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Video: Bale vs. Stiller at box office

By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/20/2009 3:31:34 PM ET 2009-05-20T19:31:34

Christian Bale gets a big speech at the end of “Terminator Salvation” about how machines will never be able to fully replicate human beings and how the human heart and soul are impossible for androids to understand.

Watching this fourth entry in the “Terminator” saga, one is tempted to guess that the film’s lack of either heart or soul is in reality a complex metaphor for mankind’s eternal struggle against mechanization. The truth is, unfortunately, that the movie’s just not that good.

While “Salvation” delivers the holy-crap moments you expect in a McG epic — from breathtaking chase sequences featuring killer robots of all shapes and sizes to a forest-clearing napalm raid that must have left a doozy of a carbon footprint — the human factor remains a weak point. When a “Terminator” movie leaves you pondering time-travel contradictions and not surging with adrenaline, something has gone very wrong.

The story begins in 2003, where death-row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signs a devil’s bargain with Cyberdine Industries researcher Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), allowing the company to use his corpse for research purposes.

Jump forward to 2018 and the grim post-apocalyptic landscape of Earth after Judgment Day, when the sentient Skynet defense system launched nukes to wipe out the human threat. Resistance fighter John Connor (Bale) leads a squadron on a raid of a Skynet lab where human test subjects have been taken prisoner; another nuke is detonated, leaving two survivors — Connor and Wright, who has somehow survived and finds himself adrift in this terrifying new world.

Wright is aided by young fighter Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), whom Connor is also looking to protect, since — as we know from the first movie — Reese is supposed to go back in time to impregnate Connor’s mother so that Connor can be born. (Here’s where the headache-inducing time-travel inconsistencies begin; the less you can make yourself dwell on them, the better.)

Slideshow: Christian Bale Connor and Wright wind up at odds — for reasons that I won’t disclose here, even though it’s the worst-kept spoiler secret in recent Hollywood history — but they must work together to rescue Reese from the Skynet headquarters in San Francisco.

I can do nothing but praise the action sequences here, with the possible exception of the climactic fight in the Terminator factory, which smacks too much of the climactic fights of the first two films in the series. Throughout the rest of the film, however, the Terminators — ranging from mini-motorcycles to building-size people-snatchers — are consistently terrifying, and director McG isn’t afraid to amp up the mayhem way past what you’d be expecting.

Given the atrocious dialogue and sketchy characters created by screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, one can hardly blame the cast for mostly breezing through the cacophony. Bale seems to be reworking his husky whisper from the Batman movies while the striking-looking Worthington drifts in and out of his native Australian accent with alarming frequency. Only Bryce Dallas Howard, as Bale’s pregnant wife and resistance comrade, strikes the occasional note of humanity amidst the carnage.

The machines, as the movie keeps reminding us, must be stopped. Especially the machine that sucked the lifeblood out of this franchise.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.

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