How the West was 'Terminated'

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This fourth edition of the "Terminator" franchise comes at us with what can only be called McG-force. The director, whose reputation was made in 2000 on the restyled jiggle of "Charlie's Angels," has found in "Salvation" a world that will almost, almost contain his unrestrained energy and rabid optimism, which makes for a movie mash-up of everything that manic imagination and money will buy.

Christian Bale stars as John Connor, grown and living out his destiny to save the world from the killing machines introduced in 1984 along with Arnold Schwarzenegger's well-sculpted, sunglasses-loving cyborg killer. The Terminator's failed mission to eliminate Sarah Connor, then just a lonely waitress, spawned not just son John and a successful franchise, but a mega-career for writer/director James Cameron.

Cameron discovered a million-dollar sweet spot between the virtually unstoppable mechanical killers he had created and the very human story of survival he wove through it. T-800, T-1000 or any other models that rolled off the assembly line were fearsome but also funny and surprisingly adaptable because they "thought" in their lethal but mutable way.

In McG's new world order, the machines rule with enforcers of every shape roaming the land -- they fly, swim, search, chase, harvest, transport, jail, crush, and on and on, but there's not a strategic thinker or a stand-out personality among them. In battle scenes a sort of metallic madness takes hold, but the tension between hunted and hunter has been lost (for this, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also wrote "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," must share in the blame).

Though we've been waiting for Connor, Marcus Wright turns out to be the warrior the film needs and the salvation it seeks. Played by a movie-stealing Sam Worthington, Marcus carries within him the question, and possibly the answer, at the heart of the series: What is it that truly separates man from machine? Draped in a worn military-style overcoat, gun in hand, Marcus moves through a barren American West circa 2018 wearing his conflicted humanity like Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone days; you can't help but hope that, along with his power ranger of a girlfriend Blair (an excellent Moon Bloodgood), he will find his way onto the drawing boards now shaping "Terminator 5."

We first encounter Marcus on death row, convinced in his final moments to donate his body to research. The last face he sees is that of a scientist ( Helena Bonham Carter). Decades later, Marcus gets a second chance. The good news: He's strong, reconstituted and somehow alive. The bad: He's awakening to a post-apocalyptic rubble heap. The journey for Marcus, John and rest of "Salvation's" cast comes with a suitcase full of past time-traveling anomalies (footnotes provided). Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) turns up as a teen here, years from saving Sarah Connor and fathering John (see T-1). He is the one to first rescue Marcus from the machines. Back at resistance headquarters, John is plotting the end of Skynet (see T-1, 2, 3). By now he's married to Kate (see T-3), and they're expecting a child.

When John learns that Kyle has been captured and is headed to Skynet central for containment and probably extermination, he knows from what his mother has told him (see T-2) that his very existence (see T-4) hangs on Kyle's fate. Much of the action from that point on is built around John's attempts to save his future father, though Kyle must never be told who John is or how things will unfold (see T-1, 2, 3 & 4).

The movie was designed to be Bale's, but his strengths do not serve him, or the movie, well here. John Connor needs to be the calm, powerful center of this storm, not the storm itself (as he was on set too, with a wicked tirade captured on tape, then set free to wander the Internet by

While the filmmakers have lost some of the soul of the franchise, if you're a "Terminator" fan, "Salvation" is mostly worth it. The machines are mindless, yes, but there are enough pyrotechnics and artillery to feel like Armageddon squared. And when the story starts to crumble around Bale, Worthington is usually there to pick up the pieces. At one point John asks Marcus, "Who are you?" Marcus looks at him with a knowing sadness and says: "I'm the only hope you have." Thankfully, he is enough.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language).Running time: 1:55. Opening: Thursday.Starring: Christian Bale (John Connor); Sam Worthington (Marcus Wright); Anton Yelchin (Kyle Reese); Moon Bloodgood (Blair Williams); Bryce Dallas Howard (Kate Connor).Directed by: McG; written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; produced by Moritz Borman, Jeffrey Silver, Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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