There is a lot wrong with "Terminator Salvation". So much in fact that it may turn out to be one of the most disappointing films of Summer 2009.
If you take a look at the posters or promotional materials for the film you will notice two names listed above the title. The first is Christian Bale who plays John Connor. The film is set in 2018, just after Judgement Day and a ragtag group of humans are fighting to stay alive and battle SkyNet and their terminators. The second is Sam Worthington. Sam who? In Present Day, he plays Marcus a condemned criminal who wills his body for scientific experiments. When he wakes up, it is 2018 and the world is a very different place. "Terminator Salvation" basically tells two different stories; the story of John Connor and his fight to get to SkyNet and stop them from taking a lot of humans in for experiments and the story of Marcus as he quickly realizes he is in a different time and place and needs to try to save some innocent humans from these vicious machines. He eventually meets a young man named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, "Star Trek", "Alpha Dog") and tries to keep him alive. Eventually, late in the film, the two stories mesh. But at this point, it's too late and the two separate stories, the two separate characters seem forced together.
This is not one of Christian Bale's best performances. He is so lifeless, so lacking of emotion that I wonder what he was trying to do with his portrayal of John Connor. Yes, I realize the world is a very difficult place and Connor has a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he never seems to be far from a grimace or a scowl. He is a determined man, but he never shows an emotion except for anger so we don't get a lot of feeling for who his character is. I found most of my emotion for this character came from my memories of John Connor in the second film. Because of this, it is difficult to care for him.
At one point, he listens to a series of tapes his mother left him. This is interesting, but we immediately sense he has heard these tapes many times before and is merely trying to scan through them, trying to find information about the events unfolding before him. He simply states, "She doesn't make any mention of it." So what is the point of this sequence to begin with? And it doesn't reveal any emotion for his character. He doesn't seem effected in the slightest by the thought of hearing his mom's voice again. No, John Connor doesn't have time for emotion. He has to keep moving. He has to keep working towards the goal.
John is also very gung ho to do just about anything. He knows his destiny and doesn't hesitate to volunteer for any mission, no matter how dangerous. But because there is never any hesitation, there is never any doubt and there is never any suspense. Unfortunately, the character doesn't work and as he is the centerpiece of the story, the film doesn't work.
Sam Worthington is more interesting but only because he is more confused. He basically wakes up in 2018. After he quickly realizes what is going on, and sees some evidence of what is going on, he realizes what he needs to do. In a way, this is also attributed to atonement for his previous life as a murderer. As soon as he realizes the humans are battling for their lives, he starts to help them and finds a group of people hiding out. One of these people is Kyle Reese.
I think McG, the director of this "Terminator" reboot, thinks merely mentioning the character makes him interesting and compelling. When we see a young Kyle Reese, played by Anton Yelchin, our interest is piqued, but the film has to work to maintain this interest. The filmmaker gets a temporary pass because he is able to work the character into the new film, but he has to work to earn this pass or we take it away. I don't think Reese has more than two lines in the entire film and most of the time, we only see him in the distance, as whatever vehicle he is imprisoned in takes off, dozens of other people crowded in around him.
There are many questions left unanswered in "Salvation". Why does Marcus go to such great lengths to protect Reese? How does he even now of the young man's importance? Or is he simply protecting him because he is protecting as many humans as he can? These questions and many others are left to our imagination, or perhaps they will be answered in the planned sequel.
McG went to a lot of trouble to convince Christina Bale to appear in the film. "Take a chance on me" is a quote I read in one story about the film and it's director. Bale may have been better served to deny the filmmaker. McG, who previously directed "Charlie's Angels" and its less interesting sequel, and is the producer on many television projects, (including "Prison Break" and the underrated "Chuck") is simply not the right director for the job. Sure, he loves the whiz-bang action scenes and loves playing with his toy box full of special effects, but all of his attention is spent on these areas. For an action film to be memorable, we have to care about the characters. We have to give two hoots about what happens to them. Somehow, the filmmakers have to make us feel for the characters. When we feel for them, we care about whether they make it through or not. When this happens, the film becomes suspenseful. Without it, we are merely watching a lot of stuff blow up on screen.
McG really does nothing with the John Connor character except to move the focus away from him for a good portion of the film. When we do spend time with Connor, we see a woman (Bryce Dallas Howard, "The Village"< "Lady in the Water") approach him and try to comfort him. Is she his wife? His partner? Don't know and since McG doesn't seem to care, I can't either. There is a scene much later in the film when a group of people is about to be killed. They know they are about to be killed. They don't seem to care that they are going to be killed. When they are killed? Nothing because we don't care for them. At all. We aren't given the time or the information to care about them. I think McG feels that the mere mention of Kyle Reese's name will be enough to carry the character because that is basically all that happens to him. Jane Alexander plays a survivor who seems to be the matriarch for a small group of humans. But she literally has five minutes of screen time before she pops up in a few crowd scenes later in the film. It seems like a waste of character and a great actress.
A lot of time and attention (relatively anyway) is spent on developing Marcus' character and making him a part of the mythology. I really think McG wanted to put his stamp on the story and add his own creation to the film. Marcus is the most interesting character in the film and Worthington brings a quiet, Clint Eastwood like quality to the role, but really all this does is divert our attention away from Connor, who should be the focus of the story.
McG would be well served to turn to James Cameron for his inspiration. Not the "Terminator" films Cameron directed, although they are far superior to this new entry, but to how Cameron put his stamp on "Aliens". "Alien", directed by Ridley Scott, is a scary, haunted house-on-a-spaceship story. For the sequel, Cameron was called in. Rather than simply recreate the original, he took three elements from the first film; Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the Alien and a dark, wet spaceship floating through outer space. But he added to each of these. He gave Ripley a shell of toughness, which we didn't necessarily know she had before, and a maternal instinct that made her more interesting and vulnerable. He gave the Alien a maternal instinct as well, amping the danger level by making more Aliens. And he made the spaceship larger and more cavernous. He also added a ragtag group of mercenaries sent to the ship to help Ripley fight these aliens. The result? A film that is at least the equal of the original. McG takes various elements from the previous films, but doesn't do anything with them. The result? A film that is better than "Terminator 3", but just.
Ultimately, "Terminator Salvation" just seems like a pointless waste of time and film. Thankfully, Bale has one more Batman film to do.