If 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was a rare sequel that improved upon its predecessor and gained iconic status in pop culture in the subsequent years after its release, then 2003’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was regarded as a bump in the road for the franchise, a mixed bag that left many fans hoping the it could be salvaged in the future.
Six years after the release of “T3,” here is “Terminator Salvation,” complete with a new star, a new director, and for that matter, a new direction.
Director McG (“We Are Marshall,” 2006) takes the helm from “T3” director Jonathan Mostow, who had the unenviable task of replacing “Terminator” creator and director of the first two films, James Cameron.
Given where the story picks up, it would have been nearly impossible to capture the spirit of Cameron’s films no matter who was directing.
First, a quick rundown on the history of Terminator:
A supercomputer system known as Skynet becomes self-aware and launches a global attack on mankind, aka Judgment Day. But as the human survivors, led by John Connor, get close to victory, the machines send Terminators back in time to kill first John’s mother Sarah, and then John himself. Those missions fail.
Judgment Day was supposed to happen in 1997, got delayed until 2004, and “Salvation” picks up in 2018, in the middle of the war between the machines the Resistance.
Christian Bale, fresh off his success as Batman in last summer’s “The Dark Knight,” is out to save another franchise, as he plays John Connor. Bale, as Connor, is nothing short of a complete bad-ass. Connor has fully realized his potential as leader of the human race, and will stop at nothing to ensure victory. It’s almost a complete 180-degree difference from Nick Stahl’s turn as Connor in “T3,” where he was still unsure of destiny, and was apprehensive of accepting his future.
The meat and potatoes of the plot involves a teenage Kyle Reese, played by Anton Yelchin (“Alpha Dog,” 2006) getting captured by a giant Harvester Terminator and sent to Skynet Headquarters in San Francisco.
Connor must find Reese, because, as we learned in the first film, Reese is Connor’s father. So it is critical to save him. But Connor must also contend with a man named Marcus Wright.
Wright, played by Sam Worthington, whom Cameron recommended for the role while directing him in his upcoming film “Avatar,” carries a secret that even he does not know about, and he and Connor become friends/enemies from their first encounter to the film’s climax.
There’s a mini love story that brews between Wright and Resistance fighter pilot Blair (Moon Bloodgood, “What Just Happened,” 2008), but it comes off as a little awkward, and besides, in McG’s “Terminator,” there’s not a lot of time for emotional story lines. Connor is married to his wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Spider-Man 3,” 2007), who is pregnant, but their time on screen in minimal.
Which is not to say that the lack of heart in “Salvation” is a hindrance. “T2” was that rare combination of action and heart, a fatherless, preteen Connor becoming attached to a T-800 robot, and vice-versa.
But “Salvation” also does away with some of the tongue in cheek humor of “T3,” and in that sense returns to the tone of the first one. It is a cold, ruthless film that doesn’t have anything to distract itself from its purpose. Kind of like a Terminator.
Connor doesn’t have the same mind set that he did in “T2.” He has instead adopted his mother’s untrusting nature of anything made up of metal.
Bale’s performance is strong, but he is matched by Worthington. The two of them should get equal billing in this one.
What is obvious about Salvation from the other films is that in the other ones, Sarah and John were either running from the Terminators, or running to prevent Judgment Day from happening.
In Salvation, there is no more running. The war is here. The fight is finally on. It doesn’t deal with any more time travel paradoxes. It doesn’t deal in hypotheticals. For the first time, “Terminator” is more of a summer action movie than a science fiction thriller, which is OK.
Speaking of action, the special effects are a treat. Harvesters, motorcycle-like Terminators and the familiar T-800 models are all here. The chase scene with the Harvester is flat out entertaining, and the final battle at Skynet Headquarters is a lengthy but intense one.
Danny Elfman composed the music, and despite his iconic scores in “Batman” and ‘The Simpsons,” his style doesn’t quite feel right here. This is where it may have been better if things had stayed the same. Brad Fiedel, composer of the first two films, is missed because that’s what “Terminator” is supposed to sound like.
What about Arnold? After all, he is the Terminator, right? Let’s just say hardcore fans will have to take what they are given when it comes to his role in this one.
Going forward, Terminator fans should realize that yes, James Cameron and his vision is his gone, but that doesn’t have to mean the end of mankind. They don’t have to lower their expectations to enjoy this new direction, they just have to adjust them.
“Terminator Salvation” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, as well as language. It has a running time of 109 minutes.
My Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5.