If you're an action junkie, it's easy to like a lot of what happens in Terminator: Salvation. Director McG engineers one set piece after another with style and expertise, and generally keeps the story moving along at a brisk enough pace that you're seldom bored or confused. But this is the fourth installment in a franchise whose ideas were thoroughly explored by the time the second was finished, and it's hard to get too excited about yet another extension of the series' fairly joyless mythology, even if it qualifies as an otherwise well-executed and engaging summer blockbuster.
Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) stars as John Connor, a lieutenant in the resistance army of 2018 who is struggling not only to realize his destiny as the leader and future savior of humanity, but simply to stay alive while Skynet decimates Earth's population. Simultaneously, a death-row convict named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) awakens to find himself very much alive but in a completely unfamiliar time and place. Meeting a young foot soldier named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), his silent, pre-teen companion Star (Jadagrace) and a tough-as-nails pilot named Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), Marcus makes his way toward resistance headquarters to meet Connor, put together the pieces of his forgotten past and discover what part he plays in the future of the human race.
Though he's motor-mouthed and a little manic, McG really does have the potential to be a great director, or at least a good one. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Terminator: Salvation is going to be the film that catapults him from the ranks of fanboy punching bags like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner into the company of A-listers like Christopher Nolan. The reason is not that he can't truly create something memorable and meaningful; his 2006 film We Are Marshall remains criminally underrated. Rather, it's that he hasn't yet achieved the clarity of vision that is required to define himself as a true auteur, which is why helming something with so many fan expectations—as any Terminator film will have—works at cross purposes with him distinguishing himself as different or separate from the rest of the action-filmmaking throng.
Because Rise of the Machines was so forgettable, Terminator Salvation conceivably has to accomplish two things in order to be considered "successful": have a lot of great, inventive action sequences and stay directly true to the mythology of the first two films. As if understanding these challenges but not knowing how to combine them, McG front-loads the film with some breakneck set pieces and then devotes the film's ending to exploring how this film connects to the previous ones. The only problem with this is that the first half to two-thirds of Salvation progresses smoothly forward because it feels like its own film, and then the last 45 minutes or so gets extremely busy revealing and explaining who is supposed to do what, why this happens to that, and most dreadfully, What It All Means. (Imagine the condensed origin-story opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade tacked on to the end of a film, with even more of those desperately cute references to familiar character details and lines of dialogue, and you have a good understanding what the film's finale feels like.)
Again, however, there are some enormously successful sequences in the film, if only because McG treats the melancholy mythology of Terminator's future world with deadly gravitas. An early battle scene features a continuous shot in which Connor races to a helicopter, gets it airborne, gets shot out of the sky and lands "safely" upside down, only to be promptly attacked by a Terminator. In another sequence, a massive Harvester descends upon a dilapidated refuge for fugitive humans, and the race to escape turns into a thrilling highway chase between a lumbering tow truck and several Ducati-style moto-terminators. Best of all, the film feels truly "big," with a real scope that many films—even blockbusters—seem to lack these days, and credit goes to McG for lending the story appropriately epic proportions.
Not unlike Gavin Hood's Wolverine, however, there seems to be a certain sense of obligation, rather than true inspiration, that drives this film, even if it (also like Wolverine) nevertheless manages to accomplish most of its modest goals. Credible casting choices? Check. Impressive action sequences? They're here. References to key scenes and lines of dialogue from the previous movies? You got 'em. But ultimately, for a film about the struggle between humanity and technology, Terminator Salvation seems willing to grant a temporary victory to the machines in the service of winning the box-office war: Whether it's the machinelike turnover of the franchise, an assembly line of script conventions or just the necessary summer-movie triumph of spectacle and special effects over real ideas and sincere emotion, its impact on history may be revealed with the possibility of future installments rather than the momentary thrill of the present one.