All Terminator movies are the same: junk. But McG’s Terminator Salvation has an important new element: humanity. In the opening scene, terminally ill scientist Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) poignantly addresses Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convicted murderer on Death Row. Her odd request that he donate his organs to science could be sinister, but Carter’s humble, needful manner has an undercurrent of suffering, far beyond the expected sci-fi villainy. She looks at Wright sympathetically, even when he insults her—and that’s the hook.
Worthington’s hard-assed response is complex. His shaved-head, blue-eyed demeanor belies his criminality. It’s not a thug’s face but the defensive masculine air of someone who’s gone bad because he’s desperate to show what he’s made of to an unkind world. If this sequel is to live up to its title, here’s the actor to do it.
Too bad Terminator 4 goes only halfway to Salvation. It’s still junk, but the good news is that Worthington gives it emotional weight. Despite the time-hopping nonsense about protecting John Connor (Christian Bale) and his teenage father-to-be Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) from the T-600 killing machines (sent by the Skynet organization to eradicate humanity), it’s Marcus Wright’s new figure of anger, compassion and sacrifice that matters.
No doubt the emotional element comes from what director McG learned from his good, underrated 9/11-catharsis movie, We Are Marshall. Marcus Wright’s longing for a second chance, to redeem himself, becomes the series’ lynchpin out of a deeper understand of life and death than most franchises (totally absent from Star Trek). The Terminator series is, basically, over-valued schlock—at first novel, the sequels became pointless. It’s the prime example of how grade-B movies escaped their place and now dominate culture. Audiences have become connoisseurs of junk. Earlier generations used to memorize poems, now it’s the pop arcana of comics and thrill rides that reduce human experience to sensationalism and dread.
Marcus is a reminder of what heroes ought to be. Worthington’s wipes Christian Bale off the screen—an easy feat. Bale’s merely the poster child for movie nihilism. Worthington’s makes Wright’s sacrifice memorable. His plea, “I Am Human,” while hanging in cruciform recalls the great martyr image evoking St. Steven from Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2. But Terminator 4 isn’t high art that transforms the genre into a new understanding of media and society like Neveldine/Taylor’s extraordinary Crank 2: High Voltage. It’s only frequently distinctive—as when McG stages a monochromatic battle scene, one with silhouetted burning trees, explosions that spray like blooming flowers or a cameo with a Schwarzenegger android.
McG’s boyish sensationalism is inoffensive, justified by paying attention to how Wright preserves an unlikely human essence. Worthington is a find. He suggests a pin-up version of the character actor Michael Rooker and gives the franchise’s most empathetic performance since Linda Hamilton’s stunned, almost-silent-movie pantomime of fear and surprise in Terminator 2. Worthington makes Wright’s sacrifice pitiable, strong and a little orgasmic. When an entranced resistance fighter (Moon Bloodgood) puts her head to his chest, she exclaims, “You have a strong heart. God, I love that sound!”
Directed by McG
Runtime: 115 min.
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