Rise of the Automaton Action Movie 

Terminator Salvation
Directed by McG

For a movie about the dangers of technologization, the explodographic Terminator Salvation sure has a fetish for all things mechanical, from skyscraping megarobots and cluttered computer screens to whooshing airplanes and whizzing motorcycles. Director Joseph McGinty Nichol, who calls himself "McG," is less interested in story or theme than in spectacle; not five minutes in, he shows his hand with a scene in which a cop killer is given a lethal injection in front of a seated audience. Death is performance. Those bloodthirsty extras are we.

Christian Bale, whose face spends most of the film stuck in a toddler's mouth-agape look of perplexity, is the seventh actor to take on the role of John Connor, the prophesied hero of the resistance against the machines, here in his early 30s. Screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris — the duo behind Catwoman and Terminator 3 — invert the series' first film: here, Connor is scrambling to protect his future father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, who deserves better material), rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, he's also fighting a war against Skynet, a supercomputer that gained consciousness 15 years earlier and began a nuclear war against the humans.

This Terminator is set in a post-apocalyptic west coast, and McG plays it like Cormac McCarthy for the Transformers crowd. L.A. has been vanquished, reduced to an unsteady clump of crumbling buildings, and before the end credits roll a decimated San Francisco will be nuked for good measure. There are no civilians in this world, only homicidal robots and pockets of resistance fighters amid the rubble and debris. Allegory seems afoot, but it's tough to make sense of any of it: is this what the world will look like if the terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons? Or, are the robots the Americans, and the humans another man's "freedom fighters"? Or, is nothing afoot here, because the director couldn't care less about ideas, as long as the noises are loud?

McG is nothing if not conflicted. He shoots many of his action sequences, like the journey of a helicopter from launch to crash, in shaky unbroken takes, aping the visceral immediacy of Children of Men. But he often just as soon follows them up with action movie clichés, like a motorcycle leaping over a moat. Cue the hot guitar licks! McG can't decide whether he's making an artful action flick or a knuckleheaded blockbuster, and thus he teeters toward the latter, cynically shoveling out heaping piles of What the People Want — it's teen tested, preview-audience approved.

Thematically, this Terminator covers similar ground as the recent Star Trek reboot: namely, it advocates for the moderation and bipartisanship that's de rigueur in the post-Bush era. Both sides, the humans and the machines, are too extreme, and John Connor cuts a middle ground — he actually screams to his commander, at one point, that "if we stay the course, we are dead!" To boot, the machines can't win without the help of a half-human hybrid, and the humans can't win without assistance from the same half-machine. But McG lacks, at the very least, J.J. Abrams' storytelling acumen, and Terminator ultimately stands as a messy, inconsistent diversion, nothing more than a popcorn-sales generator.

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