The Terminator movies—especially the first two—have stood out in the action genre for their ability to engineer compelling human drama into the captivating action. I'll admit it: I still tear up at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day when Arnold gives a scorched thumbs-up sign to his friend John Connor as he sacrifices himself for humanity.
Furthermore, those films didn't just have a heart under that hyperalloy combat chassis. They also used their sci-fi juxtaposition of humans and robots to probe the human heart: What makes humans different from terminators? What makes them similar? Are humans' fates as programmed as the actions of their robot enemies? Terminators are trained to kill, but why do humans kill?
It's fitting, then, that the first film of the franchise's second trilogy thematically focuses on the heart as the difference between human and machine. Two problems with that: 1) That's about as deep as the thematic exploration goes, and 2) the constant references to this organ is the only heart that Terminator Salvation possesses. I certainly didn't get moved to tears this time. Or laughter—which is sad because of how genuinely joyful the other movies could be. In fact, I'm not sure I felt anything other than awe—and that was reserved for a scene involving a super-cool 80-foot robot. (Robot geeks, wait till you hear the noises this thing makes.)
So, the robots rock. And mostly, so do the special effects—though it's strange that the effects can make a 1991-era Arnold and a colossus robot come to life, but a helicopter crash looks like a cheap flight simulator at a carnival. And the action set pieces—one updating T2's semi vs. motorcycle chase—are pretty tight. That all combines to make this an acceptable summer popcorn flick ride. Many moviegoers will walk out satisfied. As purely a wham-bam standard action piece, director McG (We Are Marshall, Charlie's Angels) delivers.
But I want more from this franchise. With the depth of storytelling in the previous films—and even in the now-cancelled TV show—this is a disappointment. The thrills, scares, and triumphs all feel unearned and cheap. They don't naturally flow from the story. In fact, while talking a lot about the human heart, Terminator Salvation is told in a cold, mechanical fashion with somber, unfeeling efficiency.
We're in a film era of creative, faithful, and successful rebirths of familiar and well-loved franchises. Some films, like Star Trek, do it with joyful abandon and adrenaline. Some, like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, have brought their franchises a greater sense of grist, gravitas, and reality. The completely joyless and largely contrived Terminator Salvation does neither. With the expectations set by these other franchises, this average action film just can't compare. In fact, I'm not sure it really adds much to its own franchise. I remember thinking that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was OK but really was just a necessary passage to get us to the cool stuff—movies featuring the post-apocalyptic nightmare war after 2004's nuclear attack on humanity by Skynet. Now that we're there, this movie, too, feels like it's just biding time until the real story starts.