There are other mechanized aggressors one resembles a flying saucer crossed with an electric shaver, one is like a five-story, looming, gigantoid version of RoboCop, only with a gun in place of its head. Watching Terminator Salvation, there is never any doubt that the machines are alive. Maybe that's because the whole movie is a bit of a machine.
The director, McG, is the wizard of whirligig whoop-ass who made the Charlie's Angels movies, and here he dresses up what is basically a blowout-in-the-junkyard battle film as if it were a holy conflagration. The color is bleached to granulated newsreel white, black, and beige, for that dead-serious Full Metal Jacket effect, and a transport car of human prisoners is shot to evoke the image of a death-camp train. McG also devises grimly novel ways to shoot action, like depicting a chopper crash in a single shot from the POV of John Connor (Christian Bale) as he pilots it to a topsy-turvy landing.
As a hero, Connor is really no more distinctive than the gnarly, unshaven outcast ringleader of every retro-future fantasy from Escape From New York on. Yet Terminator Salvation is invested in treating him like a grunge messiah. Bale brings the role his usual stylish, seething edge. He seems ready to blow at any moment, making his infamous on-set tantrum look less like a case of star egomania than like a Method actor's refusal to break character gone amok. Connor, leading a fringe of rebel fighters, is out to protect Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a teenager who has no idea how important he is: If he lives, he will grow up to be Connor's father (the Michael Biehn character from the first Terminator), and will therefore sire the resistance movement. But all the loop-the-loop, boy-is-father-to-the-man-who-must-protect-the-boy-or-the-man-won't-exist stuff is more fun to make sense of when you're leaving the theater. On screen, it's just a dimly revolving puzzle.
Time-tripping flimflammery aside, a good Terminator movie needs a hook that's kick-ass basic. The 1984 classic had the vision of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a one-man demolition derby an image that was also a Hollywood joke, since it turned Arnold's lousiness as an actor into the core of his appeal. T2: Judgment Day had its rock-'em-sock-'em face-off and all that mercury-robot shape-shifting. Following the noise and faux fury of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation has more ingenuity but still a lot of noise. It's basically a zombie movie with machines instead of the walking dead, and with Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright, a vicious criminal made over into...something else. Confronted with Worthington's square-jawed stolidity, audiences may be forgiven for wondering if he's meant to be a young version of Schwarzenegger's Terminator. It turns out, though, that he's not so easy to read nor nearly as entertaining. He's a machine we're supposed to feel for, but every time the film asks you to do so, you may taste metal. B–