Whether it’s rivers running red with blood, an unending snowfall slowly smothering the earth, or robots trouncing humankind into inexistence, visions of the apocalypse continue to capture the imagination. The Terminator series continues the tradition of Armageddon lore with Terminator: Salvation, a gritty, heart-racing resuscitation of the 25-year-old franchise. Salvation takes the series into the epicenter of James Cameron’s epic storyline: the future.
The year is 2018 and the world has been annihilated by a nuclear Holocaust unleashed by a network of artificial intelligence called Skynet. Few humans survive in the desert wasteland of twisted power lines and ruined skyscrapers. A resistance movement of the remaining survivors limps on with the hope that one man can bring victory, John Connor (Christian Bale). Connor survived two attempts on his life by time traveling robots called Terminators, and now, as the voice of the resistance, he has discovered a plot to kill his father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who would be sent back in time in 2029 to protect John’s mother in 1984, and ultimately impregnates her. (No, it doesn’t make sense, so don’t worry about it—none of the three Terminator directors have either.)
Whereas Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines parodied the franchise—remember the ridiculous scene with the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) emerging onto a stripper stage?—Terminator: Salvation resurrects it. The first battle sequence sets the aesthetic tone for the movie, the grainy handheld camera shots, a washed-out sky, military fatigues, and haggard soldiers fighting robots in a field of gigantic radar dishes. The cavalcade of Salvation ’s action sequences satiates the hunger both of explosion-craving, old school action aficionados and quick cut, first-person violence voyeurs of Generation X-Box. With a Mad Max meets Children of Men style emboldened by car-wrecking chase scenes and intense first person shooter POV, Salvation presents an exciting alternative to standard issue action fare.
Behind the explosions and robots, Salvation’s story ventures into new and interesting territory that progresses the Terminator mythology into darker territory. When the dust settles from the introduction battle, a man covered in mud emerges from the earth. The man is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), whose only memory is being on death row and participating in a cancer stricken doctor’s (Helena Bonham Carter) medical experiment. As Marcus tries to piece together what happened to the world in his absence, he meets Kyle Reese, played by the always charming Yelchin, who does an effective Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese from the first Terminator) impression.
Whereas Christian Bale does a good job as John Connor—he yells a bit, delivers raspy, gravel-in-the-throat monologues akin to his role in Reign of Fire—Sam Worthington delivers a more interesting performance as Marcus. As he grapples with identity, fate, and self-realization, Marcus infuses the mystery and wonder that made the first two Terminators great. Who is he, where’d he come from, and what’s his secret?
As the narrative shroud lifts, the story becomes less interesting, and the movie loses steam. Lacking the pacing of the masterful Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which alternates between moments of action and moments of rest, Salvation’s pacing is much quicker. It’s a problem of threshold. Action is only exciting when it is positioned next to stillness, otherwise the buzz of activity becomes a drone. But if it’s intelligent action you want, Salvation delivers it. And as the U.S. continues unmanned air strikes into Pakistan and Afghanistan, Terminator’s warning of warriors without hearts rings truer than ever before.