At one point in this abrasively loud and portentous movie, one character tells another, "The human condition no longer applies to you".
One could say the same of the filmmakers. They have equipped Terminator Salvation with so little heart or personality that it would be no surprise to learn that computers had put it together. James Cameron's 1984 original and its groundbreaking sequel T2 were also intoxicated by the face-off between man and machine, but those films understood the value of wit, and of menace. Arnold Schwarzenegger always looked in on the joke that his acting style was entirely suited to the part of a mechanical killer sent from the future.
Arnie was permitted another outing in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and just about got away with it. The surprise of this fourth Terminator film is how much we miss him in it. In the gap left by his absence the film does two things. First, it tries to diversify the cyborg brand: where once Robert Patrick gave the robot T-1000 a superbly foetal creepiness and an arrow-straight sprinting run, the evil machines here are straight out of the toy shop. A Terminator the size of an electricity pylon. A Terminator that's a motorcycle. A Terminator that comes snapping out of a river like a crocodile. Pardon me if I yawn. Second, it introduces a mysterious convict named Marcus (Sam Worthington) who, apparently dead by lethal injection sometime around the millennium, finds himself slathered in primordial goo and confronting a holocaustic landscape circa 2018. His significance to the story is revealed by degrees; suffice it to say that the next time a prison doctor asks him to donate his body to medical science, he should read the small print.
Worthington brings to the part a tough, laconic presence, if not one exactly brimming with individuality. Yet he seems a positive whirlwind of charisma next to the story's notional hero. This would be John Connor, spearhead of the resistance, who must vanquish the machines and send teenager Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) back to 1984 where, in a frankly mind-boggling timebend, the kid will marry and actually father Connor himself. Talk about Oedipal wrecks: "A person could go crazy thinking about all this," someone says, though it doesn't seem to have bothered the screenwriters unduly. Another kind of actor would have made some comic mischief out of this kink in the family bloodline, but Christian Bale, who plays Connor, is sadly not that actor. Not known for his wry self-deprecation – this film is already notorious for a tantrum he threw after one of the crew members crossed his line of vision (maybe he should try working in a hospital sometime) – Bale outdoes himself here with a performance of near-epic humourlessness. If his expression became any more intense you'd probably hear his jaw go crack.
Perhaps the director, McG, encouraged Bale to amp up the heaviosity, but if so he does the film no favours. Already burdened with a lowering colour palette of grungy greys, murky browns and rusty blacks, Terminator Salvation could really use a touch of brightness, or just lightness. The writers, John Brancato and Michael Ferris, are capable of a certain grim comedy – they wrote the David Fincher thriller The Game – but it has deserted them here. From the prologue onwards, in which ailing scientist Helena Bonham Carter says, "I'm worried about the future of the human race", the mood is almost comically apocalyptic. Those machines are controlled by an organisation called Skynet, which despite sounding like something you can get on subscription actually intend to destroy the human race. The plot turns on whether Connor, Marcus and their ragtag band of rebels can develop an electromagnetic frequency that will disable the Terminators. "If we do this right, the war is over," says one optimist. Come again? If I know anything about film franchises, this war will run and run.