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Bleak fourth installment no Salvation for franchise

by Glen Baity

In a few months, the big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will hit theaters. But if you’d prefer a less compelling version of humanity’s twilight (with robots), good news: Terminator Salvation is in theaters now! The fourth movie in the long-running franchise is modeled after McCarthy’s bleak vision, but don’t look for the same level of emotional resonance. This Terminator finds our species on the ropes, its numbers drastically reduced after a Skynet-inflicted nuclear holocaust. It’s 2018 and the survivors are outgunned and in danger of total extinction. Years of nonstop war against tireless killing machines has worn down the resistance — even armed messiah John Connor (Christian Bale) is starting to lose hope. Into this depressing scenario tumbles Skynet’s newest creation: Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a robot that not only looks human, but believes it is human. The benefit of this to Skynet is unclear, but Marcus joins up with Connor and his band of rebels only to learn his robot masters have a different purpose in mind for him. It all plays out against a khaki-colored wasteland of charred trees and bombedout buildings. Director McG (Charlie’s Angels) uses this post-apocalyptic vision to reinvent himself from purveyor of bubblegum cinema to neo-Ridley Scott.

He falls short of his heroes, but it should be said that Salvation is an unexpected and not-unwelcome aesthetic departure for the director. And credit where it’s due: McG stages one hell of an action scene. His style is engaging and easy to follow, and he seems to really understand that Terminators, with their evil, unblinking red eyes and standard-issue gatling guns, are scary as hell and should be treated as such. So why is this installment so difficult to watch? In fairness, Salvation is the logical conclusion of the series’ scorched-earth techno-paranoia. But there’s a wide world of humanityon-the-brink stories that also manage to be compulsively watchable — I’m looking at you, “Battlestar”. Terminator Salvation has the action, but it fails because it doesn’t give its audience any characters to really attach to. There’s nobody here worth remembering, least of all Bale’s John Connor, who is about as vanilla as badass freedom fighters get. Bad news, too: You’ll be spending most of your time with him, since much of the film follows his attempts to rescue human prisoners from Skynet’s borderline-impenetrable base. You’ll wish McG had included footage of him doing something as interesting as screaming at a hapless director of photography. More intriguing, of course, is Marcus; earlier drafts of the script reportedly imagined his character as the film’s focus before Bale was brought into the John Connor role. It’s a shame McG didn’t maintain that course, because questions of morality in — and moral obligation towards — artificial life forms can make for fascinating viewing. As it stands, Salvation takes a frustratingly shallow approach to such philosophical considerations. The whole dorobots-have-souls question has been pondered much more eloquently in the aforementioned “Battlestar Galactica” remake, not to mention in Blade Runner, 2001, even the recent I, Robot adaptation. Salvation doesn’t bring a new point of view to the argument, but it does imbue it with pointless metaphor by giving Marcus a real, live heart (on a functional level, why does Skynet think adding a vulnerable human organ would improve its notoriously hard-to-kill Terminators? You’re better off not thinking about it). As a bid for artistic legitimacy, McG’s Terminator could be worse, but this forgettable film still exists in the shadow of T2, one of the finest action films ever made. Salvation piles on the grit and ash, but it buries the entertainment with it. The end of the world has been done so much better. To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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