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Christian Bale Rages Against the Machine in 'Terminator Salvation'

Terminator Salvation holds the rare distinction of being both a prequel and a sequel, set 34 years after James Cameron’s 1984 original, whose backstory it seeks to explain, and picking up more or less where Jonathan Mostow’s underappreciated Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines left off.

If you’re already scratching your head, don’t worry. Salvation, which chronicles man’s struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world governed by malicious super-computers, isn’t a movie to be understood so much as experienced. 


For starters, it’s riddled with inconsistencies, even if you’re willing to accept a premise that might have seemed wholly implausible 25 years ago but feels slightly less so today. While Cameron and Mostow kept things simple, playing artfully on our fear of rapidly advancing technology and exploring with remarkable clarity the paradoxes of time travel, Salvation director McG (Charlie’s Angels) offers a more convoluted vision of the future in which plot points are hastily introduced and, at times, insufficiently explained.

For the uninitiated: Fourteen years after the nuclear holocaust known as Judgment Day, prophesied savior of humanity John Connor (Christian Bale) is rising through the ranks of the resistance dedicated to crashing Skynet, the artificial-intelligence network responsible for the virtual annihilation of mankind.

Twice the target of a machine-orchestrated manhunt, he is understandably edgy when his brain trust is infiltrated by a suspected mole: Marcus (Sam Worthington), a former death-row inmate who appears human in every way, save for the internal hardware keeping him alive. An uneasy alliance is formed, however, when Connor discovers a Skynet plot to kill the soldier (Anton Yelchin) destined to travel back in time, save Connor’s mother and impregnate her with the savior himself.

The brilliance of the Terminator movies has always been their ability to emphasize the human drama at the heart of a horrific, effects-driven sci-fi soap opera. Here, the machines have not only risen, they’ve become infinitely more interesting than their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

As in The Dark Knight, Bale plays second fiddle in his own movie. Connor, the emotional anchor of the series through two sequels, is no longer a frightened, sarcastic teen sinking beneath the weight of unthinkable expectations; he’s a one-dimensional bore. It’s Marcus, the mysterious loner whose purpose remains unclear until the movie’s explosive finale, who holds our attention through a strangely turgid opening sequence.

It’s a good thing he does. Terminator Salvation, lacking the wry humor of its predecessors and the inestimable presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, sputters mightily out of the gate before gaining momentum. But the action is impressively executed and powerfully engrossing (Bravo, McG!), and there are clever twists – many of them revealed in the movie’s all-too-telling trailer – that compensate for the film’s untidier patches and clumsy editing.

Is Salvation worthy of Cameron’s blessing, which McG sought and was reportedly denied? Perhaps not. The film has more than its share of shortcomings. But if you’re hopelessly invested in Terminator mythology, you might just be inclined to forgive them.