How can you have a war between humans and machines when the line between them is hard to find?
In the first three Terminator movies, cyborgs from the future were sent back in time to prevent future leader of the resistance John Connor from being born and then from surviving. But in the fourth installment, set in a bleak, apocalyptic landscape of bleached-out rubble and belching fires (but apparently excellent dental care), the time that was foretold has arrived. The Skynet computer network has achieved self-awareness and now sees humans as a threat to its continued existence.
Connor (now played by Christian Bale) is a charismatic rebel who does not work well with the chain of command. He knows that his future will require him to send a man named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) back in time to protect a young waitress named Sarah Connor, who will become his mother, from the Terminator sent to kill her. He knows that Reese, now a teenager, must not just rescue Sarah; he will fall in love with her and become John’s father. A bit of an ontological paradox, but if we were going to worry about that, we’d never get to the explosions and shoot-outs, so on we go.
The machines’ “awareness” and instinct for independence achieves a kind of humanity as the humans’ ruthlessness and desperation makes them increasingly mechanistic. Life is Hobbsian, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The people and the machines are more alike than different — they can think of little but self-preservation, and humanity is defined not by how something or someone is created but by the capacity to sacrifice for others.
It does not live up to the first two films, which had astonishing special effects, arresting characters, and some emotional resonance. But it does have some enormously cool machines (what I would like to see is these guys up against the Transformers, now that would be a movie!), and an Australian actor named Sam Worthington, an enormously magnetic performer who will also be featured in the upcoming “Avatar” movie (coincidentally directed by James Cameron, who directed the first two “Terminator” films). Worthington is electrifying. He plays Marcus, a character who raises questions about what it means to be human but provides a definitive answer about what it means to be a star.