Every summer movie season must have its share of clanging heavy metal, and fitting the bill this year is the awkwardly titled Terminator Salvation, which has enough exploding robots, aircraft and artillery to tide us over until Transformers 2 arrives. Neither bland enough to ignore nor noteworthy enough to remember, the movie occupies that crowded middle ground of serviceable sequels that send you home feeling, if not exactly burned, then certainly unsatisfied.
This is the dourest and most humorless of the four Terminator pictures - I don't think there's a single moment of comic relief in the whole two hours - and the serious tone weighs down the film. Sure, those Terminator motorcycles are way cool, and the Godzilla-sized Terminator is even cooler. (The noises it makes are pure movie-geek heaven - the neatest sound effect since the bombs that went ke-raaang! during the asteroid-belt sequence in Attack of the Clones.)
But director McG (aka Joseph McGinty Nichol), in a bid to be taken seriously as an action filmmaker after those two Charlie's Angels baubles, practically admonishes you for having any fun. The tone of Terminator Salvation is bleak, bleak, bleak: The movie is a bum-out disguised as a popcorn muncher. When McG sneaks in the occasional visual homage to The Great Escape or a couple of crowd-pleasing odes to previous Terminators, they almost feel like accidents. Wipe that smile off your face! This is a war movie, dammit!
The intensity is just superficial, though: In terms of story, Terminator Salvation is also the most timid in the series. There's no invention in it, no sense of discovery. Only the impressively orchestrated action sequences feel fresh. Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who previously collaborated on the vastly superior Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, finally get the chance to depict the war between man and machine that has been the lynchpin of the franchise. But that war turns out to be cookie-cutter, Post-Apocalyptic Warfare 101 stuff (think The Matrix sequels).
An hour into Terminator Salvation there's a neat twist that briefly enlivens the scenario, but the script takes it in the least interesting of all possible directions, and the story flatlines. The plot thickens, then it curdles. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut's sepia palette, which renders everything in the hues of desert sand and gray skies, is initially striking. But after a while, the scheme grows visually dull. You start craving more color than Terminator Salvation is equipped to provide.
The same goes for the performances. As the long-beleaguered John Connor (previously played by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl), Christian Bale exudes gruff intensity and stoicism and creates a black hole of charisma on the screen. Rarely has a big-budget spectacle been graced with a hero this blank.
But Bale isn't really the film's star, anyway. Terminator Salvation belongs to Australian actor Sam Worthington, who gets more screen time - and more stuff to do - as Marcus Wright, a death-row inmate from our era who awakens in 2018 and must protect the teenaged Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who will grow up to be Michael Biehn and travel back in time to sire John Connor, who will eventually save mankind from the machines.
Got that? No worries: You'll have plenty of opportunities during Terminator Salvation to tune out, contemplate the vagaries of time travel and wonder if you should have stayed home and done the laundry. The answer is a qualified "No." Those motorbikes really are cool.