DAVE DAVIES, host:
He's not called the Terminator much any more, but back in 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger became a star playing a cyborg assassin from the future. He went on to make two more Terminator films before changing careers. The fourth Terminator film takes place in 2018, years after machines with a will of their own triggered a nuclear holocaust. It stars Christian Bale as John Connor, son of the film's first heroine Sarah Connor. The director goes by the name McG and is best known for the two Charlie's Angels features. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of "Terminator Salvation."
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN (Film Critic, New York Magazine): In "Terminator Salvation," machines have exterminated most of humankind and now run the planet. I think they had a hand in the movie, too. It's barely storytelling, it's programming. James Cameron's 1984 "The Terminator" and its showy sequel, "T2," were also mechanical, but their killer 'bots had charm. Arnold Schwarzenegger's metallic readings and bodybuilder arrogance meshed riotously well with the part of a cyborg assassin. And Robert Patrick's T2 was a witty, preternatural blank, with adorably incongruous teacup-handle ears. The fourth time out, the bad machines are steel-skeleton effects, and most of the humans are less compelling.
It's not really the fault of the actors or even the director, McG, who expertly storyboards the jangly fights and chases and crashes and explosions. As I said, it's the machines or, more precisely, the fearsome Hollywood machine that sifts through books and old movies in search of the holy franchise, then generates non-essential sequels. "The Terminator" began with a cyborg villain and a human hero, Kyle Reese, traveling back to 1984 from the future. "Terminator Salvation" is how they try to get to the point where they go back, if that makes any sense. In 2018, John Connor, played by Christian Bale, the son of original heroine Sarah Connor and destined to be mankind's savior, must defeat the nefarious machine-run corporation Skynet and send Reese to 1984 to save Connor's mom and also get her pregnant so she'll have, John Connor.
Of course, every time trip has its perils — just ask the Vulcans in the new "Star Trek." Maybe in this time-loop Skynet will kill John before he kills them, and humanity will perish. Don't you love these ridiculous time-travel permutations? Alas, the movie isn't as much fun as it could be. With McG's migraine-inducing jerky-cam and monochromatic brown palette livened only by splotches of rust, "Terminator Salvation" is numbing. There is, however, a novel element: a second protagonist, Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright, who's executed by lethal injection in the movie's prologue, set in the 1990s.
But first, he signs away his body to a terminally ill scientist played by Helena Bonham Carter. In a post-nuclear-holocaust 2018, he bounds naked from some wreckage, looking remarkably buff. Is he a cyborg? Something has been done to him. When he confronts Bale's surly John Connor, he has to convince the resistance fighter that they're on the same side.
(Soundbite of movie, "Terminator Salvation")
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (As John Connor) I know what you are even if you don't.
Mr. SAM WORTHINGTON (Actor): (As Marcus Wright) Enough. That gun ain't going to stop me.
Mr. BALE: (as John Connor) Nobody shot you in the heart and I see that thing beating a mile a minute.
Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Marcus Wright) (unintelligible) He's in Skynet. You do that, he's dead. I can get you in.
Mr. BALE: (As John Connor) How?
Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Marcus Wright) Look at me.
Mr. BALE: (As John Connor) That's why I don't trust you.
Mr. WORTHINGTON: (as Marcus Wright) I'm the only hope you have. I need to find who did this to me. So do you.
EDELSTEIN: I won't deprive you of the pleasure of figuring out Marcus's secret for yourself, about an hour and a half before it's revealed. The key is that he doesn't know himself what his purpose is, and he's furious about it. Sam Worthington is an Australian actor who had a brief but vivid role as a handsome hooligan in Greg McLean's delectable killer crocodile picture, "Rogue" — now on DVD and highly recommended. He manages to suggest a soul in torment with a minimum of inflection. And he gives the movie what innards it has. It would be nice if "Terminator Salvation" centered on him, since Bale is a big drag.
Millions have viewed via YouTube Bale's abusive tantrum on the set of this film, and the interesting thing is that he's equally unpleasant on camera. Connor's mission here is the apogee of sci-fi nuttiness: to find his dad, a teenager, and keep him alive long enough to impregnate his mom and save the world from an army of titanium-girded Austrian musclemen. But as mankind's savior, Bale is such a sour prig, you wonder why he doesn't terminate himself out of spite.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross I'm Dave Davies.
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