The one charitable approach to this suspense-numbed post-apocalyptic Terminator sequel: sympathy for the robots. Halfway through this film I found myself rooting for them, mostly because the fleshly folk were so boring, yet constantly nagging each other to act more like humans. (It’s an argument stolen from Star Trek.) In its fourth installment, we finally move into the future where all those cool T-model cybernetic killers originated. While the human stragglers seem intent on bickering, the robots at least exude some passion for their work. They’re smarter, too. Christian Bale, now the third actor to play John Connor on the big screen, apparently lavished most of his emotive skills on a certain director of photography, and was perhaps too exhausted to act beyond imitating his gruff Batman voice-using the YouTube rant as an outtake might have helped the movie. It certainly doesn’t help that a hybrid critter (Sam Worthington) is the film’s most charismatic performance. Next flick? Merge T5 with the Bionic Man franchise.
What’s deeply wrong here, however, is the whole abandonment of what made the Terminator franchise exciting in the first place. James Cameron’s low-budget horror debut and his brilliant sequel riveted both fanboys and academics. Primarily, it was the relentless violence and explosions, but the films also featured a cool, erotic look at time-travel (as one great Constance Penley essay points out). John Connor, we learn, shows Sarah Connor’s photograph to Kyle Reese in the future. So a smitten Reese jaunts back to the past to impregnate her with John. What are missing from this film are time travel, Sarah, and anything sexy, turning the giving-birth-to-yourself loop into a swirly Christian metaphor-John Connor as JC. You thought director McG was a heavy metal dude; here, he seems more like Ned Flanders.
What dominates, however, is the fear that this series will never reach its end. Unlike Star Trek and Bond, who’ve recently, happily re-invigorated their origins, Terminator betrays the hand that made it. “I’ll be back,” used to sound like a cool promise. Now it threatens us with the interminable.