Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Zaki's Review: Terminator Genisys

In 1984's The Terminator, director James Cameron's masterpiece of high tension and big ideas, there's a moment when Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), soldier from 2029 come back to present day Los Angeles, is trying to explain the threat presented by the title character, a cyborg assassin from his own time, to his charge, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton): "That Terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

After seeing Paramount's laborious Terminator Genisys, a movie that's as big, dumb and loud as that first one was tight, smart, and efficient, I feel like Reese's words are just as applicable to this franchise as a whole. It's been thirty-one years since the The Terminator first wowed audiences, and my fear as I stare down the abyss into the dark future is that they'll just keep cranking these things out forever and always until the end of time. They. Will. Not. Stop.

If you've followed my retro reviews of the Terminator series over the past week, you already know the many legal maneuverings that saw the franchise IP put up for auction before landing with its current minders at Skydance Productions. And ultimately that's all Genisys is, really. The ultimate expression of legalese coupled with studios' omnipresent need to keep the franchise fires lit. Crank out another product with a name people know, and count on them to dutifully line up at the ticket booth.

And you know what? They very well might. This project is pointedly geared at the very same crowds that made every single Transformers opus a smash hit for the same studio. But what a shame, when you look at where this franchise started. Here's what I said in 2009 when discussing the then-recent release of Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in this series:
Certain stories are simply meant to stand as is. No part two. No trilogy. No TV series. Just a beginning, middle, and end. Certainly as it pertains to Cameron's Terminator -- the first one and (arguably) the best -- that's very much the case. 
Here was a film expressly not intended to be sequelized into franchise heaven. It told a story, a specific story, about the immutability of fate, and how love can transcend time, and that was it. Credits roll, fade to black.
Maybe it's just Cameron's own damn fault. After all, he himself returned to the well in 1991 and happened to make one of the greatest sequels of all time* -- which in turn also happened to become a worldwide blockbuster. And so, from then to now we've seen various companies try to pick at the corpse, trading on our familiarity with the brand to make us excuse ever shoddier products. Which brings us, after a rather circuitous detour, back to the beginning with Terminator Genisys.

Directed efficiently but unexceptionally by Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) from a script by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, Genisys attempts to do for the Terminator brand what 2009's Star Trek did for that one, i.e. use time travel trickery to essentially "reset" it at back to its most iconic configuration. For Trek, that meant getting Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock back on the bridge of the Enterprise. For this, it means going back to a time before the future war setting of the last film, while also finding a way to incorporate Arnold Schwarzenegger as a good guy Terminator.

And so we start, just before the 1984 original, with the final battle of the war against Skynet, the machine intelligence that has subjugated mankind following a nuclear war. The savior of humanity, John Connor (Jason Clarke), learns that the computers have used a time machine to send a Terminator back to 1984, to kill his mother before he's conceived, and so sends his trusted lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to protect and (unbeknownst to Reese) fall in love with her, eventually allowing Connor himself to be born.

What I just described is the entire underpinning of the still-effective first film, but it's paid only the barest of lip-service here, merely serving as the starting point to send things caroming into entirely uncharted waters. When Reese arrives in '84, he finds that things are now different. He's being hunted by a T-1000 (G.I. Joe's Byung-hun Lee), the same kind of liquid metal killer from 1991's Terminator 2, and Sarah Connor herself (Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones) arrives to save him, this time with an old ("But not obsolete," he tells us) T-800 she calls "Pops" (Schwarzenegger) acting as her bodyguard/father figure.

Clearly things aren't as they're supposed to be, and in the search for answers, our heroes are propelled forward to 2017 to try (yet again) to prevent Skynet's rise, which may or may not be tied to a really popular app of some kind. There are several twists that I won't spoil, despite the fact that Paramount's clubfooted marketing department went ahead and did it anyway, but what it all comes down to is the desperate attempt to squeeze a few more bucks out of this brand, even if it means sacrificing it on the altar of crass commercialism to get there.

