Like his grim-faced, Skynet-hating protagonist, McG has a lot to prove. He’s got the weight of the Terminator franchise resting squarely on his shoulders, a load that proved too much for Jonathan Mostow with Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines.
Can the man who’s struggled to shrug off his association with Charlie’s Angels and a rep for pumping out candyfloss flicks bring back some true heft to the tale of John Connor (Christian Bale)? For the most part, the answer’s a resounding yes.
One of the smartest moves made by the director and his team is shunting the story forward to 2018, allowing them to stake out new territory in the Terminator saga.
Jumping off from glimpses offered in the first three movies, Salvation immerses itself in humanity’s fight to survive in a post-Judgement Day world. With its vistas of a scorched, skeletal LA and expansive desert flats, this is more a war movie than the chase thrillers of the past.
After introducing us to Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright, sat on Death Row in a 2003-set prologue, pedal meets metal and rarely eases off. Whenever one of the leads faces off against the teeming army of ’bot bad guys – which is most of the running time – Salvation seethes with excitement.
There’s been a major upgrade and expansion of murderous hardware: from the slithery Hydrobots that haunt lakes like a worst nightmare
mash-up of snake, shark and alligator, to the towering, stomping Harvesters and soaring, roaring Hunter-Killers, Skynet’s forces are characters in themselves, making our heroes’ lives hell at every turn.
Fans will happily tick off the many references to what has come before, from a blast of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘You Could Be Mine’ (entirely apt given where it appears in the pic) to signature lines (Connor gets to say, “I’ll be back” without it sounding too cheesy or forced) and even some familiar beats during the final factory-based showdown.
John Connor’s efforts to ‘fight the power’ also engage, whether he’s trading fire with the marauding machines or butting heads with his own commanders (including Michael Ironside in a fun cameo) over decisions and tactics. Smartly, we’re shown tomorrow’s world before the man who will lead the Resistance takes up that position.
Viewed by some as mankind’s prophesised saviour (cue audio cameo by Linda Hamilton), he’s seen by others as an annoying loose cannon, which spikes the plot with extra tension.
But for all of Bale’s growling, glowering, conflicted Connor moments, this is actually Sam Worthington’s film. Matching his co-star’s intensity, the hitherto low-profile Aussie actor steps ably into a key role that gives him plenty to do.
Marcus enjoys a full arc through the movie, from that quietly mysterious prison opening, through his reintroduction, staggering naked into frame,
mud-coated and desperate to fi gure out what happened to him post-death sentence.
It’s when the focus strays from fi ghting that niggles begin to creep in. McG has a sure handle on the setpieces, which are typically big, bold, frenetic and exhilarating. But he never quite rounds out the characters beyond Marcus, John, Kyle Reese and, to a degree, Resistance pilot Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood).
Anton Yelchin channels thesping predecessor Michael Biehn without any party-trick mimicry, making the most of a part that’s largely about setting Reese up for the fate we already know he faces.
Bale does a lot of what you’ve seen snatches of in the trailers – shout loudly into radio mikes and lay the smackdown on the robo-nasties – while Bloodgood holds her own in her tangles with Worthington.
But everyone else – especially Bryce Dallas Howard’s Kate Connor – feels a bit like a cipher. The latter highlights one of the other problem areas: Salvation isn’t as accessible as it could be for non-fans.
OK, we don’t want a pace-sapping, long-winded lecture on the twisted timeline so far, but anyone coming in fresh won’t get much of a steer
on what Kate means to John.
That said, as the kick-off point for a whole new trilogy, there’s plenty to absorb and intrigue those who didn’t grow up watching Schwarzenegger stalk Hamilton or tussle with the T-1000. If this is truly the future (and maybe the past, if rumours of plans for Terminator 5 come to life) of the series, then there are enough reasons here to look forward with hope.
It may not be up to James Cameron’s benchmarks, but since he’s unlikely to return to the universe he created any time soon, you couldn’t
realistically ask for much more.
McG has proved he’s got the balls; now he’s got to show he’s got staying power. On this imperfect but perfectly solid showing, we strongly suspect he’ll be back.