If movies indeed tap into the zeitgeist, Terminator Salvation, director McG’s grim reboot of the 25-year-old man vs. machine franchise, speaks to a demographic in awfully low spirits. Will this relentless, episodic slog through post-apocalyptic drear, punched up by paroxysms of extreme violence, deliver at the box office and resurrect the Terminator series (sequels are already in the works)?
Set in 2018, after nuclear Judgment Day, Salvation‘s ruined world has been leached of all color and signs of life. The days are steeped in sickly beige-brown, the noirish nights drenched in rain. Hunted down by machines of assorted shapes and sizes, the few remaining humans, always starkly lighted, resemble gaunted concentration-camp survivors stripped of any expression but a reflexive hunger to stay alive. (“We’re in the cattle car now,” despairs a fellow picked by an Ã¼ber-machina transporter.)
Lock-jawed Christian Bale plays grizzled resistance messiah John Connor as if programmed to project nothing but single-minded rage laced with unstoppable courage. Happily, Connor’s unlikely brother-in-arms (Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, soon to star in James Cameron’s Avatar), a convicted killer reformatted by Cyberdyne, occasionally permits himself a welcome break from the stoic mode. On screen more and longer than Bale, permitted to act human once in a while, Worthington, like homeboy Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, steals the film away from Bale. Call it minimalist charisma.
So here’s the rub: if you’re making a film about a cosmic struggle between men and machines for dominion of the earth, the question of what makes human beings valuable, special, worth saving, is crucial. In Salvation, there’s no punch–no flesh and blood–to that question. ClichÃ©s like “We bury our dead” are trotted out, but Salvation never jacks us into the psyches of the non-machines we should be rooting for. The film’s emotional oxygen is so thin that the protagonists don’t seem wholly there; they’re “types” cloned from the headier worlds of Cameron’s two Terminators, Mad Max, the Aliens franchise, Battlestar Galactica, and even TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
The earlier Terminator movies pulsed with vivid characters you cared about. You ached for them to survive, and viscerally hated the cold, hard “things” that kept coming after them. In Salvation, SkyNet’s nasty mechanized “watersnakes” are more animated than humankind’s savior and his tribe.
Worthington’s Marcus gets visually “crucified” twice over, once during his execution by lethal injection and later when hung in chains by Connor’s troops. On a very superficial level, he’s meant to signify a kind of dual-natured Christ. A being who believes himself to be human, he has no reason to think he isn’t until, wounded, he finds metal under his skin. But Salvation never dials up Marcus’ agony, or registers how the man who discovers he’s a Judas goat might be ripped apart, choosing between good and evil, fallible flesh and godlike machinery.
Battlestar Galactica (third-millennium version) made us share in the tragic dilemma of Cylons who “grew up” human. We empathized with their pain, their shattering crises of identity–maybe because, deep down in our lizard brains, we’re a little freaked by the possibility that our next evolutionary step might be to literally internalize our motherboards, erasing any distinction between organic and artificial consciousness. The groundbreaking TV show went so radical it married man and machine, creating an Adam and Eve for the future. Lacking anything like that kind of brave imagination, Salvation votes for Marcus’ deus ex machina to insure that Connor’s messiah stays all he-man.
He-man because Terminator Salvation pretty much leaves women out of the big picture. Gorgeous Moon Bloodgood (TV’s Journeyman) drops in briefly as a resistance fighter rescued by Marcus; and A-Lister Jane Alexander literally gets plucked out of the film–by an iron giant–moments after she delivers her one portentous line. (Had McG screened the 1983 Testament, in which the actress delivered a stunning performance, he might have learned something about how to make ordinary humans come alive as they suffer through a post-nuclear nightmare.) In a franchise that features a warrior madonna at its heart (see the formidable Linda Hamilton as well as TV’s darkly ferocious Lena Headey), Salvation has nothing better to offer than a stay-at-home mom, Connor’s pregnant wife (Bryce Dallas Howard), given the thankless task of staring mournfully at him leaving–or dying. For McG, it’s all about the boys.
And speaking of boys and their toys, Salvation gives great, soulless CGI. But neither of the big set pieces–a spectacular, is-it-never-gonna-end? chase and the climactic battle between a T-800 and our heroes–comes anywhere near the awe-inspiring mash-ups in The Road Warrior, or the heart-stopping duel between “mechanized” Sigourney Weaver and the Alien queen, or even the sheer, heartless kinesis of Heath Ledger’s Joker just leaning out of a car window, breathing in the wind of chaos.