Both warning and advertisement, the Terminator films are technophobic teases, selling tickets by promising this decade's new model of killing machine: the classic V8 1984 Schwarzenegger; the streamlined, liquid-metal '91 Robert Patrick of T2: Judgment Day; Kristanna Loken's 2003 T-X (with burgundy pleather upholstery) in T3: Rise of the Machines.
Terminator Salvation, a departure in many ways, is the first Terminator with no upgrade. The hardware is clanky and runs on diesel. Schwarzenegger is present only as a CGI mask. The franchise's creation myth—the toppling of humanity by Skynet computers—has finally come to pass by 2018. Christian Bale's John Connor is a maverick officer in the human Resistance. Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright, last he remembers, donated his body to Cyberdyne before a lethal injection. He wakes to a blasted world, carrying a plot twist familiar to anyone who knows her Philip K. Dick.
To hear director McG tell it, his film is nothing less than Terminator Salvage, a mission to "re-establish credibility" with moviegoers. The obvious models are Chris Nolan's Batmans. McG, who started off directing videos for frosted-tip bro bands, is stripping down and getting "dark." He's stricken color from the screen, and the visuals reference a checklist of 20th-century catastrophes: Worthington, in a Soviet-issue greatcoat, walks a Dresdened L.A.; oil-field fires à la Kuwait darken the horizon; human tissue is harvested in Holocaust-like cattle-car roundups. There's even a bit of contemporary commentary—"We are not machines, and if we behave like them, then what's the point in winning?"—that industrial-filmmaking liberals honestly believe alchemize entertainment into Art, like lead into gold.
Change was inevitable, since the established Terminator formula has been squeezed dry in the Fox network's The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But among the many things junked in McG's chop shop is the notion of pleasure: The director describes cutting that "gratuitous moment of a girl taking her top off in an action picture" (God forbid) to get a franchise-first PG-13. He does, however, begin his film with the hook of Worthington clammily kissing a vampire-complexioned, bald-pated Helena Bonham Carter. But unlike T3 director Jonathan Mostow, who was trained on submarine and trucking thrillers, McG doesn't understand that he is covering a greasy headbanger classic, not writing scripture.
Salvation rolls along with Wright on the road, traveling toward Resistance radio transmissions. T4 does honor the series' paranoid momentum (The Terminator actually had more in common with the implacable, unstoppable slasher pic than sci-fi mythos), and the action set pieces, cut with overdone hectic percussion, are engaging enough. It's when Wright and Connor intersect—trekking to strike at Skynet's Silicon Valley nerve center, which looks to be somewhere between Mordor and the Port of Houston—that the movie slackens, with McG tugging at emotional connections he's never established.
The Terminators have always respected female durability, from commando-mom Linda Hamilton to T3's intimation of masculine obsolescence, with effeminized Arnold modeling a pair of Elton John sunglasses. Salvation is comparatively anti-girl. Moon Bloodgood's character, a pilot, is introduced shaking a luxuriant mane loose from her flight helmet, making a Jennifer Beals-in-Flashdance shocka out of something the preceding movies took for granted. She'll later face an arbitrarily staged menace from yee-hawing redneck, would-be rapists. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Connor's wife, is here just to set up the all-time most convoluted "I'll be back."
But the essential problem here isn't the ladies—or the lack thereof. It's the no-frissons Bale-Worthington pairing. Bale is a lesson in how clenched effort does not equal effect. Worthington, half-burying his Aussie accent under gruff bluff, is of the blunt Jason Statham-Daniel Craig genus. These Commonwealthers are dull trudgers all—can we get a tariff?
Judgment Day alloyed pathos and explosions by matching Arnold's impassivity with Eddie Furlong's dolorous, silent-film reaction shots; for those of a certain age, it's impossible to remember the sentimental gambit of that final thumbs-up without getting misty. Salvation, terminally gray, all macho bark, doesn't do contrasts. This means monotony—as predictable as McG telling an interviewer, after the movie tanks, that it was "too dark" for the multiplex.