You'd think the end of the world, which more or less came about in the third Terminator flick, would take some of the pressure off a series.
But fans have had reason to be worried about Terminator Salvation, the first chapter in this killer-bot franchise not to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has lately been otherwise engaged.
First there was that famous temper tantrum thrown by Christian Bale, who is new to the role of resistance leader John Connor. His four-minute rant at a technician who wandered into his line of sight during filming went viral on the Web and resulted in the star making apologies.
Then stories began leaking out that Bale was being upstaged by his virtually unknown Australian co-star Sam Worthington, just as he was by Australian Heath Ledger in the latest Batman movie.
And it did not exactly inspire confidence among fans that the director chosen for the project — McG, as Joseph McGinty Nichol prefers to be known — had previously directed two Charlie's Angels movies. Of course, some might consider that perfect training for a story about wiping out all of humanity. Gives you a reason, no?
There are a few in-jokes: "I'll be back," says Connor after encountering a T-800 bot. (It's played by Schwarzenegger's face, grafted digitally to Roland Kickinger's body).
But they don't exactly bring a comic brightness to a movie that is deliberately — and effectively — grim. We're no longer in the jokey "hasta la vista baby," world of the other movies; we've leaped ahead to a post-apocalyptic one, circa 2018. Charlie's Angels it's decidedly not.
Humanity is on the run, and when Worthington finds his way back to his native Los Angeles (toting a backstory I should let you discover for yourself), there appear to be just two remaining residents: a teenager (Anton Yelchin) who turns out to be important to the story, and a mute little girl (Jadagrace) who is adorable enough that she'll no doubt turn out to be important in one of the two planned sequels.
Borrowing a technique from war movies, McG has drained the combat scenes (which is to say, nearly all the scenes) of color until he's left with a charred, bleak future gone gunmetal grey.
Though it's not absolutely essential in this series, he proves a capable enough director of people. More to the point, his way with special effects is indeed pretty special, whether he's sending transporters to snatch up stars (former National Endowment for the Arts director Jane Alexander among them) as if they were peanuts in a bowl, or turning loose some thoroughly alarming mechanical eels to patrol a stream.
It's a little odd when an enormous Transformer-like thingy wanders in, as if it's come from the set of another summer movie to wreak havoc while shedding deadly motorcycles as if they were fleas. Still, it all contributes to making the story breathless and nerve-jangling.
If it's not really engaging emotionally, well, the Terminator franchise sort of teaches you not to get too involved with the good guys. Bale is either the fourth, fifth or sixth actor to play John Connor, depending on whether you count the TV series or the nonspeaking actors in flashbacks and flash-forwards. One wrong step in some future, um, past, and Connor might not even exist next time around.
Then again, if you're looking for an extended movie relationship, a franchise called Terminator should perhaps not be your first choice.