There may be hope yet for Terminator. Eviscerated and left at death’s door by the 2003 sequel that shall not be named, the franchise has been resurrected in this summer’s Terminator Salvation. Technically a prequel, the fourth film is set in 2018, more than three decades after we first came to fear the sentient machine known as SkyNet.
In this post-apocalyptic world, we meet an adult John Connor, played with gritty intensity by Christian Bale. This John, though, is not the leader of the human resistance as long predicted throughout Terminator lore. That role is shared by a submarine-bound group of American, Russian, and Chinese military leaders led by the scarred and grizzled General Ashdown (the always bad-ass Michael Ironside). John is just a battalion leader, whom the generals regard as a dangerously cavalier, if effective and somewhat necessary, foot soldier.
When the mysterious Marcus Wright (hunky quasi-newcomer Sam Worthington) arrives on the scorched scene in 2018, it is in the way we have learned to expect: alone, crouched, and in serious need of some leather pants. After liberating a pair from a recently fallen Resistance fighter, he is rescued by and forms a bond with a saucer-eyed 17-year old boy named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and his mute young charge (Jadagrace Berry).
Through several twists of fate—and gunfights, car chases and explosions—our two heroes meet. And although they are mistrustful of one another, they share the same goal: find and protect Kyle Reese.
It’s great to see the action back in a big way in this outing. With McG (director of Charlie’s Angels’ 2000 reboot) at the helm, it’s like a two-hour video game where the explosions actually happen for a reason. The special effects aren’t groundbreaking but are unobtrusive and always in service of the thick plot. In the one scene where CGI is used as a “no-effing-way” parlor trick, the magic is thankfully more Harry Houdini than Criss Angel.
There are also a handful of homage scenes that diehard fans will appreciate. The semi-truck/flying-machine/Moto-Terminator chase pays real tribute to the best of the past films (see T2’s semi-truck/moped/Harley chase; DON’T see T3’s interminable semi-truck/fire-engine/minivan chase). And when John boosts and rewires one of those Moto-Terminators—to the strains of Guns ‘N’ Roses “You Should Be Mine,” no less—he momentarily reminds us of the punk kid who tricked out ATM machines.
More than anything, though, it is the very mission to save Kyle Reese that makes this film a worthy addition to the Terminator storyline. Yelchin’s Kyle—with his childlike faith in the faltering Resistance, unassuming willingness to risk his skin for others, and yes, those heartbreakingly enormous green eyes—is a boy worth saving. He is the other side of the coin to Eddie Furlong’s tough-yet-vulnerable, wisecracking John Connor in T2…and the perfect antidote to Nick Stahl’s drug-addicted, whiny rendition in T3.
Worthington, too, delivers a solid performance—in spite of his American-no-Aussie-no-American accent troubles—as a man trying to find out why he is what he is. It’s a performance that is, interestingly, not quite as robotic as Schwarzenegger’s but never fully human, either. Even Bale’s raw-nerve overacting, along with a beautiful but boring turn by the breathtaking Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s wife, Kate, are enough to keep us in mind of the flawed but earnest humanity that’s been fought for since a waitress named Sarah Connor shouldered her first shotgun.
While this film is certainly no match for James Cameron’s canonized sacred tomes, it does succeed in re-infusing the whole affair with the heart that was sorely lacking in the last installment. From Sarah’s epic love reaching past the grave in the way of recorded letters to her son, to the specter of hope presented by Kate’s bulging midsection, to the film’s final moments, centered around a literal heart, Terminator Salvation reminds us why we fragile humans continue to rage against the machines.