James Cameron’s 1984 hit The Terminator now feels more like an ’80s B movie than the influential sci-fi classic it truly is. Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is still a solid candidate for Greatest Action Movie of All Time. The belated Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was uneven but still exciting. Now, Charlie’s Angels director McG, no one’s first choice to continue the Terminator franchise, gives us a surprisingly impressive thrill machine.
Salvation begins in 2003, the year the previous sequel took place, for an intriguing prologue that introduces pivotal new characters and shows the Skynet company partaking in a creepy experiment. We’re then thrust into a battle-weary vision of the future, where killer robots are winning the war against humanity and only John Conner (played this time by Christian Bale) knows the secret to saving mankind. With its stunning air battles, mile-wide explosions and epic scope, this resembles a futuristic Apocalypse Now and visually brings to mind Mad Max, War of the Worlds and Bale’s own Reign of Fire, but also respectfully references the prior Terminator movies in ways that made the packed audience cheer loudly. McG may not be another Cameron, but he has made a compelling summer movie.
A new character with hidden motives named Marcus Wright is played by Sam Worthington, in a highly touted starring role debut. Worthington also stars in Cameron’s Avatar (out this December) and is more than adequate here, though this isn’t a household name-making turn. Bale’s intense performance sometimes feels like self-parody (you hear him occasionally slip into his Batman voice), but he’s such a compelling actor, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Bryce Dallas Howard does a lot with a role so thinly defined, the movie never bothers to make clear that she’s playing Claire Danes’ T3 role. Anton Yelchin, currently stealing scenes as Chekhov in Star Trek, plays a young Kyle Reese, who was portrayed by Michael Biehn in the first movie; Yelchin perfectly mimics Biehn’s vocal style and jittery posture.
Despite the PG-13 rating, fans seeking carnage on the level of the first three installments will have nothing to complain about, though non-fans will feel left out and should brush up on their Terminator knowledge before seeing this one.
As the first chapter of a proposed trilogy, this a great start for the series; I’m intrigued by the possibilities. Another nice touch is the genuine closure at the film’s end: trilogy or not, Salvation concludes with a real ending and not a cliffhanger cheat. MTW