Terminator Salvation (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
It's 2018 and Skynet, the extremely pro-death-penalty artificial intelligence network, is just about finished scouring humanity from the face of the Earth. Robots of various size, shape, menace and loudness are dispatched to eliminate whatever people might be left over from the nuclear "judgment day" of a few years earlier.
Eliminate them, that is, or harvest their parts to make stealthier robots. How that works is a little fuzzy, especially to this guy Marcus (Sam Worthington), who thought he died on death row in 2003, just after donating his body to science, but woke up in the here and now feeling a lot like the experimental prototype of a genocidal cyborg. That's not cool. But hey, maybe that conspicuously cancer-stricken doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) who visited Marcus' cell to work out his dubious last-minute deal was on to something: The 2018 atmosphere is full of fallout, yet radiation sickness apparently is a thing of the past! Onward and upward!
Oh, right. The robots. With their beady red eyes, and creepy electronic-whalesong war cries, and ludicrously heavy artillery, they really are terrifying. Good thing John Connor (Christian Bale), the "prophesied leader of the Resistance," is here to, well, Resist. With Marcus as a wrench in his works, or maybe a useful tool, John must track down Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the teenager he's supposed to send back through time to protect his mother Sarah Connor — and impregnate her, with him.
There is the suggestion that Skynet has gotten wise to John's elaborate defense, or at least to Bale's general aura of futility. But not all is lost: With so many time-travel plots interlocked in the Terminator apparatus by now, even sentient super-computers seem prone to exploitable confusion about the chronology. It helps, too, that Yelchin, who also recently rebooted Star Trek's Chekov, has such a knack for reinvigorating cherished sci-fi characters. His scrappy Kyle very plausibly might grow up to become Michael Biehn and throw down with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984.
At any rate, he deserves to get out of this movie. Director McG, himself possibly named for the experimental prototype of a genocidal McDonald's sandwich, and trained in the art of narrative mess-making through music videos and Charlie's Angels movies, reassembles this franchise of diminishing returns in an approximation of working order, but with some pretty essential-seeming parts (such as sense) left on the floor. Amid the shrapnel, Schwarzenegger does make a brief, mute appearance, and it feels like just another item on the homage checklist. (See also: skulls getting crunched, catchphrases, big-rig chase scene, final battle in factory, etc.)
In theory, it may seem appropriate for a movie like this to come off as mechanical, impersonal and marauding. A return to cutesy banter with Edward Furlong is the last thing any self-respecting Terminator fan wants.
But once you've actually had the apocalypse, everything else kind of seems like falling action. Besides Yelchin, only Worthington really puts any heart into it (albeit rather literally), and other supporting performers barely register at all.
With a grimed-up gun-metal monochrome to match Bale's gravelly monotone, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut gets that post-apocalyptic look just fine; maybe Bale's infamous on-set tantrum should've been aimed not at him but instead at screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, mysteriously asked back after Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.