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For months McG has seemed as uncertain as anyone that he deserved to take over the Terminator franchise, promising fans and the media over and over that he wouldn't ruin what James Cameron created over 20 years ago. There was a definite "the lady doth protest too much" quality to it, a sense that deep down he knew the movie wasn't any good, and hoped that by taking the first strike against himself the fans might go easier on him. Finally McG can calm down: Terminator Salvation is pretty good. As a summer blockbuster experience it falls squarely in the middle, never reaching any emotional or technical heights but never devolving into self-parody, either. That's a higher compliment than it sounds, given how badly the franchise stumbled with T3: Rise of the Machines, and how few people saw any reason to revisit John Connor and his fight to save the future.
But Terminator: Salvation is a solid and well-paced bit of entertainment, bringing the Terminator story into the post-Judgment Day guerilla wars and crafting a war story out of a franchise that began as a simple chase movie. We meet John Connor (Christian Bale) as a rugged adult, shooting Terminators in the head and scheming complex operations to bring down Skynet in any manner possible. Commanding a ragtag militia that includes trusty footsoldier Barnes (Common) and his pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), Connor is working with his higher-ups to deploy an audio signal that would disarm all Terminators, making the resistance capable of breaking into Skynet headquarters and destroying the whole thing from within.
Meanwhile, in a much more interesting subplot, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) has awoken, naked in the desert, 15 years after being executed. (Pay attention to his death row prologue, featuring Helena Bonham Carter as a spooky scientist) Trying to find his way back to the city and figure out what's happened to him, Marcus runs into a scrawny teenager who tells him brusquely "Come with me if you want to live." Yup, it's Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who fighting his own version of the resistance in Los Angeles, completely cut off from the rest of the human world. When Marcus and Kyle hear a transmission from John Connor himself, they make their way to the resistance headquarters in the desert, but are intercepted by a giant Terminator-- the Harvester-- before they can get there.
The action sequence that kicks off with the Harvester's attack on a gas station and ends with a plane crash is the best in the film, and the moment that proves, yes, McG really knows what he's doing. He's having fun here, asking "What would happen if a truck tied itself to a helicopter?" and using a giant effects budget to find out. That curiosity about both the world of Terminator and the physics of action movies continues throughout the film, as Marcus is revealed to be more than he seems and an eventual attack on Skynet provides a much-hyped appearance by a familiar face.
While some side characters and their stories seem extraneous (Moon Bloodgood's resistance fighter Blair is particularly wasted), the movie proceeds with an efficiency that even James Cameron might admire. John Connor is a tortured hero, but we don't have to put up with much of his bemoaning the wages of power; he's a man of action. Similarly Marcus, whose search for identity is the real heart of the film, mostly just moves forward, leaving the soul-searching for one exposition-heavy scene near the end of the film.
The movie probably would have been a lot stronger had it stuck with what was rumored to be the original plan, a story about Marcus with just a cameo appearance from John Connor. Bale is once again the least interesting part of his own blockbuster, both because of the difficulties of playing a messianic figure like Connor and because of that same stiff resilience and raspy voice that made Batman a blank slate last summer. Bale doesn't stand a chance against Worthington in their scenes together, with the Australian newcomer bringing the kind of intensity and innate vulnerability Bale used to be known for. It's the arrival of a new star commanding you to sit up and take notice.
The only actor who gives Worthington any challenge is Yelchin, whose Reese is a convincing younger version of Michael Biehn's character from the first Terminator and a surprising contrast to his soft-faced Chekov from Star Trek. Lean and hungry and possessing serious survival instinct, Reese is the accessible, real human that Bale's John Connor fails to be.
There are some problems in this future take on the Terminator story, namely the fact that John Connor isn't doing much to earn his self-proclaimed savior status. And as inevitable (and welcome) sequels go forward, they'll need some variation in the bleak post-apocalyptic landscape, some way to give the movies the same dramatic heft they had when set in present day. But as a place to start, Terminator Salvation isn't half bad, and definitely a promising start to a revival of the franchise. Did we need another visit to John Connor after all? Maybe not. But now that we're here, we may as well enjoy it.