When I heard the mastermind behind such perennial classics as, ahem, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” had signed on to direct the fourth installment in the “Terminator” series, I was apprehensive.
When I heard he’d gallantly dubbed himself “McG,” the apprehension turned into dread.
When I finally saw “Terminator Salvation,” that dread led me to the realization of a hardy truth: The only one-named celebrities worth caring about are the ones with the talent to match their egos.
Here is where McG fails so magnificently. Oh, sure, he’s great with lightning-quick cuts and smash-and-grab action sequences. He has an enviable ability to desaturate colors and present us with a bleak landscape. He can film a fight scene from every conceivable angle. He’s so pleased with these talents, in fact, that that’s all he wants to show us. Hand-to-hand combat. Explosions. Terminators blown to McTerminator nuggets. For almost two hours. This bloody mayhem wouldn’t be so disappointing if there was the slightest whiff of an intriguing story to tell. There isn’t (the superb “T2: Judgment Day” and the just-above-average “T3″ ruined that). And so McG blows everything up to distract us.
For awhile, this almost works. When the actors show up, it becomes painfully clear they have nothing to do but try their best to lend humanity to a movie that has none. As Marcus Wright, an ex-con cryogenically reborn into 2018 post-Judgment Day America, Sam Worthington does the best job. Wright, who donated his body to science, awakens to find the world leveled by a homicidal, self-aware Skynet (damn, those robots are quick studies) and its army of Terminators. Resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale doing his best “Batman voice”) can’t decide why Marcus has arrived, and his presence raises many questions. Was he sent from the future or the past? Is he hell-bent on killing Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a key player in Connor’s storyline, or delivering the boy unharmed to Connor? Or the most important question: In a gravelly voice contest, could Marcus beat J.C.? (The correct answer to question no. five is a resounding “no.”)
The answers to these questions I will not provide; that’s a fact-finding mission viewers must take themselves. “Terminator” fans should gird their loins, for this is a grim, tedious trip that will yield minimally satisfactory answers. The huge blowouts and Terminator/human fights, so impressive at first, wear down our patience, and there’s no viable human-centered story to win it back. (Note: There are plenty of movies — like “Rambo” or “Predator” — that don’t need plots to move forward. “Terminator” belongs not in this short list.)
Not surprisingly, watching the actors struggle against the tide of McG’s inadequacies is disheartening. Who didn’t have astronomical hopes for Christian Bale as John Connor? The top-notch actor seems out of his depth here. Maybe he’s distracted by the action, overwhelmed by his I-don’t-break-character-till-the-DVD-commentary-intensity. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t dissolve into Connor the way he did into scores of other characters (“El Maquinista” comes to mind). He thinks furrowing his brow and whispering in a creaky, ravaged voice equals great acting. Wrong. He’s playing Christian Bale playing John Connor, and that’s not the Bale his fans (me included) know and love. Exchanging Claire Danes for Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t feel like trading up, either, but blame that on the script: Howard has nothing to do but look pregnant and pained. Moon Bloodgood, who has some pluck, is funneled into the love interest role and does what little she can. Yelchin’s better than this, too.
But Worthington … he deserves a second look. The American accent certainly needs work, but he has an interesting mix of bravado and vulnerability not seen since, well … pre-”Terminator” Christian Bale. There’s something about his eyes that suggests he can do more than slug bad guys and kiss hot chicks. Here’s to hoping he tries again, and soon.
As for McG, unless he gets over himself, I suspect he’ll keep trying to live his heart’s desire to become Michael Bay. Which, sadly, he won’t. Michael Bay, you see, has the good sense to use both of his names.