A well-intentioned but highly problematic action vehicle, 'Salvation' is a haphazardly constructed, albeit passably entertaining, action film on its own merits which falls mighty short against James Cameron's filmmaking proficiency and the sharp blade of fickle fanboy nostalgia. The result joins the ranks of various other fourth film entires - 'Crystal Skull', 'Alien Resurrection' and 'Wolverine' before it - that attempt to restart/reboot their respective franchise, and instead essentially bury them.
It's a shame in many ways as there's an obvious vision here on the part of McG to take us somewhere, even if that vision has been ultimately compromised by a number of factors. Unlike Jonathan Mostow's tedious third entry in the series, which essentially played like a poor man's retread of Cameron's first two films, 'Salvation' at least tries taking the franchise in an entirely different direction. Using a less punk-populated "Mad Max" post-apocalyptic setting, McG bombards us with near continuous and increasingly overblown extended action set pieces to ramp up the excitement. Yet the sheer relentlessness (not to mention volume, ouch) of these scenes can't hide an obviously lacking storyline with no major antagonist or drive to it, no real suspense or edge, and no real point to the whole endeavor beyond the obvious financial returns.
How much of the issues can be tied back to the mess of a script is hard to say. As has been revealed in interviews, originally Marcus Wright was the sole protagonist of the film with John Connor essentially an offscreen presence that makes a cameo at the very end. Upon the signing of Christian Bale to play Connor, the script was hurriedly re-written to expand Connor's involvement in the story. Yet the resulting changes scale back and dumb down Wright's far more interesting subplot of a man from our time waking up in this nightmare, while Connor's larger presence adds practically nothing to the story beyond audience familiarity with the character.
The result is an obvious push on the filmmakers' part to consider Connor the main protagonist here despite Wright being the far more compelling character. While the inevitable twist of Wright's true nature has been telegraphed by not just the film's publicity but his various superheroic antics (of which he seems blissfully unaware) in the film's early action scenes, it can't hide the fact that he contains far more personality than the burned out almost robotic Connor. The meeting of the two is inevitable but not smoothly executed, the narrative having to fuse a bunch of convenient coincidences to get the pair and Kyle Reese in the mix.
If the writing's a mess, McG's direction can actually be commended for his consistency and effort to hold it all together even with some notable budgetary and ratings restrictions. Some of the action is stupidly over the top as expected, yet the helmer generally reigns in the excesses of his "Charlie's Angels" days and delights in some ambitious set pieces that, although mostly perfunctory to the story, actually surprise you with their vigor and effectiveness. The desaturated gritty stylized look that tries to convey the bleakness of this arid post-Judgement Day world is oppressive which actually works in the context its delivered in. The tone is as serious as a Tolstoy novel, never once uttering a smirk, which renders its random dropping of the franchise's famous quotes seem almost trivial. Better is the more practical hallmarks from two tape recordings from Linda Hamilton, to Arnie's CG-assisted and unexpectedly placed cameo which is a fun moment.
On the acting front the film’s bright spot is Sam Worthington. Having seen and admired much of the young man’s cinematic work over the past ten years here in Australia, I found it initially odd but ultimately comforting to see him in the American action hero mold after his strong dramatic character turn in “Somersault” and more comedic-toned work in “Gettin’ Square” and “Dirty Deeds”. He's a fascinating character actor with a charming roguish personality who is all too often shoved into bland leading man parts, but usually comes out of them not just unharmed but sparkling. Here he's stuck with some atrocious dialogue, an American accent that unfortunately slips a few times, and little to do beyond boorishly contemplating his identity - yet as always he makes the most of it and ultimately stands up everyone around him.
His only near equal is Anton Yelchin's Kyle Reese. Stuck as little more than comic relief in "Star Trek" a few weeks ago, Yelchin's work here is a little more fleshed out and interesting as a resistance fighter wannabe who actually has learned survival skills in his own way. Much of the first hour where he and Worthington are teamed together (along with the pointless and ubiquitous mute kid) are easily the better scenes of the film and the two make a good pairing. Similarly the lovely Moon Bloodgood as a practical feminine resistance fighter is given one of the most inconsistent of the franchise's characters, yet brings such a dynamic presence to it that you miss her when she's gone.
Christian Bale, stuck using that chain smoker monotone he employs when dressed in the Batsuit, brings nothing extra to a role already dangerously thin. Connor has always been a service point to the story and never a fleshed out character like Arnie's robots or Sarah Connor. Unlike the rest of the cast, even his onscreen wife played by Bryce Dallas Howard who impresses despite having scant minutes of screen time, Bale is almost a black hole that makes grim film feel even more dour with his moping around. When he finally becomes an assertive action hero in the last act he improves somewhat.
Speaking of which that third act is a hastily assembled mess. Skynet, once a relentless and all-poweful creation, is given a human face to serve as an exposition generator and reveal a rather predictable twist that really doesn't make any logical sense outside of this crazy film narrative. While at last we're given a real antagonist and a goal the heroes must overcome, the actual assault on the facility (think a gas factory meets skyscraper) seems oddly disorganized, cheap and rushed which results in lots of running and dragging out of scenes. McG's excesses do show up here - neither hot lead or freezing seems to stop these much harder to destroy yet supposedly more primitive first-run models of the T-800 for example.
T3 redeemed itself to some extent with a decent third act and a surprisingly strong ending, the complete opposite case happens here with the final ten minutes essentially sh*tting all over the rest of the film. The original ending, in hindsight, is far better than what was settled on here which has been awkwardly cut into the final film - you can blatantly see not only the way the original ending was going but where it was changed. A final throwaway line in the end monologue, which sets up the obvious plan for the sequel, essentially retcons that entire last act and makes it pointless (that wasn't Skynet, it was just the local router apparently).
This is an empty but decent modern action blockbuster, nothing more or less, and only really works on that level. Taken in the larger context of the franchise that spawned it, the most frequent reaction will be disappointment varying from mild to wildly incensed depending upon your level of emotional attachment to the other films. It is better than T3, but the margin is slim. Combined with the other blow of the TV show (which started out promising but sank quickly), this story feels to have well exhausted all of its angles. 'Salvation' doesn't really end the franchise in the gutter like some series were before they were restarted (it's no "Die Another Day" or "Star Trek: Nemesis" that's for sure), but a good decade-long hiatus is in order I think, or at least until Cameron wants back in.