For almost three decades, Terminator fans have waited to catch a glimpse of the terrifying war between man and machine first hinted at in James Cameron's devastating original, then added to in its follow-up. When the announcement was made that a fourth installment of this legendary saga would be handled by McG, known primarily for directing the hateful Charlie's Angels films, shudders of fear and disbelief rippled around the world, but somehow, Terminator Salvation is not the disaster that it could have been.
The movie begins in the dying days of man's rule over the earth, with the convicted murderer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signing his body away to science just hours before he is to be executed. When he mysteriously reawakens some 15 years later, everything he knows has been destroyed. It is a time when man has been overthrown and enslaved by machines. A time when pockets of resistance fighters scratch out a dirty, hardscrabble existence. Their only cause for hope is John Connor, the man prophesied to bring an end to the machines' tyranny.
After wandering lost in the unfamiliar new world, Wright reaches Los Angeles and encounters the young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). Although he doesn't look like much, fans of the series will be aware that Reese is the resistance member who will eventually be sent back to 1984 to protect Connor's mother from Schwarzenegger's Terminator and father the saga's hero. Although Yelchin carries a heavy burden, he pulls off a masterful performance, capturing the character's unique mix of world-weariness and naivety.
Not long after the pair meet, they are attacked by a heavily armed machine, the size of a multi-storey car park, which has been snatching up humans. The characters attempt to flee in a pick-up truck, leading to a spectacular chase sequence reminiscent of those in the series' second and third movies. While Reese is captured by the machines, Wright finds himself at resistance HQ, where a battlefield injury reveals to the fighters that there is more to the mysterious character than first meets the eye. Meanwhile, Connor learns that there may be a way to disable the machines' defenses and deliver a blow capable of turning the war in humanity's favour. But the situation becomes more complicated when Wright tells him that Reese - the man who will become his father - would be killed if the planned -attack goes ahead, a move that could erase Connor from history. The film has moments that are both captivating and emotionally resonant, with Worthington successfully taking up the "damaged protector" mantle that belonged to Michael Biehn (as Reese) in the original, and Schwarzenegger in the second and third movies. However, it is not without problems. Although Bale first appears to be well cast as Connor, his performance seems to only focus on the hero's emotionally challenged side and ignores everything else we know about the character. Worse still, almost every (frankly rather hammy) line of dialogue is delivered with a painfully strange growl and a series of uncertain physical tics. The plot is also rather muddled and it feels like every 10 minutes the story is put on hold for a lengthy special-effects sequence. Skynet, the machines' super-brain that is apparently capable of nearly wiping out humanity, reveals itself to be remarkably inefficient at killing, and about as dastardly as a 1960s Bond villain. Even a strong twist in the final movement doesn't really change the fact that Terminator Salvation lacks the wealth of ideas that the first two installments brought. In fact, it's not really about much at all. Despite not living up to Cameron's originals, this fourth film still stands head and shoulders above the series' dire third outing, 2003's Rise of the Machines, which did nothing more than simply rehash the first two movies. The promise of a new Terminator trilogy, capable of matching or even beating the original, seems to have faded in the hands of McG. With its future now in doubt after less than impressive box-office receipts; salvation this is not, but neither is it bad enough to kill off the Terminator franchise completely. Despite its failings, the performances by Yelchin and Worthington are strong. Alongside impressive, albeit slightly overdone, special effects, these turns establish Terminator Salvation as a watchable film. Most importantly though, the film successfully creates the world that fans of the series have yearned to see, though maybe with fewer lasers. In many ways it is not as horrific a place as some might have imagined it could be. But, all things considered, it's still quite an exciting one.