"Terminator Salvation" is a boys-and-their-toys-gone-wild, eardrum-shattering, metal-shredding vision of a post-Judgment Day world at war that up to now we've mostly glimpsed in Sarah Connor's fever dreams. (For anyone asking, "Sarah who?," we'll get back to that momentarily.)
This fourth edition of the franchise that forever shaped Arnold Schwarzenegger's film and political career ("I'll be back" and "Hasta la vista, baby" worked surprisingly well for both) comes at us with what can only be called McG-force. The director, whose reputation was first made in 2000 on the restyled bounce and jiggle of "Charlie's Angels," has found in "Salvation" a world that will almost, almost contain his unrestrained energy and rabid optimism, which makes for a movie mash-up of everything that manic imagination and money will buy.
Christian Bale stars as John Connor, now grown and finally living out his destiny to save the world from the blunt force of the killing machines that began in 1984 with Schwarzenegger's well-sculpted, sunglasses-loving, time-traveling, single-minded cyborg killer. The Terminator's failed mission to eliminate Sarah Connor, then just a lonely waitress with a no-count future, spawned not just son John and a successful franchise, but a mega-career for writer-director James Cameron.
Cameron discovered a million-dollar sweet spot between the virtually unstoppable mechanical killers he'd created and a very human story of survival. T-800, T-1000 or any other models that rolled off the assembly line were fearsome in their relentlessness, but also funny, and surprisingly adaptable because they "thought" in their lethal, but mutable way.
In McG's new world order, the machines now rule with enforcers of every shape imaginable roaming the land -- they fly, swim, search, chase, harvest, transport, jail, crush, and on and on, but there's not a strategic thinker or a standout personality among them. In the countless battle scenes, a sort of metallic madness takes hold, but the tension of the chess match between hunted and hunter has been lost (for this, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also wrote "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," must share in the blame).
Though we've been waiting for John Connor, it is Marcus Wright who turns out to be the warrior the film needs and the salvation it seeks. Played by a scene-stealing -- make that movie-stealing -- Sam Worthington, Marcus carries within him the question, and possibly the answer, at the heart of the series: What is it that truly separates man from machine? So it is fitting that the story of "Salvation" begins and ends with him.
Draped in a worn, military-style overcoat, gun in hand, Marcus moves through a barren American West, circa 2018, wearing his conflicted humanity like Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone days. Worthington overtakes every scene that he is in, and you can't help but hope that along with his power ranger of a girlfriend, Blair (an excellent Moon Bloodgood), he will find his way onto the drawing boards now shaping "Terminator 5."
We first encounter Marcus on death row, a killer who is persuaded in his final moments to donate his body to research. The last face he sees is that of a scientist (Helena Bonham Carter). Decades later, Marcus gets a second chance unlike any he imagined. The good news: He's strong, reconstituted and somehow alive. The bad: He's awaking to a post-apocalyptic rubble heap overrun by a massive metal army with nothing but death lurking behind their red, unblinking laser eyes. More important, Marcus finally wants to begin the hard work of understanding who and what he is.
The journey for Marcus, John and the rest of "Salvation's" cast comes with a suitcase full of past time-traveling anomalies (a few footnotes provided). Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) turns up as a teenager, years from saving Sarah Connor and fathering John (see T-1). He is the one to first rescue Marcus from the machines. Meanwhile, back at resistance headquarters, John is plotting the end of Skynet (see T-1, 2, 3). By now he's married to Kate (see T-3), played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and they're expecting a child. (Anytime you feel confused, the answer will either be "time travel" or "it's complicated.")
When John learns that Kyle has been captured and is headed to Skynet central for containment and probably extermination, he knows from what his mother has told him (see T-2), that his very existence (see T-4) hangs on Kyle's fate. Much of the action from that point on is built around John's attempts to save his future father, though Kyle must never be told who John is or how things will unfold (see T-1, 2, 3 and 4).
The movie was really designed to be Bale's, to ride the "Terminator" franchise into a new future on the back of his sizable talent. Few actors of Bale's generation are better at breathing life and layers into troubled interior characters, whether the tortured soul literally wasting away before us in "The Machinist," or the black armor of Batman's solitude in "The Dark Knight." His strengths do not serve him, or the movie, as well here. John Connor needs to be the calm, powerful center of this storm, not the storm itself (as he was on set too, with a wicked tirade that became a Web sensation).
If you're a "Terminator" fan, though, "Salvation" is mostly worth it. The machines are mindless, yes, but there are enough pyrotechnics and heavy artillery to feel like Armageddon squared. And when the story starts to crumble around Bale, Worthington is there to pick up the pieces. At one point John asks Marcus, "Who are you?" Marcus looks at him with a knowing sadness and says: "I'm the only hope you have." Thankfully, he is enough.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release