Dir McG. US. 2009. 114 mins

The machines should get top billing in Terminator Salvation, a dark fourth instalment of the Terminator franchise that just about makes up in stylish visuals and thunderous action for what it lacks in human drama and narrative focus. Coming six years after the third episode and without Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the killer robots, the newentry, with Christian Bale starring and McG directing for The Halcyon Company, won’t get the maximum benefit of its franchise pedigree. But with its potentially stronger youth appeal and early summer launch it could still be as powerful a box office performer as July 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Domestic distributor Warner opens Salvation on May 21 for the Memorial Day US holiday weekend. Family sequel Night At The Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian will provide strong competition, so equalling the third instalment’s $44m debut – or $150.4m final domestic tally – may be difficult.

The franchise has always performed best outside the US, however, and when international distributor Sony rolls the film out to most major markets during June it should be able, as it was with Terminator 3 ($283m internationally), to significantly improve on the domestic showing.  

Dispensing with the time travel that was a key plot device in the first three films, Salvation is set almost entirely in 2018, 14 years after Skynet artificial intelligence machines became self-aware and destroyed most of human civilization. The human survivors live in a desolate post-apocalyptic world under constant threat of capture or annihilation by a whole product line of Terminators, including giant Transformer-style ‘Harvesters’, flying, rolling and swimming mechanical killers and early versions of the familiar humanoid robots.

Returning from the third instalment, credited screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris – Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) and Paul Haggis (Crash) reportedly also worked on the script – split the first half of the story between the primary characters.

Bale’s John Connor is an older version of the character from the second and third films, a hardened soldier in the human resistance army which is trying to fight back against Skynet. Marcus Wright, played by Australian actor Sam Worthington (star of original Terminator writer-director James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar), is a mysterious stranger who befriends Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, from the new Star Trek), a teenage drifter who, as franchise fans will realise, is destined to go back in time and become John Connor’s father.

The characters come together for the film’s climactic half hour, in which Connor leads a raid on the complex – once known as San Francisco — where Skynet is using captured humans to develop a new generation of Terminators.

After making the two Charlie’s Angels films and drama We Are Marshall, McG goes all out to establish his action credentials with sequence after sequence of in-your-face, maximum volume action shot mostly in close-ups that put the audience in the middle of the chaos. The intense effect should please younger audiences but it’s the film’s army of menacing machines, created under the direction of the late Stan Winston, designer of the original Terminator, that impress the most. The film’s desaturated look, created using what press notes describe as an experimental version of the ‘Oz process,’ adds to the intensity, making human faces and eyes jump out of the screen.

The plot, though, may be confusing to casual moviegoers who don’t remember the earlier films and appears to take a late turn designed to allow for another sequel. And there’s very little of the human drama - or humour - that gave the original films their broader appeal.  

None of the actors has much to work with but Worthington and Yelchin manage to give their characters some appeal. Bale’s Connor is too gruff and one-note to be of much interest. The supporting cast includes rapper/actor Common and Helena Bonham Carter in small roles. Schwarzenegger makes a cameo of sorts when a digital version of his face is grafted onto a prototype Terminator Connor encounters at Skynet headquarters. But the film doesn’t make much of the appearance and in fact it’s Bale who gets to deliver Schwarzenegger’s signature line at another point in the story.

Productions companies
The Halcyon Company
Wonderland Sound and Vision

North American distribution
Warner Bros

International distribution (exc South Korea and select Middle East territories)
Sony Pictures Releasing International

Moritz Borman
Jeffrey Silver
Victor Kubicek
Derek Anderson

John Brancato & Michael Ferris

Shane Hurlbut

Production design
Martin Laing

Conrad Buff

Danny Elfman

Visual effects supervisor
Charles Gibson

Main cast
Christian Bale
Sam Worthington
Anton Yelchin
Moon Bloodgood
Bryce Dallas Howard
Jane Alexander
Helena Bonham Carter