Terminator Salvation asks the ever-important question, "What is it that makes us human?" The query, inspired by the discovery of a man best described as "flesh and machine," sadly is not addressed to a major philosophical mind such as Claude Levi-Strauss's. Instead, we get a bunch of pondering cardboard characters looking anguished before they revert to their primary facial expression, most ably denoted as "less anguished." A subject that might have been better delved into is "what is it that makes a good screenplay," especially for a film that few were actually begging for. Please note that the spin-off TV series was canceled this week by Fox for poor ratings. This Terminator, the fourth in the series -- (oh, my God, there was a third?) -- is an incomprehensible mess. This is clearly not a standalone vehicle. In fact, one should be forced to pass a Terminator exam before gaining entry to your local multiplex to view this celluloid delicacy.
For newbies, here's a quick primer. In the first two, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his paramount roles (although he is quite fine in Junior as a pregnant man), plays futuristic robots who come back in time to either assassinate or save the life of the man, John Connor, who will safeguard humankind from extermination. In The Terminator (1984), as an evil, killing machine, Arnold materializes in the past, which is our present, and tries to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to the aforementioned John. The father is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who is also from the future, but Kyle is part of the Resistance fighting against the computer system that is trying to wipe out Homo sapiens. Then in the masterful, truly entertaining Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Arnold returns as a good robot from the future that's programmed to keep John (Edward Furlong), who's a sensitive teenager, alive. The villain: a nasty Terminator portrayed by Robert Patrick who has trouble staying destroyed.
Moving on to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, I'll have to quote from Roger Ebert for the plotline: John "meets a veterinarian named Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), and after they find they're on the same hit list from the killers of the future, they team up to fight back and save the planet." T-4, which might be mistaken by some for a Transformers sequel, takes place in the post-apocalyptic future. John (Christian Bale) now is older than his father, Kyle (Anton Yelchin), who is a teenager, who doesn't know John is his dad. Stuck in a decimated Los Angeles with his only companion being a mute little girl, Kyle teams up with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who is from our time, but was put to death for killing police officers. Having willed his body to science, he wakes up in a world he knows nothing about.
This secondary storyline is the engrossing one, especially because it keeps Bale and his pregnant love interest (the bland Bryce Dallas Howard) off the screen. Bale, an increasingly annoying presence on screen, tackles almost every role as if he's auditioning again for American Psycho. Worthington and Yelchin, however, get you emotionally involved, at least for the few minutes they're not being chased by mechanical beings. If this makes any sense to you, I'm doing you a great injustice. As already voiced, the film is basically unintelligible, and after 20 or so minutes, you'll just have to settle back and try to enjoy the chases and the explosions (all done with more finesse elsewhere).
The most frightening element here is that this film is just a setup to another sequel. Director McG, who jumped onto America's screens with the campy Charlie's Angels and the brain-numbing Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, is one of those dispiriting directors with little soul who we'll be saddled with for decades because he knows how to rake in the moolah. Here he has taken an enterprise that began with wit, originality, and an air of humanity, and cannibalized it. Unfortunately, the resulting remnants will not be buried.