Here's a trivial nugget that never ceases to amuse me: Back when writer-director James Cameron was initially prepping 1984's The Terminator, one of his first choices to play the iconic title character wasn't Arnold Schwarzenegger -- it was O.J. Simpson. But Cameron soon changed his mind, stating that "people wouldn't have believed a nice guy like O.J. playing the part of a ruthless killer."
So here we are 25 years later, with Simpson having gone off to, uh, do other things and Cameron himself splitting the franchise after two installments. And the primary question begged by Terminator Salvation must be, "Is this film necessary?" Not really. But here comes the follow-up query: "Is it worth the admission price anyway?" To which the answer is a resounding yes.
Make no mistake: Terminator Salvation is nowhere in the same league as the classic 1984 original (which was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry just this past year) or the pull-out-all-the-stops 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But it's a step up from the belated (and Cameron-less) 2003 entry Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which surprisingly preserved the integrity of the narrative throughline but otherwise spun its wheels in regards to its characterizations and action set-pieces.
In much the same way, Terminator Salvation doesn't especially deepen our understanding of the apocalyptic future world first glimpsed in Cameron's original movie, and to say that it fails to flesh out the character of John Connor is an understatement. In many ways, it's similar to X-Men Origins: Wolverine in that it covers material that doesn't especially need further illumination. However, it's better than Wolverine simply because while the mutant flick offered backstory that was wholly unnecessary, this piece can be defended for looking forward, with a dogged insistence on filling in the gaps that take us from Sarah Connor's initial status as a mousy single woman (with '80s big-hair, to boot!) to her son's eventual standing as the savior of humanity. And in the process, it does so by throwing a few compelling twists into the saga, as well as revving up on action sequences that are more imaginatively staged than what's been flooding the multiplexes as of late.
The most dramatic addition to the story is the character of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who's first spotted talking to a doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) as he sits on death row in our time but later reappears in the world of 2018, long past the Judgment Day that has seen the machines take over the world and destroy most of its human population (any reader who has no idea what I'm talking about should be hitting the DVD store rather than glancing at these words). John Connor (Christian Bale) will eventually run into Marcus and must determine whether he's friend or foe, but for now, the intrepid fighter (still a low-level officer rather than the leader of the human resistance) has his mind on other matters -- specifically, locating and protecting a teenage boy named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, also doing duty as the new Star Trek's Chekov), who, after all, will eventually be sent back in time to save Sarah Connor and in the process impregnate her, thus leading to the birth of John Connor. And here you thought Marty McFly weaved a tangled web...
As with any yarn involving time travel and the possibility of creating alternate realities, it's best not to concentrate too intently on the potential plotholes. Instead, one should be thankful that director McG and scripters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (who also co-wrote T3) have created a desolate future world that jibes completely with the one first imagined by Cameron way back when. Early complaints that the film is too bleak are ludicrous (maybe these reviewers were hoping for the campy post-apocalyptic disposition of Tank Girl?), and while the charges can't be denied that Bale's John Connor is rather humorless and one-note, what else are we to expect from a character who has spent his entire life burdened not only by the fact that the future is crappy but that he's somehow expected to fix it all? At any rate, the movie itself isn't completely devoid of humor, as witnessed by a few knowing winks at fans of the first films (including a cameo-of-sorts by a certain superstar).
As before, the Terminators remain frightening creations, not only in their awesome physicality but also in their relentlessness when it comes to search-and-destroy missions. As an added treat, this film also tosses in some T-variations, including metallic serpents, self-driven motorcycles (which figure in a genuinely exciting chase sequence) and a gigantic robot whose theater-rocking rumblings bring to mind the superb aural effects employed in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.
Terminator Salvation is, to borrow from Macbeth, full of sound and fury, but whether it's a tale told by an idiot (certainly, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle earned McG a battalion of haters) and signifying nothing will largely be determined by viewer preconceptions and a subsequent willingness to go with the flow. This isn't a classic Terminator model, but as the fourth line in a brand that was created a quarter-century ago, it serves its purpose nicely.