if you can ignore that, there are probably enough explosions to keep your attention. If you’re looking for more than that, the subpar story will probably suck the fun right out of all the giant robot battles.