'Terminator Salvation': Metalheads, By Kurt Loder

Christian Bale gets lost among the machines.

A lot of hard work has gone into [movie id="347265"]"Terminator Salvation,"[/movie] the fourth installment of the time-shuffling robot-war series and the first since the 2003 "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" detoured the franchise into the realm of unintentional hilarity. Unlike the past films, the new one is set in the future -- the one from which android assassin Arnold Schwarzenegger was dispatched a quarter-century ago to travel back to 1984 and terminate Sarah Connor, the soon-to-be mother of John Connor, who, in the future from which Arnold was dispatched, had grown up to be the leader of the human resistance forces battling the metallic minions of Skynet, the sentient computer entity that had taken over the world. Oh, and also to put a stop to Kyle Reese, who had likewise beamed in from the future for the purpose of becoming John Connor's father. Is your head starting to hurt again?

Joseph McGinty Nichol, the director who fearlessly continues to call himself "McG" (a childhood nickname, he says; what if his parents had dubbed him "Munchkin"?), has staged some memorable scenes here. There's a gigantic Skynet aircraft swooping down on a bridge filled with fleeing humans; and a leap from a helicopter into a storm-tossed ocean far below to rendezvous with a rebel submarine; and -- in the movie's most alarming interlude -- a disembodied Terminator spinal column violently thrashing around on a lab gurney while its human captors struggle to hold it down.

But "Salvation" is crucially hobbled by tired-franchise syndrome. There's not one character in it as unforgettable as that original Arnoldian Terminator, or the shape-shifting T-1000 model that brought new menace to the 1991 "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Instead, what we have here is just a whole bunch of beady-red-eyed Terminators -- although some of them are the size of small buildings (or, dare I say, Transformers), and at least one, if I'm not mistaken, is accessorized with a dashing bandana wrapped around its metal brow. The Terminators battle the human rebels, nominally commanded by General Ashdown (sci-fi vet Michael Ironside), who directs his forces from the safety of that submarine, but effectively led, out in the Terminator wastelands, by the charismatic John Connor ([movieperson id="3146"]Christian Bale[/movieperson]).

It's unfortunate that Bale, such a fine actor, is so completely uncharismatic here -- especially in comparison to a new character named Marcus, who's played by the effortlessly charismatic Sam Worthington. (Worthington was apparently recommended to McG by James Cameron, director of the first two "Terminator" films, who had cast the Australian star as the lead in his long-brewing 3-D epic "Avatar," now due out in December.) Also notable is the seriously talented Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese. (Let's hope however, that Yelchin soon takes a break soon from his current action-man path to do more ambitious real-world films like "Charlie Bartlett.") And Moon Bloodgood brings some emotional dimension to the role of Blair Williams, the movie's requisite butt-kick girl. The rest of the cast is a blur, though, when not a puzzlement. Helena Bonham Carter, in weird-lady mode, has some brief moments as a bald Skynet doctor (she's afflicted with cancer, for some reason). Bryce Dallas Howard barely registers as Connor's pregnant wife, Kate. And it's hard to work out what the wonderful Jane Alexander is doing in this picture. (Playing the leader of a combat-shy human faction -- but really, why?)

Given its setting, in the middle of a worldwide robot conflagration, the movie also suffers from an inevitable tedium, which can best be summarized as: bang-bang-bang; pow, pow; fireball, fireball; ka-boom! The color is often leached down to the dismal blues and grays familiar from other sci-fi dystopias, some of which -- especially the "Mad Max" films and, again, "Transformers" -- are clear influences. The picture lacks conceptual flair -- we really have seen most of this stuff before -- and you kind of wish the producers would acknowledge the futility of their undertaking here and put this tired series back in its box for good. (Especially now that the far-superior Fox TV series, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" has -- coincidentally? -- just been canceled.) No such luck, though: "Terminator 5" is already in the pipeline. Do you feel an even bigger headache coming on?

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of [article id="1612011"]"Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"[/article] and [article id="1612004"]"The Girlfriend Experience,"[/article] also opening this week.

Will the vampires grab more trophies than the slumdog? What was the year's ultimate onscreen WTF moment? It's up to you to decide the winners of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Vote now, and tune in on May 31 at 9 p.m. ET, when the big show airs live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

Check out everything we've got on "Terminator Salvation."

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