Fourteen years ago, Skynet sprinkled the world with atom bombs and sicced robots to pick off the survivors. Kids like teenaged Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and the mute Benetton child he babysits (Jada Grace) have spent most or all of their lives post-Apocalypse. They’re like sewer rats—or at least, we’d like them to be—but besides having Yelchin give props to local culinary faves like two-day-old coyote, there’s the sense that no one involved with the movie has really thought through its basic tenets. Though they’ve been through a decade and a half of hell, everyone has white teeth, smooth skin and all limbs. Outside, people live in suspicious Mad Max tribes. Though communication seems to have broken down save for John Connor’s radio broadcasts, English grammar is thriving—everyone speaks in full sentences with the pomp of a 1950s Biblical blockbuster. People don’t seem toughened, they seem transplanted into a devastated world.
John Connor (Christian Bale) is prepared. Less so is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), an ex-con/time traveler from the small window when Alice in Chains was popular. When an amnesiac Wright pops up in 2018, he’s blindsided by the Terminators. “What year is it?!” he thinks to ask his rescuer, Kyle Reese. (In one of many moments of inanity, Reese doesn’t clue in that he’s not from around here or think to ask him what year he last remembers.) The entire film suffers from myopia; it speaks only in immediates (“Hand me that gun!”) and abstracts (“Do you believe in second chances?”). What it doesn’t speak is human—the people have ascribed emotions that exist only to propel the plot. By contrast, sometimes the machines seem more human than human—instead of Arnold or Robert Patrick’s calm efficiency, these machines lash out like a playground bully afraid of humiliation. Man and machine are locked in an evolutionary race where the machines are determined to advance faster than the Resistance can learn to outwit them.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an impossible film to follow. (Yes, I’m refusing to acknowledge T3.) But I wish Salvation would have tried. In this doomsday scenario, my BS meter sounded as often as a Geiger counter would have. Minutes after Yelchin and Worthington pull up to a desolate desert gas station hideout where tumbleweeds and burnt cars stretch to the horizon, they’re surprised by a giant people-harvesting machine. I was shocked, too. The bipedal robot is skyscraper tall, slow as molasses and the ground shudders under its feet—if it was headed your way, you’d see/hear it in time to pack a lunch.
But McG is looking to the wrong James Cameron blockbuster for inspiration. Where T2 was grim, unsparing and logical, T4 is packed with harmless punches and bullets. After the first few fights leave our heroes unscathed (only the nameless get killed), we’re never that afraid for anyone’s safety. Time travel franchises get increasingly mired in their mythos, and now that we’re in the future we’ve waited for, legacy has constrained McG and the screenwriters. Every Terminator has reset the future. The most interesting course the film could have taken is to ask if, after three Terminator time travel scrambles, John Connor is still fated to be humanity’s savior? Here, the old guard Resistance fighters don’t accept he’s the messiah, but why should everyone else? For that matter, the film needs to convince us Connor hasn’t already served his purpose. When Connor insists that everyone stop attacking Skynet long enough for him to infiltrate and rescue Kyle Reese, I almost wished they’d refuse just so we could see what would happen if he lost his future father. Would he vanish? Flicker? Wince in pain and reach for a guitar to play “Johnny B. Goode?”
Last summer, blogs leaked Salvation’s original ending. McG’s intention was to upend the franchise with a subversive twist that acknowledged these questions and added new ones. And it was great. But because this ending was both too bleak and too well-known, Warner Bros. changed it to a milquetoast crowd-pleaser that feels like a cheat. It’s an ending so terrible it spoils the moderate popcorn pleasures of all the nonsense before.