Terminator Salvation (2009)

Long bot summer…

Reading the Internet buzz about Terminator Salvation – which, if you’re a film fan of any degree, has been impossible to ignore – it seems that the movie has been inviting popular enthusiasm but critical apathy. McG’s bold, brash addition to the seminal sci-fi franchise is one of those films that appeals to the masses, but leaves the professional reviewers cold; that it’s both described as a ‘confused, humourless grind’ by Anthony Lane of the New Yorker and an ‘awesome movie’ by filmgoer Philip P on reviews website Metacritic highlights this massive gulf. Of course, it’s all a matter of opinion, and in the opinion of this reviewer Terminator Salvation is neither a grind nor awesome. Instead, as a bombastic big-budget blockbuster it does exactly what it says on the tin

The year is 2018, and humanity has been virtually decimated by the Judgement Day nuclear attacks by Skynet, the artificial intelligence network that has become fatally self-aware. A small pocket of human resistors, led by John Connor (Christian Bale), resolutely fight against Skynet’s killing machines, the Terminators, struggling to survive in the barren wasteland that once was Earth. But when Connor learns just what Skynet is planning for its next generation of Terminators, the fight suddenly becomes far more personal – particularly with the appearance of the mysterious Marcus (Sam Worthington), a man who may symbolise the next generation in the fight of man versus machine.

Terminator Salvation is loud. Very loud. So loud that most of the characters have to shout to be heard. But, hell, this is the apocalypse and one wouldn’t expect the end of mankind to happen with a whisper. This is a gritty, dirty fight for survival against some truly terrifying machines, and it not only sounds frantic but it looks it too; cinematographer Shane Hurlbut’s shadowy, muted lensing brilliantly depicts a future that is far from bright.

So what of Bale? He is, undoubtedly, one of his generation’s finest actors but this is not one of his best films. And that’s nothing to do with his ability; he absolutely becomes John Connor, yet his aggressive, desperate performance has nothing of the brooding intensity of Bruce Wayne or even Patrick Bateman. Despite the fact that Connor is the last remaining hope for humanity’s survival, the film does not demand much more of him than to shout orders, look grimly determined and be extremely, muscularly brave. No, Terminator Salvation doesn’t belong to Bale, solid as he is. It’s his co-stars Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin who drive the narrative, and much of the action.

As the young Kyle Reese, a man central to the fate of Connor and, by extension, the whole of mankind, Anton Yelchin is – as he was as Chekov in JJ Abrams’ recent Star Trek reboot – poised, believable and enthusiastic, proving that the 20-year-old actor is more than strong enough to hold his own in the midst of a mega-franchise. But it’s Worthington who is the most intriguing of them all, his portrayal of the tortured Marcus being both visually impressive and, at times, deeply moving. He manages to capture the two deeply opposing aspects of his character, and one can really understand just why he comes to embody both the hopes and fears of the resistance.

But, despite the fact that Marcus throws up some interesting psychological questions of identity, self-awareness and the true nature of humanity – ‘The difference between us and the machines is that we bury our dead’, offers Reese, although hopefully there’s a bit more too it than that – these are subjects only briefly touched upon. McG has not intended his film to be a complex treatise on the dangers of technological evolution, or even a serious warning about a possible future. No, this is big-screen science-fiction in its purest, most vivid form, and the director has overseen the spectacle with a sharp focus and steady hand. He knows that his audience wants to see bigger, badder Terminatorsand he delivers them in spades. They come from land, from sea and from air, they are all shapes and sizes and they are all frightening combinations of machinery, weaponry and single-minded determination to seek and destroy. McG and the team at the Stan Winston studios certainly grabbed modern film-making techniques by the balls when it came to designing the ‘bots; they look fantastic, they sound fantastic and they interact flawlessly with their live action environment. They are, in short, terrifying.

Terminator Salvation isn’t high art, it isn’t intended to inspire debate and it isn’t a cinematic masterpiece. But, as far as summer tentpoles go it’s pretty darn great, a non-stop actioner that is likely to dominate at the box office no matter what those hard-to please critics might say. So see it and enjoy it for what it is; an explosive, exhilarating, entertaining summer blockbuster that could well be the kick-off for a whole new trilogy.

4 stars

Stars Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director McG
Screenplay John D Brancanto & Michael Ferris
Certificate 12A
Distributor Columbia Pictures
Running Time 1hr 55mins
Opening Date June 3