May 28, 2009

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Terminator Salvation (PG-13)
Christian Bale leads the surviving humans in the fight against the robots and Skynet in Terminator Salvation, a surprisingly ponderous and unfun fourth installment in the Terminator franchise.

Finally John Connor (Christian Bale) is becoming the leader of the human resistance that three previous movies and one TV show have been telling us he’s going to be In the Future. Well, that future is now — 2018 to be specific — and clearly getting blown up by a sentient computer network has not made humanity very fun-loving. Instead, most of the able-bodied adults are grumpily fighting the red-eyed terminators sent out by Skynet to destroy the remains of the human race and the rest of the people are hiding in dirty hiding places.

John Connor is not yet the official leader of the resistance but he is its public face (or, rather, voice with his Churchillian speeches people hear via radio) and he is respected and beloved by his troops. Perhaps this is why John Connor is number two on the Skynet to-do list of humans that need killing. Who is number one, he asks? A teenager by the name of Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who some 10 years from now (or 25 years ago, depending on how you look at it), will be sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and to father a child by her who will become John Connor. Which means that even though he doesn’t quite look old enough to shave, he’s about to become a grandpa as Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), John’s wife, is pregnant.

As John Connor searches for his squeaky-voiced dad, Kyle is actually headed to Skynet in the company of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who is himself something of a blast from the past. Back in our present, he was a death row inmate who willed his body — post-execution — to science. He wakes up realizing that he was dead but not sure what he is now and wants to go to San Francisco and what is now Skynet to find answers. And because every movie needs scrappy supporting characters, Marcus teams up with Kyle. And because a group of scrappy supporting characters needs a kid to put in peril, Kyle is protecting the sad-eyed little girl named Star (Jadagrace). And because anti-heroes like Marcos need a human side, he gets a girlfriend-type in the form of Blair (Moon Bloodgood), who is badass and would have made a good central character in a different movie, one where we didn’t have to give a damn about the various Connors and their melodrama.

Not that I gave a damn about them in this movie. John Connor is by far the least interesting character in this movie (if you don’t include his wife, who gets all of maybe six lines). Perhaps the only interesting scenes with him in them are ones where he’s listening to a cassette tape of life lessons left by his mother, Sarah. Bale sits there looking dirty and concerned and all the emotional heft comes from the tape deck. It’s a good arrangement; it’s too bad the movie couldn’t have had the disembodied voice of Hamilton act out more of the story.

The Marcus character is the one to watch here. He gets all the existential angst and most of the cool action. In the scenes with him and Blair, you get a sense of what the movie really could have been. They are a fun, cool, sassy couple. They outrun bullets and evade capture and fight off bad guys. Throw a few explosions, robots and a kid in peril into that mix, shave off 45 minutes and you might have had some sleek, explodey summer action fun.

But — other than some nifty computer graphics that will likely give California’s governor a little remember-when thrill — there is very little that is fun about Terminator Salvation. We have to sit through a lot of bleak yakkity yak about how the resistance high command wants to destroy Skynet no matter the human toll but John Connor feels only if they protect humanity is Skynet’s destruction worthwhile. And there’s an exposition-heavy scene between Marcus and a Skynet computer which seems to go on forever and makes less sense the more you think about it. I’m not sure if it’s Bale’s heavy-handed acting or a fundamental flaw in the script or some combination of both plus a desire to keep the option open for a sequel, but the result is a movie that is bleak and silly where it should have been energetic and exciting. If sitting through another iteration of this story is what it means to be human maybe we should just let the robots take over. C-

PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and language. Directed by McG and written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, Terminator Salvation is two hours and 10 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.