There’s something to be said about Terminator Salvation being directed by a man called McG. Call me prejudice, but when the name of a film’s director sounds like a new burger offering from McDonalds, it’s hard not to go in expecting ‘junk food’ cinema. You know the type; a big-budget-in-your-face-action-packed blockbuster with an extra layer of cheese. Sure enough, Terminator Salvation is a big-budget-in-your-face-action-packed blockbuster with so much cheese you might as well bring along some crackers. But as with all junk food, no matter how much you know it’s bad for you, you can’t help but enjoy it anyway.
If nothing more, Terminator Salvation is an exhilarating thrill ride from start to end. Much like the previous films, it’s essentially one giant chase scene with a sensory overload of dazzling visual and aural effects. What’s new is that these chase scenes take place after the prophesised Judgment Day, where the machine corporation Skynet and its Terminator army is winning the war against the human resistance. John Connor, the fabled leader of the resistance, now looks a lot like Christian Bale and sounds a lot like Batman. During an attack on a Skynet base, Connor and his team discover that the machines are holding humans captive instead of killing them. Before the facility is levelled to the ground, one captive by the name of Marcus Wright manages to walk out alive. Marcus, a man supposedly killed by lethal injection two decades prior, hasn’t any clue as to where he is or what year it is. But it’s what he is that matters most.
Whilst it’s obvious to the audience from the get go, Marcus is not 100% certified human even though he genuinely believes he is. Without having anything terribly new to add, it’s here where Salvation explores what it means to be human. ”What separates us from the machines? We bury our dead”, says Anton Yelchin’s character Kyle Reese, who helps Marcus find his way to the resistance base camp. Whilst only a teenager is Salvation, Kyle’s name should ring a bell as being the protagonist from the first film. If it doesn’t, you would be wise in doing a crash course in Terminator history before seeing Salvation as the film unfairly expects you to be familiar with the story and characters. Although, don’t spend too long trying to make sense of the complex time-travel sub-plot; it still does my head in thinking about how Kyle Reese is actually the father of John Connor, despite the fact that he is younger than him.
But if that’s all a bit too deep for you, then don’t fret because McG thinks so too. He’s packed Terminator Salvation with so much edge-of-your-seat action, the rest of the seat might as well not exist. It’s perhaps too relentless; once Marcus and Kyle escape from the sights of a colossal machine and its equally gigantic photon canon, they then must face off against a squadron of motorbike terminators that can instantly calculate any evasive manoeuvre. Take a moments breath, and you’re launched straight back into the thick of it.
Whilst there are a number of previously unseen machines terrorising the screen, McG does well not to forget the iconic Terminator we’ve all come to fear. The T800 model, a frighteningly realistic CGI/body doubled Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes a triumphant return (or debut if you’re still thinking in terms of time-travel) and is as intimidating as ever. It’s one of many winks John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ screenplay gives towards previous Terminator films. Mind you, I could have done without Bale’s terribly unsubtle rendition of “I’ll be back”. They should know that one’s scared.
It goes without saying that all junk food lacks a healthy dose of something, which in Salvation‘s case is emotionally engaging characters. All hints of humanity has been lost to performances that are, by quirk of fate, mechanical. With so much action taking place, dialogue has consequently been condensed into contrived snippets that aim to make the most of each word. It sounds horribly rigid and it struggles to give any real depth new characters, such as Moon Bloodgood’s effort as Marcus’ love interest. Whilst Christian Bale aptly conveys John Connor’s conflicted nature, he also sees it necessary to yell every single line in a jarringly gruff voice, which doesn’t suit his character as much as it did in his portrayal of Batman. The only one who seems to manage without much dialogue is Australian newcommer Sam Worthington, who gives a fine performance as the Cyborg Marcus. Ironically enough, he comes across as the most humanistic character of them all.
But one mustn’t forget this is a film called Terminator, directed by a man called McG. If you’re hoping to be served a deep character driven story, then you shouldn’t have walked into a burger joint to start with.