It's a bad time to be a film buff who hates watching sequels. Currently playing, for example, are Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code - neither of which I have seen or plan to see; Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a sequel to the cutesie fantasy-comedy Night at the Museum; X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the prequel to a comics-based series which had killed off too many of its main characters to be able to move forward; and Terminator Salvation, the fourth movie in a series in which cyborgs from the future repeatedly try to erase John Connor from history, so that he cannot lead the human resistance against the intelligent machines trying to wipe out mankind.
So how does someone starved for a night at the movies, but loath to watch a sequel, cope with this choice? By a process of elimination, of course.
I would love to eliminate upon Angels and Demons, part of an anti-Christian series based on books by Dan Brown that by all accounts are neither well-written nor exactly coherent but that have, nevertheless, been taken so seriously by so many people that books have had to be written debunking the claims Brown makes about the church. Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have both lost my respect by making these films.
Night at the Museum featured Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, and other comics in a family-friendly, funny, magical adventure. Sweet as the original movie was, I doubt that I could swallow another measure of it without gagging.
As for the X-Men franchise, I've never been big on comic books, and so I have only the vaguest interest in the movies based on them. Of all the characters not to kill off in the last installment, however, Wolverine takes the cake. I have never found him attractive or likeable, even with Hugh Jackman under the sideburns.
So that left me with Terminator Salvation. The only thing militating against that choice was Christian Bale, whose ego became a matter of worldwide notoriety during the making of this film, when someone leaked to the internet a recording of Bale's long, profane, incoherent, on-set tirade. Here's an actor who seriously needs to consider the fate of Val Kilmer. Even good-looking action stars need a reality check once in a while. The public can get tired of looking at you, and if you earn a reputation for being hard to work with, nobody will go to bat for you.
After seeing the film last night, I would re-issue the same warning to Bale, at double strength. I mean, he does have a very strong presence. As the third actor to play John Connor (after Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl), he achieves the effect of a man of inner strength, passion, and vision, driven by a colossal will to survive. On the other hand, relatively unknown Australian actor Sam Worthington wipes him right off the screen practically every time he appears. The film cuts back to Bale and you're like, "Oh, yeah! He's in this movie too!" Worthington's performance as the cyborg who believes he's human is the heart and soul of the film.
Plus, the teenage version of John Connor's father - whom the machines want to kill before he can be sent back in time to make babies with John's mom - is played by rising star Anton Yelchin, lately the boyish Chekov in Star Trek. Yelchin trades in his pasty Russian complexion for a healthy sunburn and shows us a new side of his vocal talents by doing a flawless, film-long impression of Michael Biehn. Oddly enough, even this echo of Biehn (the original hero of the Terminator franchise) registers nearly as high as Bale does on the sex-appeal-o-meter. So a bit of humility is clearly in order. Bale will need to work really hard to keep up with guys like this.
In my movie reviews, I usually say a word or two about what happens in the story. But in this case, frankly, that would be an insult to the film's purity of form. It has great special effects, including a cameo appearance by the young(!) Arnold Schwarzenegger. It has the obligatory tag-lines: "I'll be back," "Follow me if you want to live," etc. It has a touch of time-travel mumbo-jumbo, though no actual time travel takes place during the movie. The plot is sufficient to provide for a succession of thrilling fight scenes, stunts, explosions, and high-speed action. Michael Ironside is in it, for pity's sake; and so is Helena Bonham-Carter, who has become almost obligatory in big-screen franchises.
The film's one thread of human sensibility is tied around Worthington's character of a death-row prisoner who donated his body to science and woke up in a nightmare future with a second chance to do things right. Or maybe not. The whole story, so far as there is one, is about whether he will really get that second chance, and what he would do with it if he did. And mostly because of Worthington's performance, that slender storyline is just enough to keep the film from becoming the very thing its protagonists are fighting against: a factory-made killing machine with no humanity in it.