Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Terminator Genisys (2015)

(Watch out for spoilers!)

First things first: Genisys (2015) is not the worst film to carry the franchise name Terminator.

That (dis)honor still goes to 2009’s Salvation, and by some distance too. 

But one shouldn’t celebrate much about this sequel, either, for Genisys abundantly lacks the visceral impact of the first two Terminator films (helmed by James Cameron) and the ambition/courage of Rise of the Machines (2003) which -- love it or hate it -- at least attempted to move the franchise in a new direction, beyond Judgement Day and into the Future War. That movie did more than inch John Connor toward his destiny, and showed audiences that his fate had not been changed, just delayed.

Terminator Genisys, by contrast, is yet another “we’ve got to stop Judgment Day before it happens” movie, much like the 1991 sequel.  But it undertakes that familiar quest without Cameron’s skill or acuity in terms of humanity, action, and even humor.

It’s intriguing to note those places where Genisys falls down on the job. 

It isn’t necessarily in the twisty-turning narrative, which features a grab-bag of great ideas, even if half-realized.

Rather, it is in the unexceptional execution. 

The entire film moves by at the same clip or pace -- a steady heart-beat -- and there is no real quickening or slowing of its pulse. Without any hills or valleys to accentuate the action, Genisys indeed feels relentless, but never exciting, nor particularly thrilling. There isn’t a single action scene here that feels distinctive, memorable, or like a meaningful addition to the franchise. 

Instead, this movie is an entertainment machine on autopilot.

In concept, Genisys is actually a “side-quel” to the original films, meaning that it takes place in an alternate but connected reality (think: J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek [2009]). 

But where that side-quel by-and-large got the characters and joie de vivre right, Terminator Genisys misses most of its marks, and falls flat. The re-cast actors -- Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor and Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese -- aren’t bad in those familiar roles, but there is no force or momentum behind their performances, thanks to Alan Taylor’s listless, generic direction.

Arnold Schwarzenegger does his able best to carry the movie, but the supposedly humorous call-backs to T2, with his cyborg character practicing a smile, are generally dreadful, and largely unfunny.  

Even the emotional connection between his aging cyborg character, named Pops, and young Sarah Connor doesn’t feel as powerful as it should.

So this Terminator is, like its namesake, an infiltration unit of sorts.  It arrives in our theaters looking and sounding like the other films in the franchise, but underneath the exterior, it’s a stealth machine, all grinding gears and motors and calculated surfaces, but no soul.

In other words, Genisys is a crushing disappointment. Not because it’s authentically terrible (like Salvation), but because it can’t hold a candle to the other Terminator flicks.

“We’re here to stop the end of the world.”

In 2029, at the end of the war with the machines, resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) must send soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect his mother, young Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from a Terminator, a relentless cyborg built for infiltration.

But as he steps into the time field, Reese sees John attacked by a stranger (Matt Smith), and as he travels through time, accesses a different time-line’s worth of memories. 

In this time-line, Judgment Day did not occur in 1997, but in 2017.  And Skynet is a Trojan Horse in a new app from Cyberdyne, called Genisys.

In 1984 Reese is rescued from a T-1000 by Sarah Connor, who has been raised since age nine by a Terminator she calls Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger). 

Now, Reese, Connor and Pops must get to 2017, prevent the rise of Genisys, and battle its protector: John Connor, who has been reborn as a “phase-matter” Terminator.

“You’re nothing but a relic.”

Although many critics have complained about it, I believe the Terminator Genisys story actually possess a great deal of potential.  

A new time incursion, basically, has scrambled the official (and familiar) time-line, shuffling all the old familiar cards, and giving the audience a new hand, so-to-speak, to play. 

Characters who were once heroes are now villains.  Characters who were once protectors are now in need of protection, and so on.  It’s an explosion, basically of the 1984 and 1991 films, with a high unpredictability factor involved.

Some of the early scenes in the film -- particularly those that recreate Kyle’s landing in 1984 -- are a lot of fun for the fashion that they play on our familiarity with Cameron’s original film.  Some of the shots used in these sequences are identical to Cameron’s, but the precise characters details have changed in ways that are surprising.  

Now Kyle arrives in an alleyway only to be pursued by a T-1000, not a Los Angeles cop. Now Sarah says to him, Kyle's own immortal line: "Come with me if you want to live."  Now Kyle is the one who must play catch-up about the past, not Sarah.

But Terminator Genisys is so keen on playing up its (admittedly smart...) twists and turns that, at times, it doesn’t settle down enough and pursue a single good idea.

For example, here are two good -- even great -- ideas in the film, and neither is touched on for more than two minutes.

First, in the course of the action, the aging Pops (who possesses aging human tissue around his robotic shell…) injures his hand, and can’t get it to function exactly right.  

We see his hand shake as he loads bullets into a clip, and he attempts to right the error. And for  a moment, the film is actually about something: the ravages of age.  

