Film review: Terminator Salvation

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LEAVING aside the chasm-like plot holes that afflict any movie series trading in time travel, you can sum up the fundamental problem of Terminator Salvation, the fourth instalment of the increasingly pointless sci-fi saga, in one key scene. Having been blown up by a landmine, new protagonist Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is confronted by a surly John Connor (Christian Bale), the long-prophesied saviour of humankind and leader of the human resistance against the very machines that have tried to eliminate him since before he was born. "You think you're human," says a curious Connor to his explosion-damaged prisoner. "I am human," replies Marcus, trussed up in a Jesus Christ pose. Connor then cuts his head restraint loose, allowing Marcus to direct his gaze downward and survey for himself (and for us) the awful truth of his existence: he's actually half-man/half-cyborg – a highly developed machine, but with real internal organs.

It's a scene that is supposed to inject Terminator Salvation with a tragic dimension, adding complexity to its man-against-machines theme, yet it accidentally provides a perfect metaphor for its failings. Like Marcus, the film's mono-monikered director, McG, genuinely seems to believe Terminator Salvation is full of heart and soul, when really it's yet another product of the Hollywood machine.

It may mimic the sombre tone, the angst-ridden characterisation and the bleak, washed-out colour palette of some of the more artful blockbusters out there (especially Children of Men and Christopher Nolan's Batman films), but that can't cover up the mechanical way every protagonist is developed, every plot point is executed and every action beat is delivered. There's almost nothing organic about this film, no life around the edges, no reason to care about anyone in it or anything that happens.

McG, who got his Hollywood start making the vapid, hyperactive Charlie's Angels pictures, really doesn't have the temperament for what he's trying to pull off here. In toning down his previous, restlessly edited, throw-everything-at-the-screen approach, he's left himself badly exposed as a film-maker who doesn't have a firm grasp of the basics. He made it clear from his meek, ineffectual presence during the infamous Christian Bale on-set meltdown that he doesn't really know how to handle actors, but the finished film proves he's fairly inept at harnessing their skills in order to create scenes that pulsate with the dramatic and emotional tension needed to sustain a film like this beyond all its firepower-heavy set pieces.

Bale, for instance, is allowed simply to glower his way through his scenes. His "performance" is made up of lots of shots featuring him growling exposition into radio mics, barking orders at people, or engaged in clunking man-on-metal fight scenes. It is, by some stretch, the dullest he's ever been, his trademark intensity almost slipping into self-parody.

Sam Worthington isn't much better. Ever since The Terminator creator James Cameron plucked him from relative obscurity to play the lead in his forthcoming, long-gestating 3D sci-fi extravaganza, Avatar, Hollywood has decreed that he is already a movie star and, doubtless keen to gain Cameron's approval of this project by proxy, the producers of Terminator Salvation have allowed the Australian actor to share top billing with Bale, even giving him an above-the-title credit.

Yet nothing here really justifies such hype. Granted, Marcus (a mysterious death-row prisoner who wakes up in the year 2018, having agreed to sign over his body to science upon his execution in 2003) is the film's main character, and, to his credit, Worthington does seem to be trying his hardest, fluctuating American accent and all. But McG gets nothing out of him. There's no spark comparable to fellow Antipodean Hugh Jackman's first scene in X-Men, or Russell Crowe's hard-nut turn in LA Confidential.

That's too bad, because in a movie that has neither the iconic presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Linda Hamilton, Terminator Salvation is sorely in need of something to help sell us on a plot so preposterous it starts to make old-school Bond films look like champions of social realism.

It does almost find a saviour in Anton Yelchin, who plays the young Kyle Reese, John Connor's teenage father who doesn't yet know he's destined to be sent back through time to protect Connor's mother (and father him in the process). Unfortunately, McG ruins his limited screen time by saddling him with a truly terrible sidekick (a mute kid who seems to be able to sense when terminators are about to strike) and a dubious storyline (he's now apparently top of Skynet's hitlist, which will be why when the machines catch and identify him, they lock him up, ready for rescue, rather than, oooh, I dunno, terminating him).

Elsewhere, McG makes a tokenistic effort to honour the strong female focus of the first two films by including a love interest for Marcus in the form of an ass-kicking, meticulously made-up resistance babe called Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood).

He also relegates Bryce Dallas Howard (as Connor's pregnant wife) to little more than a background extra. It's feeble stuff, a load of incompatible parts chop-shopped together to make a rusty blockbuster that actually thinks it has something new to offer. Even the action set-pieces, though, feel like composites of Mad Max 2 and Transformers.

So much for the credibility-restoring resurrection of the franchise then: this feels more like a crucifixion. Let the human resistance start here.