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Action! Special effects! Yawn.

The machines are winning.

That's how I felt after "Terminator Salvation," the fourth installment of a franchise that used to make us care about the characters. But in the hands of director McG ("Charlie's Angels"), it is a mechanical exercise in pointless action.

Granted, it has great action, terrific special effects and pulse-pounding pacing, but it's a case of diminishing returns. "Salvation" so keeps its characters at arm's length that it really doesn't matter what happens to them.

The first three "Terminator" films (released in 1984, 1991 and 2003) were set in the "present" and were about preventing Judgment Day, when computers and machines turn on humans.

"Terminator Salvation," though, is set after Judgment Day. Earth's cities are smoldering ruins. The now-adult John Connor (Christian Bale) grew up being told he would lead humanity to triumph over the machines. But Connor is only a regional guerrilla commander whose ideas are overruled by the Resistance hierarchy.

John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris' screenplay pivots on two plots. The first is the development of the T-800, the flesh-encased Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original. Human freedom fighters are accustomed to primitive T-600s with rubbery faces that don't fool anybody. But the T-800 is so convincing, you'd never suspect it's not human.

Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) emerges from a bombed-out terminator manufacturing plant with no memories or clothing. He hooks up with a young fugitive named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, "Star Trek's" Chekov) and his mute child companion, Star (Jadagrace), and proves effective at fighting machines.

In a prologue set in our present, Marcus is a condemned criminal who donates his body to science -- or at least to a scientist (Helena Bonham Carter) from a company called Cyberdyne Systems. (Gasp!) Once he emerges from the wreckage, he's determined to meet John Connor and, along the way, falls in love with a hotshot jet fighter pilot (Moon Bloodgood).

The other plot is John and Marcus' efforts to rescue Kyle, who has been captured by the machines. This is important because in the future Kyle will be sent back in time to protect (and impregnate) John's mother, Sarah.

If Kyle dies at the hands of the machines, John Connor will never exist. The Resistance will collapse. The machines will win.

Yeah, it gives me a headache, too. The gnarly mythology keeps us from getting into characters who are shallow to begin with.

"Terminator Salvation" dishes eye candy and thrills but has none of the emotion or intellectual resonance of the first two James Cameron-directed installments.

It's basically a cheap thrill. An expensive cheap thrill.

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