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Review: Terminator Salvation

Terminator franchise can not be salvaged
By PETER KEOUGH  |  May 21, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Terminator: Salvation

Terminator Salvation | Directed by McG | Written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris | With Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard and Helena Bonham Carter | Warner Bros. | 115 minutes

The future has not been kind to the Terminator franchise. The original 1984 film — James Cameron’s best, and one of the great films of the 1980s — was a thrilling black-comic parable of man versus machine, life against death. It was, until he became governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s greatest role. But as new versions of the old model ground out, T2 in 1991, T3 in 2003, it got progressively worse as the robot cyborg of the title got more advanced.

And so we come to the fourth in the series and a return to basics. The wrong basics, unfortunately. T4 dumps all the software of cinematic storytelling, understated but compelling characterization, terse irony, crafty visual metaphors, even simple coherence. Hardware and explosions are pretty much all that remain. The machines have won.

Oh, and the premise survives too — of course, it’s durable enough to grind out sequels until Judgment Day. It’s a variation on that old time-travel paradox that has spawned many a science-fiction yarn. If you could go back in time and kill your father before you were born, you would never exist. But then, if you never existed, you could not kill your father. Oedipus had it easy.

In the Terminator mythology, that quandary translates into the story of John Connor (Christian Bale, whose overacting in The Dark Knight has taken permanent hold). He’s “the savior of mankind” in a future war against a supercomputer named Skynet that has achieved self-consciousness and whose first impulse is to wipe out the beings who created it by triggering a nuclear war. So by 2018, only pockets of resistance (called “The Resistance”) remain in a smoldering Mad Max/Matrix like world. (McG and his screenwriters rob shamelessly from the salvage heap of better movies).

But Skynet and its lethal mechanical minions (here’s one question among many: why do the pre-cyborg Terminator units have teeth — they’re not designed to pass as humans, and it’s not as if they ate anything) realize they can win only if John Connor is destroyed. That’s because, it seems, he embodies an essential part of human nature, “the strength of the human heart.” This, as Connor puts it, is something that “you can’t program . . . or put . . . in a chip.”

We’ll see about that, what with Arnold himself making a cameo here by means of the old CGI process. Meanwhile, Skynet’s new (or is it old — the chronology, as you can imagine, is a little hard to follow) strategy to do in Connor seem a little over-determined. The idea is to try to get father and son at the same time by infiltrating a pre-Arnold cyborg Terminator (a kind of Wolverine without the sideburns) made from a 2003 death-row prisoner named Marcus (Sam Worthington). Problem is, they left in his human heart and, well, it’s kind of like the Tin Woodman in reverse.

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 See all articles by: PETER KEOUGH