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Terminator Salvation

After sending a few Terminators back in time, John Connor has sufficiently messed with his own timeline to give humanity hope. Trying to make sense of it, however, can only make viewers' heads hurt, and that's without trying to figure out if The Sarah Connor Chronicles should count as canon.

Terminator Salvation would rather your head not hurt, and so Director McG and screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris try to keep things hurtling along so fast you won't notice that their Terminators are better at destroying logic than humanity. Watch all the action and ignore the huge plot holes.

Ironically, this is the first installment in the franchise that doesn't do any time-traveling at all, and thus should be the most straightforward. At its heart, it even offers up an intriguing viewpoint or two. First, we've never really seen the tactical genius that John Connor (Christian Bale) promised to become, only the scared young man of the second and third films.

Topping that off, Brancato and Ferris show the development of a new hybrid, in the form of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). Built like a Terminator but possessing the soul of his past life, Marcus awakens in 2018 after being executed in 2003. He knows he's been out of it for a while, but has a hard time processing what exactly happened.

The movie starts off promisingly, with a pre-apocalyptic Marcus agreeing to turn his body over to science. He's committed some sort of murder that immediately filled him with regret, probably fratricide. Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), herself dying of cancer, seems to believe that she can resurrect Marcus for the greater good of CyberDyne.

It's very, very lucky that the company was working on this kind of technology at the same time it was developing SkyNet.

When Terminator Salvation jumps forward to post-Judgment Day, it splits its time between Marcus' awakening in a new world and Connor's trying to establish himself as the messianic leader of the Resistance. Actually, it's unclear how Connor feels about that role; Bale grimaces a lot - a lot - but never delves very deep into what it means to have that weight on his shoulders.

And that feels like the greatest loss in this film. It's got its own look, harshly bright yellows and browns where James Cameron made his glimpses of the future steely blue. The action scenes course with cleverness and urgency. There's just nothing underneath.

Connor listens to tapes from the past (Linda Hamilton re-recording and expanding on dialogue from the first two films) and grimaces. Despite being seen by most of the Resistance as a savior, Connor gets ignored by the actual military leader General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) and grimaces. After surviving a raid on a SkyNet facility, Connor sees his pregnant wife Kate (a wasted Bryce Dallas Howard) and grimaces. Yet only he and Kate seem to know about the tapes, and truly understand that he does know what was to come.

From the other perspective, we also get young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), dreaming of joining the Resistance while fighting for his own survival in Los Angeles. He rescues Marcus from a T-600, a recognizable endoskeleton that inexplicably wears clothes but not skin. (For those not in the know, the Arnold Schwarzenegger model was a T-800.)

Reese, of course, has a greater role to play, and there should be some tension with his journeying with Marcus. Instead, they lose each other and Marcus gains a new guide in the form of pilot Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood). She offers us hope that even if we won't have things like, well, hope, we'll still have supermodels.

Anything more would just spoil the plot and its gigantic holes, and in truth, McG should get his due. The man knows how to push the right buttons to please the crowd. Several sequences pay off in visceral thrills, even if it doesn't all quite add up intellectually. For good or ill, he's also very much a student of film history, nodding to earlier Terminators and lifting shots out of movies that have influenced him - just as he did in the Charlie's Angels movies.

It's a fine line. Quentin Tarantino does the same thing in his work and gets hailed as a genius, but he mostly references crappy films from his childhood. At least McG steals from the best. He even throws in a mute little girl in homage to Newt from Aliens, proving that yes, he does love the work of James Cameron and only wants to add to it.

He's also made some great choices in his actors. Yelchin has a feral hero-worship going on that you can easily see growing into the soulful obsessiveness of Michael Biehn. Bale, of course, commands the screen, but again isn't offered much of a chance to do anything. Making a pretty strong splash, Worthington has likability, charisma and the physique for us to root for him as a hero, though he does have trouble keeping his accent from slipping into its native Australian.

And there again, McG has a weakness. He knows good actors. He just doesn't seem to know what to do with them. Below those three main characters, everyone else might as well have been as unexpressive as Schwarzenegger when he did the first film. Howard has nothing to do but look concerned. Bonham Carter looks terminal. Interesting character actors like Common and former NEA head Jane Alexander barely even register.

Maybe a lot of scenes got cut for time in favor of making sure this moved briskly. It sure feels like something's missing, both in performances and sudden intuitive leaps for characters. Maybe there's a deeper film waiting for me on Special Edition DVD.

What made this a franchise worth exploring - and exploiting - was how it took what seemed like a shallow popcorn premise and made it unexpectedly thought-provoking. Twice. We can debate the third. But this fourth installment seems like a Terminator itself - it looks and acts like something we should trust, but underneath, it's cold and soulless. But it's also probably unstoppable.


Derek McCaw

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