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Wild boy falls far from glory

McG’s extension of the Terminator franchise is woefully misconceived

Terminator Salvation (12A)
dir: McG

The year is 2009. The world’s reserves of film franchises are severely depleted. Marauding scavengers – known as “studios” – roam the earth in search of a formula from which they can squeeze a precious few hundred million dollars.

The elders talk of the inexpressive one, the one they call “the Terminator”. Didn’t he say he’d be back? Alas, he has embarked upon another mission, to break the world record for the number of times one governor of California can be photographed wearing a shit-eating grin.

What if a young team could continue the Terminator franchise, keeping alive its fetish for pump-action shotguns and portentous voice-over? A team, say, headed by a director as short on understatement as his name is lacking in letters. The one they call McG.

It would require a profound but wishy-washy title: Terminator Stagnation, Terminator Desperation, that sort of thing. Terminator Salvation has a religious ring befitting the series. (Why else does the hero, John Connor, have those initials?)

In the original 1984 Terminator, John sent his own father, Kyle Reese, back from the future to defend John’s mother, Sarah, from the cyborg that had been despatched to the past to stop her bearing the child (John) who would later grow up to lead the resistance against them (the cyborgs).

While Kyle was there, he impregnated Sarah, thus enabling John to be born. Simple.

Now it’s 2018 and the world is a wasteland. I say the world, but we see only Los Angeles; the rest of the planet may well be full of lush meadows and babbling brooks.

It’s certainly a surprise when someone produces a bottle of milk, because we’ve seen no grass, no livestock. Could it be that Devon survived the apocalypse and is doing a roaring trade exporting semi-skimmed?

John Connor is leading the resistance against those prancing chrome skeletons, the T-600s.

The giant ones even come with detachable motorbikes – this season’s must-have cyborg accessory – which zoom off down the highway faster than you can say “merchandising opportunity”. The cyborgs themselves can only be killed by massive head trauma: as they expire, the lights in their eyes dim poignantly, like an MP who has just seen the front page of that morning’s Telegraph.

Some believe that John Connor is a saviour. Some say he is a false prophet. Off-screen, most people call him Mr Bale, or Your Badass-ness. Yes, this is the film that inspired that hissy fit, after a crew member strayed into Christian Bale’s eyeline during a take.

Two things occur to you about this incident. First, that anyone who followed Bale around with a swear-box could retire on the proceeds. But you also think: all that rage, over this? I mean, Cries and Whispers, Last Tango in Paris, fair enough. But Terminator Salvation?

As John, Bale has the dazed belligerence of someone who has read Bravo Two Zero three hundred times and bloody loves it. Beatings? He adores them. Helicopter crashes? He walks away from two. He also broadcasts radio messages to other freedom fighters, presumably before handing over to Sally for the travel.

Interestingly, he doesn’t curse once, not even when a spike is driven through his torso. Drive a spike through his torso while getting in his eyeline, though, and it would be a different matter.

Matters take a turn for the complicated when a Myleene Klass lookalike, Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), brings to the resistance an injured man, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). Marcus, it transpires, is a cyborg that thinks it’s human. What’s more, he knows John’s father, Kyle (Anton Yelchin). Small world.

At this point, Kyle is just a teenager, so he won’t have anything to pass on to John – a few Slipknot chords at a push, but little in the way of paternal wisdom.

The target audience for Terminator Salvation will be much the same. For them, the mise en scène (chains, leather, dry ice) may suggest an exotic dystopia, as opposed to Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” video. 

There is also a chase sequence that’ll be the most bitching thing ever, provided you haven’t seen Mad Max 2. The dialogue (“The dark season is coming”) is likely to sound meaningful only if your dearest friend is an online gamer known as Hawk_Blood95.

Everyone else will be pining for the first Terminator’s grime and wit, which has diminished steeply with each sequel.

“Find something we can burn,” Blair orders Marcus during a cold snap. May I suggest the script?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother