Terminator Salvation

Shane Hurlbut should be proud of his work on Terminator Salvation. Hurlbut, you may or may not recall, was the cinematographer who so displeased star Christian Bale on the set of this latest Terminator film that Bale unleashed an instantly infamous firestorm of invective upon him. Pissing Bale off was worth it, though: the lighting is crisp and organic in a way that few apocalyptic epics (which tend to the blanched and bleak) are anymore. And the director, McG (given name: Joseph McGinty Nichol), stages the action cleanly if not always credibly. Terminator Salvation is an example of high craft in the service of an oppressively dull story.

I’m of the mind that when James Cameron (who directed the first two classic Terminator entries) left the franchise, he took the fun with him. Cameron never seemed to be taking the saga’s doomsday fetish all that seriously — he laid out each set piece with a mischievous cackle. The cackle, and the crackle, have been what’s missing from the series — in 2003’s Terminator: Rise of the Machines and now here. Bale’s John Connor, destined to save what’s left of humanity by leading the resistance against the killer machines, is dour and exhausted; the weight of not only the world but the very future itself lies heavy on his shoulders. We almost forget that this is the same character who, in the person of the prankish Edward Furlong in T2, taught the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) how to smile and give high-fives.

We don’t see even a flicker of that personality in the gloomy adult John. And I feel like saying, Y’know, it’s okay for a dystopian hero to crack a smile every few weeks, or at the very least act as though he has some of the humanity he’s fated to protect. (The more I think back on 1995’s Tank Girl, the more I appreciate it for being perhaps the only post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie that manages to be colorful and perky.) The other humans aren’t all that well fleshed out, either (reminder: Cameron managed to get us to care about his people — this isn’t solely the province of art-house flicks), which is near-fatal in a story that purports to probe the difference between man and machine when the movie introduces a character (Sam Worthington) who’s both.

After The Dark Knight and razor-intense performances in indies like The Machinist and Harsh Times, I would dearly love to see Christian Bale kick back in a movie, relax, wear a Hawaiian shirt or something, hit on girls and laugh a lot. A typical Matthew McConaughey role. Temple-throbbing rage may come a little too easily to Bale (as Shane Hurlbut can attest). Schwarzenegger in his Terminator films was funnier than Bale is here. And Bale has zero rapport with anyone onscreen, as if he had the same irascible, don’t-get-in-my-eyeline relationship with everyone on the set as he did with the cinematographer. If it’s anyone’s movie, it’s probably Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, who will grow up to be Michael Biehn’s character in the first Terminator and go back to 1984 to sire John Connor himself. Yelchin, who’s twenty but still looks sixteen, plays Reese with a useful mix of hard-bitten experience and youthful fear. Reese will, alas, grow up to be as humorless as John Connor, but James Cameron sensibly didn’t ask Reese to anchor The Terminator.

And what is McG, director of the irrepressible Charlie’s Angels movies (I persist in enjoying them immensely; the rest of you will catch up one day), doing at the helm of a clanking gloomcookie like Terminator Salvation? Vestiges of the old McG, a new master of bubbly, fresh-air, gleefully ridiculous action sequences, pop up here and there, mostly in scenes involving robot motorcycles zipping down the highway, swerving around explosions and debris. They’re great fun. Elsewhere it’s the same old shoot-and-bash that Cameron pushed to the limit eighteen years ago and then wisely abandoned. I’m pretty sure of two things: there really shouldn’t be any more Terminator films; and if there are, McG should likewise move on.

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