It’s 2018 and Skynet, the extremely pro-death-penalty artificial intelligence network, is just about finished scouring humanity from the face of the Earth. Robots of various size, shape, menace and loudness are dispatched to eliminate whatever people might be left alive from the nuclear “judgment day” of a few years earlier.
Eliminate them, that is, or harvest their parts to make stealthier robots. How that works is a little fuzzy, especially to this guy Marcus (Sam Worthington), who thought he died on death row in 2003, just after donating his body to science, but woke up in the here and now feeling a lot like the experimental prototype of a genocidal cyborg. Not cool! But wait, maybe that conspicuously cancer-stricken doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) who visited Marcus’ cell to work out his dubious last-minute deal was on to something: The 2018 atmosphere is full of fallout, yet radiation sickness apparently is a thing of the past! Onward and upward!
Oh, right: the robots. With their beady red eyes, and creepy electronic-whalesong war cries, and ludicrously heavy artillery, they really are terrifying. Good thing John Connor (Christian Bale), the “prophesied leader of the Resistance,” is here to, well, Resist. With Marcus as a wrench in his works, or maybe a useful tool, Connor must track down Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the teenager who’s supposed to go back in time and become Connor’s father. How that works is a little fuzzy too.
There is the suggestion that Skynet has gotten wise to Connor’s elaborately pre-emptive defense, or at least to Bale’s general aura of futility. But not all is lost: With so many time-travel plots interlocked in the Terminator apparatus by now, even sentient super computers seem prone to exploitable confusion about the chronology. It also helps that Yelchin, who also recently rebooted Star Trek’s Chekov, has such a knack for reinvigorating cherished sci-fi characters. His scrappy survivor Reese very plausibly might grow up to become Michael Biehn and throw down with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984.
Too bad he first has to endure the here and now. Director McG, himself possibly named for the experimental prototype of a genocidal McDonald’s sandwich, and trained in the art of narrative mess-making through music videos and Charlie’s Angels movies, reassembles this franchise of diminishing returns in an approximation of working order, but with some pretty essential-seeming parts, like sense, left in a pile on the floor. Amidst all the shrapnel, Schwarzenegger does make a brief, mute appearance, and it looks like just another item on the homage checklist. See also: skulls getting crunched, catchphrases, big-rig chase scene, final battle in factory, etc. Under the circumstances, only cold comfort may be had from the lack of cutesy Edward Furlong banter.
Thing is, once you’ve actually had the apocalypse, everything else kinda feels like wrapping up. Besides Yelchin, only Worthington really puts any heart into the game, albeit rather literally, and other supporting performers barely register at all. Who can blame them?
With a grimed-up gun-metal monochrome to match Bale’s gravelly monotone, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut gets that post-apocalyptic look just fine; maybe Bale’s infamous on-set tantrum should’ve been aimed not at him but instead at screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, mysteriously asked back after Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Just because a movie is about mechanical, impersonal, marauding things doesn’t mean it should behave like them.
No wonder Battlestar Galactica has become the cyborg-conundrum drama of choice. As for the Terminators, it’s a little sad to think that Connor’s mom’s friend had it right in the original movie when she advised, “Look at it this way: In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?”