An old injury has given Pops the equivalent of arthritis in that hand, and he must “adapt” so that it isn’t a weakness in combat.

The movie desperately wants the audience to love Pops, and feel his bond with Sarah. Indeed, much of the film's climax depends on us being moved by that father-daughter relationship.

One way to enhance that aspect of the characters' relationship would have been to feature three or four occasions when Pops' programming/body starts to fail, and he must use ingenuity, rather than brute strength, to stop his machine opponents.  

Had those moments occurred, we would have felt invested in Pops in a deeper way.  He would have had some flaw he was fighting against, namely rapid obsolescence.  Since many of us have been watching The Terminator films since 1984, that flaw would have reflected our own lives.  We too are aging.

But instead, the movie gives the idea of an aging, slowing-down Terminator precisely one scene, and then has Pops jumping into propeller blades, smashing into windshields and committing other dangerous (and circuit damaging…) behavior without harm or commentary.

The opportunity here would have been to depict how a Terminator -- an infiltration machine -- grapples with completion of its mission while being, essentially “old."

Instead, it’s just a great idea, tossed up momentarily, and then largely dispensed with.

Secondly, Skynet is played to great effect in the film by none other than Matt Smith…here billed as Matthew Smith.  

At one point, prior to his upload to the Cloud, Skynet notes that humans only give lip service to peace, and are committed, actually, to violence.  Now consider, Skynet is essentially an infant here, and so his meeting with Sarah and Kyle represents the A.I.'s first encounter with our species.

Now, imagine if -- all along -- it was this very experience – meeting Connor and Reese on their crusade of destruction -- that made Skynet murderous in the first place.  What if Skynet had no intention of launching a nuclear war, come upload, except for the fact that humans tried, on his birthday, to kill him in the crib?

Such a scenario would represent a surprising twist on the entire franchise.  Sarah and Kyle would be responsible for Judgment Day, not Skynet, who is simply defending himself. 

Again, this movie (barely) gives this idea lip-service, and Skynet’s comments about humanity is meant only as general, villainous disdain for our breed. But it could have been so much more.  The whole story -- the whole franchise story -- could have been about how, in a way, mankind’s downfall occurs because of aggressive efforts to avert that downfall. 

Terminator Genisys possesses a lot of great ideas, barely enunciated (like John Connor’s destiny, post-war…) but shunts them all asides for action scenes that have approximately zero impact.  

We get an extended battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance, but it feels like a pale imitation of a confrontation in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). And a night-time helicopter chase around San Francisco seems so gravity free that it could be happening inside a cartoon.

Basically, the action scenes in the film lack not only any kind of punch, but any significant grounding in reality. As a result, it feels like every character in the film must be a terminator.  Kyle and Sarah keep surviving incident after incident with just mere scratches. At one point, they are hit -- naked, mind you -- by a speeding car on the freeway, and just need some stitches.  Similarly, the T-1000 (Lee Byun-hun) is dispatched with surprising ease, especially given how difficult Robert Patrick’s model was to kill in T2.

Overall the action is underwhelming, and the lack of real-world results for those involved in the chaos only worsens that problem. 

For a movie about the way our choices impact our future, Terminator Genisys boasts surprisingly little impact.

Long story short: Alan Taylor had hundreds of millions of dollars and 2015 era special effects technology at his disposal to make a good Terminator movie, and yet his new model possesses only a fraction of the thrills -- let alone emotional engagement -- of James Cameron’s low-budget 1984 film. 

That film accomplished so much more, and with so much less.

At one point in Terminator: Genisys, Sarah Connor hugs Pops, and he resists the emotional overture.  “It is a meaningless gesture. Why do you hold onto something you must let go?”

He may be right, at least in terms of this aging franchise. 

If the next two films (already assigned release dates in 2017 and 2018...) aren’t a marked improvement over Genisys, they may be but a meaningless gesture.

And thus it may be time for all its fans to let The Terminator go.


  1. Anonymous11:12 PM

    Your revue is spot on.I like the term "side-quel" to describe where this movie fits into the franchise. One technical detail that made the story hard for me to follow was that Sarah and Reese travel to the future. If Sarah leaves 1984 where does the John Conner they encounter come from? Two more of these you say? Wow...can't wait.

  2. John,
    This is one case where I wish your review weren't so spot-on accurate.
    I enjoyed much of this film while I was watching it, but like so many by-the-numbers films of the past few years, it falls completely apart upon introspection.
    Lots of great ideas that never seem to gel into a cohesive whole for reasons you mention.
    And why, why, why was a major spoiler revealed in all of the marketing for this film? They truly took away what could have been an amazing moment for the viewer.
    I give the writers a lot of credit for trying something new, at least. You could see that they had enthusiasm and were fans of the franchise.
    However, I agree with some fans who wished for a third season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles instead of this film.
    If you haven't seen the television series, John, I urge you to do so. I believe it's right up there with T2 as the best part of the Terminator mythos.


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