It all began with such a clever idea: A man sent from the future to protect a woman from a robot (also) sent from the future, for she will (one day) be the mother of the man who saves the world. I'm convinced that it was this very cool concept that elevated James Cameron's The Terminator beyond that of simple action / sci-fi films, and the director did an admirable job of keeping his temporal plates spinning when he delivered T2: Judgment Day a few years later. Latecomer Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines worked well enough as an unnecessary but flashy placeholder (that ended with one hell of a kick), which brings us to ... now. After a lengthy series of owners and rights shifts, the Terminator franchise is back and under the firm directorial hand of ... McG. Really?
The guy who did both of those lightweight Charlie's Angels flicks is building on a house designed by James Cameron? Well, one (and by "one," I mean "I") must admit that those Angel movies had some pretty flashy action scenes, so that helps, but then one thinks back to the original Terminator to recall ... it wasn't just the action scenes that made that flick so great!
Remember that one very cool flashback scene from the original Terminator? The one with the tanks and explosions and skulls all over the place that explained how humanity became doomed and robotics went haywire? Great, because Terminator Salvation is pretty much a feature-length version of that flashback sequence. Only, ironically, not nearly as interesting.
Wedged strangely into a franchise that doesn't seem to fit is the normally excellent Christian Bale, cast here as the gruff and gloomy John Connor, the man who will rally humanity to victory in the war against the machines. It's destined, fated, prophecized AND foretold, so that's pretty much that for tension and such. John has a gorgeous pregnant doctor wife, but everyone else seems to have a rather miserable existence, hiding underground from robots in 2018 and all. But one mission into a massive robot lair yields an interesting discovery: A new-fangled cyborg who looks and sounds just like a human! The flick's drab and anemic script does all it can to make this revelation some sort of surprise, but they do a lazy job of it ... plus we know how the series works, don't forget. The Terminator came out 25 years ago.
Which gives us a poor guy who wanders the desolate landscape, completely unaware that he's a robot, and he happens to come across a youth called Kyle Reese, and KYLE, you see, as played by Michael Biehn in the first film, is the guy destined to....
Ugh, never mind. That's way too much plot synopsis for a movie that delivers next to nothing in the originality department. Bottom line(s): Bale snagged a quick (large) paycheck for this gig, and it shows in just about every scene. He's a glum and dour presence whether he's giving speeches into a microphone, bellowing about the evil of the robots that, um, we created, or wheezing his way thorough another ill-advised Clint Eastwood impersonation. (Christian, use your own voice, man.) Sam Worthington gives a halfway interesting performance as a robot who thinks he's a man until he learns otherwise and reacts angrily. As Kyle, Anton Yelchin leaves about as much of an impression as he did two weeks ago in Star Trek. (Sadly, not much.)
When it sticks to the lengthy and lunatic action scenes, there's a hint of a pulse and purpose to Terminator Salvation. Unfortunately we can get that sort of stuff in any action flick playing cable at this very second. What one expects (or hey, demands) from a Terminator film is some sort of unconventional cleverness, a nifty tweak on fatalism, or (at the very least) Arnold Schwarzenegger in dark glasses. T4 has none of those things, offering in their place a Road Warrior veneer and some exceedingly elaborate punches, chases, and explosions. As mindless summertime matinee fodder for a particularly bored group of teenagers, I suppose you could do worse. Then again, those kids could go home and watch The Terminator and see what happens when a movie really works for two hours. And then spawns three progressively lamer sequels.