Toward the end of Terminator: Salvation, one character explains, "What is it that makes us human? It's not something you can program. ... It's the strength of the human heart, the difference between us and machines." As philosophical rumination it's not much, but as self-critique, it's spot on. Terminator: Salvation is a sharp-looking film with a few impressive action sequences, but one almost completely devoid of emotional resonance or human connection. Its heartbeat is all clicks and whirs.
Like previous entrants in the series, the film concerns itself with the nastiest family feud since Hatfields and McCoys glared at one another across the Tug Fork River. Cybernetic hegemon "Skynet" and its innumerable mechanical offspring are once again at odds with the Connor clan, and without Richard Dawson to channel their disagreements into more amiable competition, both sides have taken to violence. This time, John Connor (Christian Bale), an already legendary though as yet unofficial leader of the human resistance, is out to save young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) from termination, so that the teenager can grow up and travel back in time to sleep with John's mother, thereby ensuring the birth of John and, more importantly, the franchise. Once again, the human faction is intermittently aided by a turncoat terminator (Sam Worthington), and once again, it all culminates with a quest to avert Armageddon. There's even a cameo by the Governator himself, though one accomplished by digital wizardry rather than his physical participation.
What's missing is much of anything that could be plausibly described as fun. Director McG--best known for his work on music videos, commercials, and the Charlie's Angels movies--paints his post-apocalyptic landscape in a palette of sand and steel, as if color itself had been bleached from the world. But in contrast to The Dark Knight (one of the obvious models for this reboot), he fails to imbue his grim vision with any depth, texture, or complexity. A slender, silly movie that is upfront about its silliness (say, Star Trek) can be a giddy pleasure; a slender, silly movie that presents itself as an unflinching portrait of human endurance is setting itself up for failure.
The film's leading man is of little help here. Intensity need not be the enemy of personality, but in Bale's work it too often has been. Though his rasping vigilante was perhaps the least interesting character in The Dark Knight, that film was a case where the center didn't have to hold: Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and, in a perverse way, Heath Ledger provided the necessary doses of humanity. In Terminator: Salvation, by contrast, the supporting performances cannot support the film on their own, and Bale's deficiencies are on full display. Like the enemy with which he is supposed to be contrasted, he is relentless, impervious, and utterly uninteresting. Indeed, his performance is so uncompromising and devoid of nuance that one half-wonders why McG didn't leave in the infamous outtake in which Bale profanely berated a crew member who'd wandered onto the set. Guns, grenades, and helicopters all have their roles in the battle for humankind, but an obscene tirade of that caliber could've knocked Skynet right out of orbit.