You'll note, I keep genuflecting to Cameron's two entries, and it's impossible not to. They were and remain shining examples of everything that big budget moviemaking can be. Yes, both of his installments have spectacular effects and amazing action sequences, but they're built on a foundation of solid ideas, and a lot of heart. There's a raw undercurrent of emotion that gives us a driving interest in both of them, and its why we're even talking about the property this many decades later.

As I mentioned in my review of The Terminator, "Just as Schwarzenegger's indomitability is so crucial to his effectiveness, Biehn's vulnerability is essential to his. The tortured future man, and his relationship with Hamilton's Sarah, gives the story its necessary emotional through-line." So naturally when it came to fill this crucial part in Genisys they cast the charisma-free Courtney, an actor who's such a blank slate he might as well be playing a Terminator himself. There's zero indication that this is the same tormented, deeply damaged warrior we were first introduced to three decades ago.

Mind you, it'd be one thing if this is a ground-up reboot, but they're explicitly asking us to believe it's the same guy. And then there's Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. Now, granted, Linda Hamilton's tough-as-nails portrayal of the character has become an icon in her own right, but seeing Clarke wielding various bits of heavy artillery while clad in a black tank top, she looks less like she's stepping into Hamilton's shoes than she does like a little kid playing dress-up. Same problem: I just can't believe she's playing the same person.

And unlike the first one, where the love between Sarah and Reese is the natural culmination of that storyline (as does its tragic conclusion), here it feels like the machinations of a screenwriter, giving the pair Moonlighting-esque "will they, won't they" banter instead of an actual arc to follow. Again, it's like the creatives took a surface level look at the stuff people liked before and set about trying to re-engineer it without actually glancing under the hood to see what actually made it work.

Pity poor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He does a journeyman's job here. He really does. Seeing him back as his most famous character, you instinctively realize what a big void his absence left in the execrable last go-round. In fact, the way they've contrived to explain the sixty-something Schwarzenegger still playing an immortal cyborg (supposedly a suggestion from Cameron himself) even makes a certain amount of sense, and he has no problems stepping right back into the role.

That said, when you've turned the unstoppable killing machine of movie one into the "Pops" of movie five, you start feeling like maybe things have gone off the reservation a bit. And some of the developments with his T-800 in the closing moments actually prompted a noticeable groan from the audience I saw it with. Still, the Terminator gets off easy compared to John Connor. He's been played by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Christian Bale in previous installments, and has arguably become just as much a fixture of this series as the titular robot.

And unlike Courtney, Jason Clarke has demonstrated plenty of charisma in the past (heck, just last year in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), so his selection to play the messianic figure makes a certain amount of sense. In this case, it's not the actor to blame but rather what the story chooses to do with him. As I said, I won't spoil it here, but it's so thuddingly dumb that I couldn't even hate it so much as wonder how anyone in the creative assembly line thought this was the best way to carry the character forward.

Then again, bad decisions are what typify this whole production. From the filmmakers. From the characters. This is a movie that traffics in so many time paradoxes that it creates whole new ones just to try and resolve the old ones. It's the kind where the heroes build a time machine to prevent a terrible future, but rather than use it to give themselves, y'know, more time, they instead choose to go even further into the future, so they can try and stop it mere hours before it happens. Brilliant. (And former Doctor Who star Matt Smith is in here too, but good luck trying to figure out his part in the thing.)

After a bombastic finale that's as hard to follow as it is hard to understand, Terminator Genisys wraps up some plot threads while leaving others dangling. The hope, naturally, is that they'll get a chance to revisit them in an inevitable follow-up down the line. I don't know if the box office receipts will justify going back to this future, but I already know I don't care anymore. I'm done. In this film, just as he has in all his other Terminator appearances, Schwarzenegger issues his trademark line "I'll be back." I think it's finally time for us to say "Hasta la vista, baby." D

* For some more thoughts on Terminator 2, be sure to check out the MovieFilm Commentary Track featuring myself and Brian Hall talking through the movie via the embed below:

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