Is That John Connor or Batman?
This is a surprisingly difficult film to review, mainly because I'm really not sure about it. There are some good things here, but there are just as many question marks, making a very mixed bag.
The directing reins have been taken over by 'McG' (Joseph McGinty Nichol), otherwise probably best known for directing the risible “Charlie's Angels” movies, and being one of the main producers on TV's “Chuck” and “Supernatural” (Both of which imply he is probably better sticking to producer rather than director duties).
This time around, we are treated to a full movie set in the early stages of the 'future war' otherwise only glimpsed in flashback (Or flash-forward, depending on your perspective) in the prior films. It carries on from where Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines left off, with the lead character of John Connor (Played by Christian Bale of Batman Begins/The Dark Knight fame), still with his love Kate Brewster, having survived 'Judgement Day' together (The nuclear war triggered by Skynet, the unseen villainous computer 'Artificial Intelligence' of the films). They are now a major part of the human resistance, though he has not yet risen to leadership. A new character also joins the fray, in the form of Marcus Wright played by Sam Worthington (Who's current claim to fame is being the lead in the as-yet un-released new film 'Avatar' from James Cameron, director/writer of Titanic and the first two Terminator films). The character of Marcus is an early cyborg experiment by Skynet, who does not initially realise he is anything more than human.
Rumours are that the film was never intended to centre around the primary character of John Connor, but instead the new character of Marcus Wright. Bale's involvement, and desire to play the core human character of the Terminator series, apparently triggered major re-writes to increase his role. Unfortunately this shows. The character of Marcus is clearly the lead here, gaining far more character-based screen time.
So where does that leave the film? With perhaps not enough time devoted to either character, to really flesh them out. Certainly Connor's part is under-used, and without having previously seen the earlier movies, we would not have had any real idea of his motivations or character. Likewise with Marcus, we are obviously supposed to see a story of personal redemption, but we do not learn enough of his past to give weight to this.
From a purely visual standpoint, there is little that jumps out in this Terminator outing. Likewise, there's nothing to complain about. The action is suitably exciting, but neither does it gel together especially well. There's so much of it, and all rather indiscriminate, that you find yourself yearning for the well paced and controlled action of the earlier movies. McG is a competent director, but he doesn't have the visual flare required to make things genuinely stick in our memories. For all its faults, even the much maligned Terminator 3 had a number of memorable moments from director Jonathon Mostow (Who is yet to really deliver on the promise he showed with 1997's Breakdown).
On the plus side, the serious tone of the film is a very welcome return to form, after the out-of-place humour of the third instalment. The story is actually quite interesting, despite the feeling that it could've been made truly riveting in someone else's hands. Sam Worthington plays his part well, providing quite a contrast to the “I'm playing Batman again” performance, phoned in by Bale. And surprisingly, Anton Yelchin playing the young Kyle Reese does a pretty good job. A definite improvement over his Chekov in the new Star Trek.
There are a lot of nice touches, especially between Marcus and Kyle, showing how the older Kyle of the first film learnt some of his skills. The finale battle is fun, though far too much of a straight amalgamation of similar scenes from the first two films. It ceases to be an homage, and just becomes an outright copy in places. One of the stand-out highlights, brief as it is, comes in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cameo (Made possible by his permission, using computer enhanced footage from the original film).
The whole thing does have a feeling that certain elements have been held back and restrained, in readiness for future instalments. As such, it often tends not to live up to expectations. Gone are the Phased Plasma Rifles of the original films. (Are we to presume they come into use in later years of the war?) A lot of the designs have been changed, losing their iconic feel, but again, they may resurface as 'newer' models in later films (If they get made). The Terminator sound effects seem to have been unnecessarily and inappropriately 'jazzed up' with growling sounds. We also get a giant robotic human-harvesting robot that comes across as a deliberate addition in the wake of the 'Transformers' movie. While a lot of the film's action scenes take place during daylight, unlike the mood set by the night-based future scenes in the originals. Perhaps as a way of changing the mood, as later films are planned to be darker? Who knows.
I can't help feeling that it will be easier to judge on DVD/Blu Ray, but I'm not sure if that will be for better or worse. Terminator one and two are considered near classics of the science fiction/action genre. Terminator 3 was considered an okay fun ride, though not in the same league. Terminator Salvation is on about the same level. For all the items it improves, it is also missing something, and comes out roughly on a par with that outing. It should have had the action scaled back for more plot and character, yet (Despite the now infamous and foul tirade of Christian Bale against one of the crew during production, which possibly had more publicity than the film itself) on the whole it still makes for an enjoyable enough action thrill ride. Like many of the continuous flow of remakes/sequels in recent years, perhaps the biggest flaw is yet again, not that the film is that bad, but simply that it does not deliver on the potential from its source material. We just have to keep our fingers crossed that things improve if the successive episodes get the green light.