John Connor’s initials are JC. That’s not to alarm anybody, but considering a few instances of obvious cross imagery, the film’s conspicuous subtitle, and the fact that the series has so far manufactured its dramatics almost exclusively through self sacrifice, none of us should be too shocked if this new trilogy of films Christian Bale’s signed on for concludes with old JC impaled on a mechanical crucifix to redeem mankind’s sins against the machines. That being said, Salvation is infinitely more watchable than either of the Matrix sequels.
Very little of that has to do with Bale, however. Though we finally get to see John Connor as the grown-up leader of men they kept telling us the whiny little bitch in Terminators 2 and 3 would eventually become, his significance to the story is about as secondary as it’s always been. Keeping John alive so that he might perform some undisclosed future action to rescue mankind from the dreaded robot apocalypse has always been the films’ (and the recently canceled TV series’) MacGuffin, an unelaborated excuse for all the time-traveling robots shooting bazookas at one another. The film’s timeline has now caught up with the killer robots (2018 to be exact, so get ready), but manly resistance fighter John still has little to do besides survive until the sequel. His newfound leadership skills are demonstrated mainly through a series of fireside chats John delivers via shortwave radio to the unseen survivors he presumes to be scattered throughout the giant-robot-torn country.
“If you’re listening,” John says to close each broadcast, “you are the resistance.”
The conceit provides John with some much-needed dialogue and does a decent job establishing him as a rallying point for the humans rebelling against the robot overlords, but between these motivational speeches and several battleground headbutts with resistance authority (John’s commanding his own troops, but he’s still a rebellious subordinate here, chafing expectedly against General Ashdown `Ironside`, who’s apparently unaware his time on top’s only delaying the inevitable reign of the chosen one), Bale winds up screaming approximately 75 percent of his lines into a radio handset. Bale’s stint as Bruce Wayne proves less distracting than it might have, though his reading of intense John Connor is nearly as mockable as his Batman voice. (Tip: Flex every muscle in your body until your face noticeably strains then deliver each word as if it is completely alien and offensive to you.)
Fortunately, former music-video director
McG (Charlie’s Angels) proves surprisingly aware of what makes the franchise’s first two films work, and he has no problem abandoning his star for acts at a time to pack in more hot android action. As an action director, McG proves refreshingly coherent, never sacrificing understandable sequencing to up the slow-motion-explosion count, and sometimes even building a real sense of tension through some of the longer action setpieces. (Are you taking notes here, X-Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood? Cause you just got schooled by the brains behind the “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” video.)
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the trailers, which give entirely too much away: The story’s real heart is still (mostly) mechanical. Marcus Wright (Worthington), a terminator that originally thinks it’s still human, is the more interesting character. A death-row inmate who donates his body to cancer research only to wake up post-lethal-injection as a self-aware killing machine, Wright’s quest for “a second chance” is better action-film fodder, and the camera wisely stays glued to his metallic ass for most of the film’s duration. It’s too early to tell whether Bale is capable of flexing and hollering his way through two more sequels, but Salvation still beats the shit out of Terminator 3.