Terminator: Salvation helmer McG is keen to admit that most people think two things when they hear his name. “First, fuck that guy from Charlie’s Angels,” he told an audience of 50 or so journalists at the Time Warner Center last night, “and second, what kind of asshole would name himself McG?” This streak of self-deprecation is, frankly, not something that one would’ve expected to hear from the usually cocksure McG (né Joseph McGinty), but this mini-roadshow put on by Warner Bros. seemed constructed to dually serve the functions of starting to get people psyched about this May’s release of Terminator: Salvation and as a 2009 McG Redemption Tour. After all, when it was announced that the director of the universally loathed, franchise-killing Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle would take the helm of a Terminator franchise, many message-board fanatics openly called for his head. However, after seeing about 15 minutes of unfinished footage from the new film last night, we can say with great confidence that this Terminator will definitely make you forget how truly awful Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was. However, there’s only one question that people want the answer to. And that is, how does it stand up to James Cameron’s work?The simple answer? It’s too early to tell. But from what we saw last night, the film promises to be a distinctly darker take on the story of John Conner (as played by Christian Bale, still speaking with a hoarse Batman timbre) than we’re used to seeing. Gone are audience-pleasing catchphrases like “Hasta la vista, baby” and “I’ll be back”; they’ve been replaced by dust-filled, postapocalyptic landscapes reminiscent of Mad Max, and giant, menacing robots that make Michael Bay’s cartoony Transformers look like GoBots. In other words, a Terminator film that’s more Christopher Nolan and less Joel Schumacher.
To that end, McG enlisted the well-respected scribe Jonathan Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) to write the screenplay, and made sure to consult with creator James Cameron (who likely passed along a recommendation to hire second-billed Sam Worthington, also starring in Cameron’s Avatar this winter). And he also cast the charismatic up-and-comer Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) as Kyle Reese (who was played by Michael Biehn in the first two films), the third member of what McG described as “Terminator’s Holy Trinity.”
The plot, from what we could discern, takes place in the year 2018, after most of earth has been wiped out following the dire events of Judgment Day, in 2003. Future Resistance leader John Conner (Bale) is sent on a Skynet-defying mission to rescue the man that turns out to be his future father, Kyle Reese (Yelchin), during which he encounters a mysterious figure that may be a Terminator (Worthington). The three segments we saw felt closer in spirit to a war film than any summer tent pole we can remember (there’s a chance it could end up with an R rating), and at times even felt like a horror film (one particularly eerie scene was set up by a helicopter crashing into a swamp). McG also promises that the film will have an “elliptical, challenging ending” that could set the stage for another sequel. But most of all, he clearly hopes that this film helps him to move on from his current reputation as being an overly giddy cinematic lightweight. “I don’t want to play the happy cheerleader,” he mused. “I’m a fucking disaster.”