After becoming a blockbuster series in the making with the one-two punch of “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, the burgeoning franchise went on an extended hiatus at the height of its popularity. Then, in 2003, director Jonathan Mostow took over the reins from departing director James Cameron (“The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) with “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” which delivered to us the opening salvo of the escalating war with the machines. Now, here we are six years later with yet another new director as the much maligned (at least by me) filmmaker McG throws us headlong into the conflict with the surprising, yet extremely entertaining and satisfying follow-up “Terminator: Salvation”.

“Terminator: Salvation” begins in the year 2018, the machines have almost completely taken over the entire planet, and only small pockets of human resistance remain intact. Led by an almost messianic soldier named John Connor (Christian Bale), the humans begin to rally together for a pivotal battle that could bring the devastating war to a swift conclusion. However, a recent addition to the rabble, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), presents Connor and the rest of the resistance with a mystery that could either spell certain doom for humanity or be the secret weapon they so desperately need.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how good this movie would be prior to its release. The reason for my uncertainty towards this installment had nothing to do with the previous film in the series being somewhat weaker, and everything to do with this movie’s director, McG.

To me McG is nothing more than a hack director with only one good movie to his name. His first two films had been the insipidly crafted and overblown “Charlie’s Angels” movies. Granted he did follow those up three years later with the amazingly sound, heartfelt and moving football drama “We Are Marshall”. But when it comes to his more action oriented movies, I think one would be hard-pressed to find an original idea in his head. A fact which the director almost seems proud of as he has referred to his blatant copying as paying an homage rather than ripping off other directors and their movies.

However, as I alluded to earlier, “Terminator: Salvation” proved my mistrust of McG’s directorial prowess to be somewhat misplaced. Unlike his previous action work where overblown action scenes featuring extremely exaggerated stunt and wire work became very annoying , this film is a grittier, hard-hitting, and dare I say, more realistic style of filmmaking (which may be hard to believe given that this is a sci-fi movie). Also, there are no ridiculously long drawn out slow-motion shots lingering on any of the female characters flipping their hair all around for no good reason (à la the “Charlie’s Angels” movies).

Now, this isn’t to say that McG resisted his apparently insatiable temptation to steal ideas from other movies. In fact, there are numerous instances sprinkled throughout this film where it is quite obvious what movie he chose to base a large majority of his action sequences upon. If you’ve seen the movie or even just some of the previews, then you should know exactly to what film I am referring.

Numerous times over the course of the movie, several scenes involving the Terminators, or portions of them, blatantly ripped off camera angles or just the style of shooting from Michael Bay’s “Transformers”. These moments don’t detract from the movie too much, because I know that by now almost every new thing a director can come up with has been done in some form or fashion; thus, complete originality is difficult to come by. That being said, I just wish that some of the inspiration hadn’t been so painfully obvious even to the most casual of viewers. Here’s a thought, maybe next time McG should try not to rip off a movie that has a sequel in theaters only a month or so after his movie. Due to the closeness of the release dates, McG’s copying looks less like an homage and more like somebody trying to cheat off of someone else’s work to get better results.

Despite borrowing visual effects ideas from “Transformers”, that doesn’t mean the effects in “Terminator: Salvation” were anything to sneeze at. The work done by the creative minds at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was superbly crafted and not surprisingly, the best the series had seen thus far. The inclusion of multiple new Terminator vehicles, models, and so on was very exciting, especially from the standpoint of not only a fan of the series, but a fan of visual effects. If you have ever spent time watching the first three “Terminator” movies and wished that you could see more of the vehicles shown in the segments chronicling the future war or see even more Terminators in action, then this movie is definitely the one to see as it delivers on both counts.

In regards to the cast of this film, we find an all-new assemblage of talent making their debut within the series. Leading the new grouping is the intense character actor Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight”) as the leader of the human resistance, John Connor. Not surprisingly, Christian hands in a solid performance, giving us a John Connor that is tough as nails on the outside; however, behind closed doors he still struggles with doubt and despair. These quieter moments with Connor are vital to the character by showing us more than a one-dimensional caricature of a hero, and also to illustrate that he hasn’t become cold and calculating like the machines he fights. Not to mention, these reflective scenes also serve as a connection to the decidedly more insecure variation of the character from the previous installment (as portrayed by Nick Stahl). Thankfully though, most of the whining and “Woe is me” attitude that permeated Nick’s performance is nowhere to be found in this film.

In the primary supporting role, which one could argue is also a lead role in truth, is up-and-coming actor Sam Worthington. As a rising star Sam is in surprisingly high demand with roles not only in this film, but also in James Cameron’s “Avatar” and the upcoming remake, “Clash of the Titans”. Based on what I’ve seen of Sam’s acting prowess (which is based solely on this movie as I haven’t seen “Avatar” yet), I would say as far as an action star goes, he should do very well. He’s mastered the steely gaze of previous action heroes such as, Sylvester Stallone or even Arnold; he appears comfortable in action sequences (some newcomers can appear unconfident in their early work); and lastly, he has a presence on screen that captures the audience’s attention. As far as his dramatic skills, well that remains to be seen, but at least he should have a decent enough future in the action genre if nothing else.

Rounding out the remainder of the supporting players are Bryce Dallas Howard (“Spider-Man 3”), Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”), and Moon Bloodgood (“Pathfinder”). Bryce Dallas Howard is given very little to do in her role as John’s wife Kate. She is relegated to merely reacting to John’s struggles with his doubts or being the strong supportive wife in front of the troops. Moon Bloodgood as Blair, one of John’s faithful soldiers, is given more to do than Bryce; however, even then she spends most of her time in action sequences. So, no real depth is given to her character other than that she is an extremely competent fighter.

When you look at the characters of Kate and Blair one definitely gets the sense that the writers, John Brancato and Michael Ferris (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) were simply giving a taste of these ancillary characters and that more time would be spent exploring them in future sequels. So with that thought in mind, I say here’s hoping for more on these potentially interesting characters in the future.

Lastly, actor Anton Yelchin gets the second most fleshed out supporting role behind Sam Worthington as a young resistance fighter named Kyle Reese. Anton brings an earnest quality to Kyle that harkens back to Michael Biehn’s portrayal of an older version of the character in the original film. At the same time, Anton displays a youthful enthusiasm to prove one’s self worth in a world of humanity comprised almost entirely of soldiers. Throughout this movie I noticed numerous subtle references to either character traits/mannerisms or phrases that Kyle would say that were reminiscent of the previous movies as well (the same can also be said for John Connor too). It’s these little nods and insider references to characters and/or events from throughout the series’ history that makes the experience all the more enjoyable for me as I try to catch each one.

All in all, despite the fact that I entered this movie with numerous doubts regarding just how good it could be; I must say that the end result is an incredibly fun, fast-paced, action-packed ride that will leave you wanting more. This installment definitely overcomes the weaker points of the previous film (which was still a good movie in itself) and propels this series forward to deliver even more excitement in the future.

“Terminator: Salvation” is available in a PG-13 Theatrical Cut or R-rated Director’s Cut; both feature violence and language, with brief nudity in the Director’s Cut only.