Thanks to the success of Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Friday the 13th and Star Trek (plus laziness on the part of consumers and a complete lack of creativity in Hollywood), we are now in the era of the franchise relaunch. Film series that burned out years ago are being resurrected, given a spit shine and shoved back into theaters to the tune of hundreds of millions in box office grosses. It’s only a matter of time (mark my words!) before we are subjected to Back to the Future IV or Weekend at Bernie’s III.
The latest “reboot” to hit movie theaters is Terminator Salvation. The film arrives some six years after Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines effectively put the successful sci-fi series in cold storage. The fourth Terminator offering comes staffed with a hot young cast, a hip director (McG of Charlie’s Angels infamy) and a duo of talented screenwriters (John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, who typed out The Net, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Catwoman). ... OK, maybe we should scratch that last one.
Cue the ominous music and flash forward 15 years. Wright wakes up unsure of how he survived his lethal injection or where he’s been for the last decade and a half. The film tries to remain coy for a while about what Wright really is, even though it’s patently obvious to everyone in the audience. In short order, Wright runs into a scrappy wannabe resistance fighter in the L.A. area named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, doubling down this summer with Terminator and Star Trek). Although Wright tries to protect the kid, Reese is soon kidnapped by a Hunter Killer drone and spirited off to Skynet headquarters in San Francisco. Eventually, Wright crosses paths with our man John Connor, who’s still looking for his once-and-future daddy and sees Wright as a means of infiltrating Skynet.
Like Abrams’ Star Trek, this new Terminator drops plenty of in-jokes about the previous films. One or two would have been fine, but Salvation brings back three or four major catchphrases (“I’ll be back!” and “Come with me if you want to live!” among them). The film also restages several major action sequences almost wholesale. (The semi-vs.-motorcycle freeway chase from T2 returns as a motorcycle-vs.-semi freeway chase). Throw in a certain climactic cameo and the abundance of familiar elements threatens to make Terminator Salvation less of an occasionally winking tribute and more of an occasionally idea-starved rip-off.
Even so, it’s hard to find enough serious flaws in this new chapter to weaken the overall structural integrity. The intermittent cheese scent of the script is more than offset by the slam-bang plot. The actors, even when deprived of their due screen time, manage to make their characters sympathetic. (With the possible exception of Bale, who seems to have his dial stuck on “glower” these days.) And to top it all off, the gunmetal grimy settings look appropriately postapocalyptic. McG is still worthy of scorn for giving us those two MTV-on-goofballs Charlie’s Angels movies, for executive producing “The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious” and for continuing to subject us to his ridiculous nickname. On the other hand, between executive producing “Chuck” and directing this film with a surprisingly steady hand, perhaps he’s in line for a reboot of his own. Unlike J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Terminator Salvation isn’t overloaded with inappropriate, outsized action. The action’s there. In spades. But it never quite feels over-the-top. Not too many chain gun fights. Not too few propane cloud explosions. Just the right amount of high-caliber, adrenaline-pumping action. Sure, the ending drives home the film’s metaphor about the indomitable spirit of the human heart a skosh too heavy-handedly (Sequel, anyone?), but that hardly spoils the grim fun of it all.