The Terminator series is one of those few sagas whose second installment actually surpassed the original, but then, sadly, suffered a massive letdown with the third (sound familiar, “Dad?”). (Sofia, stick to directing.)
The Terminator and its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, were pure examples of what the science fiction action genre can be, when done right. Along with The Matrix, The Terminator and its sequel blended amazing futuristic concepts with modern-day settings, state-of-the-art special effects and action sequences to keep you on the edge of your seat. When done right, the science fiction action film can bend your mind, expand your consciousness, challenge your conventional views of everything from physics to space-time continuum to gravity while taking you on a white-knuckle ride with stunts, action sequences and mind-blowing special effects.
But for all Terminator and Matrix are, they are nothing without concept. And for all the fantastic action sequences and special effects that made Terminator 1 and 2 so great (and The Matrix for that matter), it is the concept that makes them work. And, for the Terminator series, it is the story that continues to make it work. The first and second in the series, especially the second, managed to perfectly blend concept and story with action and special effects, but when they lost their way with Terminator 3, which seemed to be simply about marketing Arnold than about furthering the story of John Connor, the wheels were coming off the franchise’s once-impressive machine. So the question now is, does the fourth in the series, Terminator Salvation, bring back the story-telling with the killer effects or is it just another assembly-line knock-off of a once-proud brand name with nothing of any substance behind it?
A little of both.
Terminator Salvation does tell the part of the story that needed to be told. Set after Judgment Day (the day when the machines destroy the world and take over, nearly eliminating the human race, save for a few human survivors), Terminator Salvation now brings us face-to-face with the John Connor we have been watching grow up in the previous three installments, the prophesized leader of the resistance, now a full-fledged rebel warrior, rough and tough and seemingly ok with the knowledge of his destiny of carrying the future of the human race on his shoulders. Of course, this does make for one really serious dude, and there’s probably no actor in Hollywood, other than Sean Penn, more serious than Christian Bale, so he is perfect to play the adult John Connor, and now with the Batman success under his belt, Bale is the ideal choice to play this dark and brooding action hero. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do much here other than shoot things (there’s a lot of shooting things), but he does a good job and his gravitas certainly plays well for the character.
As for the story, we’ve pretty much had three movies of exposition all leading up to this: we (the human race) are at war with the machines. That’s it. So if you don’t want to see a movie about humans at war with machines in a post-apocalyptic world, this isn’t your flick (imagine an updated Mad Max and you get the idea). BUT, if you really really really love cool flying and moving machines, great—I mean REALLY great—action sequences (there is a truck chase scene that is just as good as the one from T2 and I didn’t think I’d ever see a truck chase scene that good) and you like your movies LOUD, well, this one’s for you. Director McG (yeah, he’s 41 and he has a name that sounds like a Happy Meal) actually does some amazing things with the camera and proves that you can seamlessly blend CGI with some really stellar back-to-the-basics stunt camera work.
Oh, the story? Yeah, they do get to that. About twenty minutes from the end. But it is important and it does matter. And it does circle back around to the first film. And there is a story element throughout the film that will play with your mind just enough to keep you going through all the explosions, gunfire and crashing helicopters.
OK, so Terminator Salvation is nowhere near the as-close-to-perfect-science-fiction-action-film-as-you’re-gonna-get that Terminator 2 was. But it’s also nowhere near as bad as the you-know-Arnold-is-just-making-this-to-get-elected Terminator 3 was. There are some laughable moments and one truly insulting storyline (a strong woman still needs to be rescued by the guy? In 2009? Really?!?), but, overall, Terminator Salvation is a rollicking great action flick that serves its genre and its legacy well. And it will be back.