"Terminator Salvation" gives new meaning to the phrase heavy metal. The Terminators in this fourth film in the franchise are so big and clangy that, during the fight scenes, you may find yourself clutching your ears far more often than the armrests.
It's 2018 and Judgment Day, "Terminator"-style, has obliterated most of the planet's humankind. But the Resistance – i.e., a few measly mortals – are still holding out for humanity. Topping the hero hit list is John Connor (Christian Bale), who is so intense his stare could melt plutonium. As we keep being told, John is the "prophetic leader" of the Resistance.
The current John is the grown-up version of the hero-in-waiting played as a whippersnapper by Edward Furlong (in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day") and Nick Stahl (in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"). Through a time-travel scenario that only the Terminator geekocracy seems to fully understand, John's future father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the new "Star Trek") appears in "Terminator Salvation" as a teenager. John's mission – one of them anyway – is to rescue Kyle from the clutches of the big bots.
He has many other missions but this one is the biggest, because, if Kyle doesn't survive, John Connor will never exist. Except he does. Whatever.
Even though John is the ostensible hero of "Terminator Salvation," the centerpiece stalwart is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington, who will be starring in James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar"). Marcus, as we see from the opening scene, was a murderer, or something equally atrocious, on death row who decided to donate his body to science. The really really bad intelligence network Skynet, which is responsible for the nuclear annihilation 14 years before that turned the skies a perpetual shade of blah, has coopted Marcus's corporeality and turned him into a state-of-the-art cyborg with – here's the catch – a human heart. Who thought the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz" would one day come back to us like this?
That heart is what apparently makes Marcus human, even though he's not. He's certainly human enough for Blair Williams, the Resistance warrior played by an actress with the altogether appropriate name Moon Bloodgood. Blair warms to Marcus when he helps her rout a band of scurvy marauders (human variety). Even when his electronic innards are exposed, she refuses to back away from him. When asked by John why she comes to Marcus's aid even though he is suspected of being the enemy, she replies, "I saw a man, not a machine." Who says love is blind?
Marcus endures what passes for an existential quest in "Terminator Salvation." "I need to find out who did this to me," he intones, and it is at this point that the Tin Man metaphorically morphs into an amalgam of Oedipus, Odysseus, and 'The Dark Knight' (played elsewhere, of course, by Christian Bale – franchise movies are nothing if not incestuous). In these technopop extravaganzas, it's always the inhuman, or half-human, who ends up being the most human – e.g., Mr. Spock. Marcus is more intriguing to observe than John precisely because he's a (sort of) cyborg.
McG, a music video maven whose previous credits include the "Charlie's Angels" movies, directs the action passably well. (I suppose we should be thankful this film wasn't presented in 3-D or else we'd all be ducking for cover for two hours.) I wish, however, he had inserted a bit of humor into the maelstrom. A couple of scenes directly reference the Iraq war and the Holocaust (where the humans are herded into cattle cars), and this is taking things much too seriously. This is a big blow-'em-up franchise movie. It should not under any circumstances be confused with a Statement. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language.)