This can’t possibly be the best of weeks for California’s governor. Not only did Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget packages get shot down in flames by the state’s voters, thereby forcing him to make service cuts that can only further brake his bid for higher office, but Friday’s premiere of “Terminator Salvation” threatens to remind its millions of viewers, including the Governator himself, of the relatively bucolic life he forsook for schmoozing with legislators and managing decline. This new, jump-started “Terminator” rubs it in by inserting a cameo of Schwarzenegger’s lizard-eyed countenance and bulging torso lifted through CGI magic from the 1984 Movie That Started It All. Seeing his digital surrogate, however briefly, is enough to remind you of the simpler, goofier pleasures he offered in those days.
“Terminator Salvation” (pick your shorthand: “T-Salvo,” “T-Sal” or maybe just leave it at “T-S”) may also recall to audiences old enough to remember that first film how it was possible to make clever, emotionally engaging science fiction movies without blowing everything to kingdom come, budgets included. But the first sequel, 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” raked in so much dough by ramping up the chase sequences that just about every popcorn fantasy franchise in its wake has invested more in metallic carnage than nuanced interaction. When compared with “T-S,” “T2” seems positively Chekhovian.
We’ve since had a “T3” and a (pretty good, if recently, erm, terminated) TV series spun off from the franchise. But you could lose whole minutes of your life wondering if “T-S” is a prequel or a sequel, since its storyline basically takes place before the events of the first “Terminator.” John Connor (Christian Bale), now firmly in center stage of what’s become a century-spanning apocalyptic epic, is struggling to lead what’s left of the human race in battle against shape-shifting machinery bent, if you will, on perpetuating its own soul-savaging dominance. He’s now searching the scorched continent for a teenager named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who’s supposed to grow up someday and head back in time to have sex with Connor’s mother and help spawn the boy who becomes… John Connor.
The movie has the grace to acknowledge the looniness of its inherited premises. But that’s where any notion of “grace” reaches its end. Director McG established his action-director rep with the candy-coated “Charlie’s Angels” series and he shows here, as he did in that franchise, that he knows how to do everything with a set-piece except make it slide home. The metal menaces swoop, stomp and stalk their meat-puppet prey with hard rock relentlessness familiar by now to anyone who’s seen “The Matrix” and its direct successors. But while McG ably maneuvers the pitch and yaw within each of these chases and fights, they connect to each other in a desultory manner, slugging their way to abrupt and staggered conclusions.
And except for a potent prelude in which a condemned murder and future cyborg (Sam Worthington) makes a fateful pact with a dying geneticist (Helena Bonham Carter), McG’s not at all nimble with the nonviolent interludes. In fact, he seems so bored with things like content and theme that he’d rather get back to the machines. Should we use metal detectors and magnets to find out of McG and the rest of “T-S”‘s production team are cyborgs, too?