Terminator (1984) was built on two stock science fiction ideas. One was the old worry that machines would one day become intelligent and take over the world, threatening the existence of humanity. The other was akin to the Grandfather Paradox: if you traveled back in time and killed your grandfather, you would not exist, and therefore would not be able to travel back in time to kill your grandfather, and then you would exist to travel back in time... and so on. Thus proving (or so it is said), that time travel is either logically impossible, or it is impossible to alter the past whether time travel is possible or not. In Terminator, the artificially intelligent machines of the future sent a T-800 killer robot (who would one day become the governator of California) back into the past to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) so that she would never become mother to John Connor, who would grow up to become a resistance leader in the future human struggle against the killer machines. So, apparently the machines do not (did not?) believe that time travel is impossible, or that the past cannot be changed. Turns out they failed to prevent John Connor's birth (because the guy sent back by the humans to save Sarah Connor fathered future John), and subsequent efforts to kill John as a child also failed. And since all those killer robots kept a'coming after him all his life, Connor grew up to be somewhat hostile to killer robots, and became a leader of the human resistance against the robot overlords. So did the machines alter the past after all?
Terminator Salvation, the fourth installment in the Terminator saga, isn't all that interested in finding out. The year is 2018, some time after Judgment Day, when Skynet, the self-aware machine network, blew everything all to pieces in its ongoing effort to destroy humanity for some reason or other. Scattered pockets of survivors and resistance fighters exist throughout the California wasteland. The machines are headquartered in the Silicon Valley area, and cattle cars of humans are rounded up and taken there, never to be seen again. The puny humans are prepping to launch a final assault on the machines. Meanwhile, the machines have a hit list, and John Connor (Christian Bale) is number two on that list. Who's number one? Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a scrawny lad who seems insignificant, except that Connor and the machines and we all know that he will some day be Connor's future-past father. (Just how does Skynet know, I wonder.) And so, the son must save the father so that the son will exist in the future to save the father so that the son will exist... and so on. But beyond that, Terminator Salvation doesn't especially care about the vicissitudes of time travel, or the fact that Connor must save his father now so that dear old Dad can die in the past. You might think he'd feel a little conflicted about that, but apparently not. The movie is only marginally more concerned with artificial intelligence (and artificial life) in the form of one Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a criminal who was, in the pre-apocalypse past, executed, and who donated his body to science, or rather to one genetic scientist named Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter). And then he woke up and it was the apocalypse. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened to him (anyway, it was revealed in the movie's trailers months ago).
I would have liked to see Wright explored more as a character. He's conflicted about his human-machine hybrid status, he's loyal to humanity and full of unexplained self-loathing, and the humans, especially Connor, hate him just as much as he hates himself. His is the Terminator Redemption aspect of movie, and its most interesting innovation, but psychological depth and character are not the strong suits of Terminator Salvation, so any possibility of exploring fascinating ideas about humans and machines are pretty much tossed on the scrap heap. It's pretty obvious why Connor (or J.C. as the case may be) hates terminators, and why he's determined to save Kyle Reese, but it cannot be said that Bale's talents as an actor are fully utilized here. He's grim-faced and raspy-voiced and... well, that's about it. Maybe that explains Bale's now infamous on-set, potty-mouth apoplexy. It was a cry for more dialogue, more substance. Connor lives (if you can call that living), but humanity is nearly extinct and civilization is in ruins -- what's he still fighting for? He's a guy apparently condemned to remember the past and repeat it, but to what end? What, Mr. Method Actor might have asked, is my motivation?
That's what I wanna know too, but as directed by McG (Charlie's Angels), Terminator Salvation is scanty on plot and substance, fairly disinterested in big ideas, but big, big, big on action: car chases, helicopter chases, robot chases, explosions, gunfights, fistfights, and (true to Terminator creator James Cameron's original vision of the terminators) killer robots that keep coming and coming even after you blow them up, dismember them, shoot them, melt them, and crush them. The robots come in all shapes and sizes -- from chompy, swimming hydrobots to gigundo bots with clampy hands and gun turrets for heads. The Transformer-style motorcycle bots are pretty cool, but really, they'd better be since Terminator Salvation is basically a movie about animated mechanical stuff. The end of the world looks like a big junkyard -- the carcasses of robots, helicopters and cars litter a landscape where the ruins of human civilization amount to broken pylons and bombed-out gas stations. The resistance fighters are pretty well-armed with fighter jets, land mines, submarines (!) and various implements of destruction. Skynet has a factory where it manufactures more and more terminator bots. It also apparently manufactures handy dandy sets for meat versus metal action sequences that include fight scene standbys: steam, smoke, flames, and catwalks.
Is it too much to ask for anything really new from T4? This movie recycles elements from Terminator and T2: Judgment Day (fair enough), and from Road Warrior, Transformers, and X-Men, and maybe Pinocchio (what with all the humanoid robots and the machines that believe they're people too). It recycles elements from those movies, but unlike those movies, it fails to be about anything. The movie looks good enough: it is mostly stripped of color, except for all the big orange fireballs. Everything else is metallic blue-black and dusty-beige, with a coating of grime. But this is a fairly standard depiction of Earth after Armageddon, and I just can't help feeling like I've seen all this stuff before. Terminator was all low-budget moxy and basement workshop innovation -- T4, like the other sequels, is clearly an expensive movie, but one that has forgotten everything that's interesting about the Terminator saga, making it completely forgettable itself.