Stripping the science fiction series to its essentials and returning humanistic characters to its core, the latest Hollywood rehash—Terminator Salvation—succeeds on every level. Directed by McG (that’s his name), who directed the powerful sports drama, We Are Marshall, this movie’s an action-packed thriller about a band of rogue individualists uniting against a mechanical stand-in for a slave state.
They do it with brains, not brawn, with an emphasis on life—as against the nihilism underlying most movies in this horror-driven sci-fi genre. Humanity’s legendary savior, John Connor, is played by grim-faced Christian Bale, who is fine, though upstaged by Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright, a man with a criminal past and a questionable future. In plot layer after layer, Terminator Salvation is his story.
As in We Are Marshall, McG is impeccable in using small, subtle details to show that man masters the machine and gives it meaning, featuring antiquated cassette tapes, keypads, and helicopters in post-apocalyptic 2018, when the faceless bureaucracy Skynet has destroyed civilization by misusing machines as a weapon against man. One by one, man, woman and child unite against mighty machines that imprison humans in mechanized camps intended for mass extermination.
Past Terminator pictures expressed an anti-technology theme. McG uses the fourth movie as a springboard for warning against tyranny, not against technology as such. In isolated moments of human connection—an old woman’s generosity; a man’s helping hand, contrasted with an independent woman’s soft landing; a radio broadcast urging listeners to fight that which targets the individual—with each representing the human spirit, McG sets the parts in motion. His Terminator never lets up.
This is predictable, and therefore somewhat anti-climactic, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Mrs. John Connor is woefully miscast, but there’s masterful filmmaking here in strong, fiercely American archetypes. When the humans first bond, Connor’s teen-aged father in tow, and escape the indestructibly motorized killing machines, the action moves breathtakingly toward a half-demolished bridge. In scene after scene, the thuds and creaks all but scoop you out of the seat into a sense of awe—not at the horror, for a change, but at the men and women who come at the bastards again and again and again.
They have simple names like Blair, Star, and Kyle and they bring passion to the cause of man. Testing and applying John Connor’s theory about disconnecting the enemy weak spot, the resistance infiltrates the enemy compound at San Francisco—teeming with enslaved humans and militarized to the hilt—until the movie sort of peters out with a return to series form in a factory with the usual one on one contest between man and machine—and a thoroughly foreseeable ending.
But with an excellent cast, especially Worthington and Eight Below’s Moon Bloodgood once again as a pilot, and McG’s lighting, overhead shots and juxtapositions—desert silence, the sound of a lone, buzzing rotor and a series of screams, no jerky cameras or indistinguishable action—Terminator Salvation posits an Iron Giant-like theme that, in times of desperation, when some people will believe anything they are told, man can be saved—all one has to do, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff, is think.