Darker, grimmer and more stylistically single-minded than its two relatively giddy predecessors, “Terminator Salvation” boasts the kind of singular vision that distinguished the James Cameron original, the full-throttle kinetics of “Speed” and an old-fashioned regard for human (and humanoid) heroics. Only pic’s relentlessly doomsday tone — accessorized by helmer McG’s grimy, gun-metal palette — might keep auds from flocking like lemmings to the apocalypse. The fourth in the celebrated sci-fi series, “Salvation” opens and closes with humanity at war with the machines. In other words, this thing isn’t going to end soon. Nor should it, if it keeps on like this.
McG, whose segue from music vids to movies resulted in two “Charlie’s Angels” extravaganzas and the woeful “We Are Marshall,” exhibits an unexpected flair for the dreadful, abrupt and awesome. What we get here — which was perhaps missing on the relatively sunny mental landscapes of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” — is a sense of real horror: When humans are snatched up like Cheez-Doodles by skyscraper-sized Go-bots, there’s no slo-mo relief or stalling. Stuff happens as it might were the world actually overtaken by demonic appliances.
Christian Bale, playing the “prophesized leader of the Resistance” John Connor, may have traded in the Batman body armor for “Road Warrior”-style outerwear, but one thing hasn’t changed: He is, once again, a movie star playing second fiddle. Heath Ledger stole “The Dark Knight” away from him and Sam Worthington (who will appear in Cameron’s “Avatar” this Christmas) heists “Terminator Salvation” from Bale, for the most ironical of reasons: In a movie that poses man against machine, Worthington’s cyborg is the far more human character.
As a steel-beaded logo of Warner Bros. fades away, Marcus (Worthington), on death row for an unexplained crime, gets an 11th-hour visit from Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), who wears the headscarf and pallor of a terminal cancer patient. She wants Marcus’ body — literally. She wants to turn him into a cyborg.
Wracked with guilt, resigned to his execution, Marcus agrees to sign the release in exchange for a kiss. “So that’s what death tastes like,” he says, as she leaves him to his lethal injection.
This is not your governator’s “Terminator.”
Bale, meanwhile, playing the adult version of the hero-to-be portrayed by Edward Furlong (“Terminator 2) and Nick Stahl (“Terminator 3”), is as purposeful and furious as anyone played by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Robert Patrick. One suspects he’s been studying Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2,” although — let’s face it — this is serious business. It’s 2018. Skynet — the “aware” machine — has all but accomplished its self-appointed mission of destroying the threat of people.
But pockets of rebellion continue to operate even if, as in the case of a charred and rubble-strewn Los Angeles, the local contingent consists of just two kids: Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and the mute/cute Star (Jadagrace).
Kyle — given a slightly geeky and perfectly plausible portrayal by Yelchin (“Star Trek”) — will grow up to father John Connor after being sent into the past to meet Sarah Connor (if you haven’t followed the “Terminator” time line, this is no time to be catching up).
Thus, he has to be preserved. So does John, given that it’s been predicted since 1984 that he’ll be the one to save the world. There’s a lot at stake.
McG’s direction is always intelligent. (He does seem to have a thing for “The Great Escape,” which is referenced several times.) The script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris occasionally goes off the rails. Certainly, their insertion of an existential dilemma for Marcus — “I need to find out who did this to me,” he says, his chrome-plated plumbing having been exposed to the open air — feels very late-inning.
And the obligatory borrowing from the previous movies (“Come with me if you want to live,” “I’ll be back …”) tend to upset the mood created within McG’s bleached-out world, which is very deliberate and doesn’t need the comic relief.
There are great bits though: The thrashing, centipede-like, killer-snake thingie, which has the personality of a wolverine, is a neat invention. So are the biker Terminators, which molt like malignant pinecones off their towering mother ‘bot. A Schwarzenegger lookalike — it isn’t clear whether it’s the ex-actor CGI’d or a complete fabrication — is funny, but in this case apt.
Production values are enormous, especially d.p. Shane Hurlbut’s work and the visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic, Asylum, Pacific Title and Art Studio, and Matte World Digital.