Considering that he's part of the dreaded "MTV Generation" of filmmakers, McG is surprisingly old-school when it comes to his framing: no jumpy Michael Bay antics or hypercutting Paul Greengrass mimicries. He is a far more organic director, letting the action sequences play out naturally. It's his execution that's at fault: the action itself. He piles explosions on top of other explosions and machines slamming into other machines, backed by the deafening cues of Danny Elfman's score, and I'm pretty sure Christian Bale had a yelling stipulation written into his contract. Everything's loud, intense, bombastic. You can't accuse McG of copying Jim Cameron's first two flicks — or even Jonathan Mostow's goofy third — but you're left wishing he'd perfected his own style before tackling such an ambitious project and producing, as a result, a frustratingly passable action-thriller.
McG cites Cormac McCarthy's The Road as an influence on his movie, and it shows. The world is bleak and starved and seems to have a post-fallout hue cast over it. Yet somehow the female lead, Moon Bloodgood, always looks like she's just gotten done applying makeup and iron curling her hair. (Not to mention, based on her outfits, she must have found the only mall outlet that hadn't yet been raided by pillagers.)
Bloodgood is a great example of the movie's ill tendencies — sad to say, she personifies them. I've seen her interviewed and she's as likable as could be, but she's an awful actress, and her entire role could have been excluded from Terminator Salvation leaving in its absence a tightened film and less predictable subplot, which is this: the cyborg-who-doesn't-know-he's-a-cyborg, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), falls for her. And she falls for him. And like Sarah Connor at the end of T2, she is forced to confront the spiritual conundrum of what truly separates man from machine.
But here's the thing: isn't that such a cliché? If done well, it could be as touching as T2 was; if done poorly, it can be a disastrous reminder of Short Circuit 2. Unfortunately, McG hasn't a clue how to handle his characters' interactions, and so we get very heavy-handed intermissions featuring Worthington saying some pretty cringe-worthy stuff. One campfire sequence is so unintentionally funny that I truly felt sorry for McG, in the same way you'd feel compassion for a young boy naively attempting to, I don't know, shave or something. At first it's cute, like, Oh, look, he doesn't realize that he's too young to shave. Then it's like, Oh, crap, he just cut his neck.
But I'm under-selling the movie's positive attributes, which are the action sequences. Too loud, maybe, but a whole lot of fun. The special effects on the Terminators are solid, and McG throws in plenty of nods to the older films without all of them seeing too forced (we even find out how the adult Connor from T2 got his scar — a level of detail proving that McG really is a fanboy himself), and Anton Yelchin, who I despised as a precocious kid shrink in 2007's Charlie Bartlett, is fantastic in the role of Kyle Reese, effectively channeling Michael Biehn from the first movie.
Audiences will connect with Marcus because he represents the viewers. We're thrust into this new world just as suddenly as he is, and in his bewilderment and confusion, we find our parallel. With Avatar's release later this year, Worthington will most likely be the Next Big Thing, and is essentially - in this film, anyway - what Heath Ledger was to Christian Bale in The Dark Knight.
And so we arrive at Bale: he plays John Connor. But here's the thing about John Connor: he's really not that interesting. That's an obvious flaw, perhaps: if you woke up every morning knowing you were the saviour of the human species, would you be a fun guy to hang around with? Probably not. In that regard, Bale nails Connor: intense, passionate and dry without an ounce of self-reference or levity. He never steps back and winks at us, and even his brief dialogue retread ("I'll be back") feels legitimate, spared of Arnie's corny delivery from T3. This guy means business. That's what you're left with, but without a compelling enough story, who really cares? Bale will be massacred by overzealous blog culture critics who've been waiting for months to crack jokes about his leaked on-set rant, but he extracts every ounce of potential from the character and - to that extent - gives a fantastic performance. The bottom line is that John Connor as a religious figure in the Terminator universe has no room for expansion, and unless McG were to fundamentally change the dynamics of the character, a post-Judgment Day Connor is not going to connect with audiences. That's precisely why Cameron never envisioned taking the series this far: the impending doom of Judgment Day in the original series always felt far more intimidating than the reality of it. The brief glimpse of nuclear holocaust in the first two movies was eerie and scary because of its fleeting nature; keeping in tune with his religious allegories, Judgment Day was to the Terminator universe what Revelations is to fundamentalists: that big, frightening end for humanity that we must all live in awareness of. Seeing it unfold kind of takes away the charm, you know? So although Terminator Salvation is somewhat competently made and an entertaining enough action spectacle, giving this much away just feels a bit self-defeating. What if the End of Days occurred tomorrow, Jesus revealed himself unto us all and the remaining human beings left on earth were forced into resistance camps? Would anyone still be reading the Bible?