MOVIE REVIEW: Terminator Genisys
"TERMINATOR GENISYS"-- 2 STARS
There are two clear missteps and mistakes that are occurring within this recent Hollywood trend of long-distance sequels, reboots, and remakes. The first is having too many cooks in the kitchen. These big films are controlled as much, if not more, by special effects creators and money-grabbing studio executives than by directors. Also, these trumped-up blockbusters are being written by a committee of screenwriters, cutting and gluing new and old failed drafts, Post-It notes, and cocktail napkin ideas together until they are filled to the brim with tangents and set pieces that weren't designed to go together. This first mistake leads to the second.
When you have so many people tinkering and throwing things together, the end result lacks a forceful and unified vision. At some point, so many changes and updates are made that the filmmakers end up stepped all over and ruining what made the popular original classics that inspired them so great. Nods of homage and nostalgia are fine. They are the welcome connection points that grab us, but instead of using cinematic highlighters, too many sequels, remakes, and reboots are using either White-Out or a redacting Sharpie marker to smear a good thing. They over-modify and don't know when to quit. In the end, they go too far and end-up devaluing what we love more than properly celebrating or honoring.
A prime example of these sequel/reboot/remake mistakes is "Terminator Genisys" opening this holiday weekend. As flashy as it is with tremendous and eye-popping special effects, it has created an extremely convoluted mess of merged timelines and revisionist storytelling that treads all over what made the 1984 original and superior 1991 sequel so great. This is more of an attempt of retcon than of homage. Even if you find yourself entertained by the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to his signature franchise, you may be asking, maybe even screaming in outrage, why this revision exercise was even necessary.
Our main storyteller for this new chapter is Kyle Reese, played with a single solitary drop of charisma by Jai Courtney of "Jack Reacher" and "A Good Day to Die Hard," previously labeled by this website as a graduate of the "Australian Sam Worthington School of Indiscernable Shaved Heads and Wooden Acting." His work has little improved and he's asked to carry this thing. In many ways, this is his origin story and Reese has always been the linchpin of this battle as the father of future resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") and the man that is destined to go back in time and save Sarah Connor in 1984, just as we all remember.
In several shot-for-shot recreations, Reese and the original T-800 Terminator (a CGI Schwarzenegger double) are sent back in time, arrive in 1984, and find a very different landscape than the original one we remember. The T-800 arrives to find an aged version of himself (the real Schwarzenegger) waiting to take him out before his original assassination mission ever starts. Reese is chased by a cop who turns out to be one of the liquid metal T-1000 models (Byung-hun Lee) from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" before being saved by a fully aware and battle-ready Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke of HBO's "Game of Thrones"). None of that, as we know, should exist in 1984, so something has happened.
This is were one more colossal mistake needs to be talked about and that is the terrible marketing of "Terminator Genisys." Apparently, no one there has every played poker and the words "subtlety," "shrewd," and all of their synonyms have been removed from the dictionaries and thesauruses over at Paramount Pictures. The latest trailers and posters for this film have completely given away both the central twist and the identity of the prime villain. "Terminator Salvation" also gave away their big swerve in their trailers six years ago. Apparently, no one learned their lesson. Any real director should be livid and any smart movie producer would sit on their trump card punch, but, remember, this is a studio cash cow now more than an artistic endeavor. This review will stay spoiler-free, but you don't have to look far to know what will happened.
The altered future has reverberated to create an alternate past. As it turns out, the older Terminator was sent to save Sarah Connor when she was nine years old and has stood by her ever since as her guardian and caretaker that she affectionately refers to as "Pops." The original judgment day caused by the rise of Skynet taking over all of the planet's technology systems has moved from 1997 to 2017, which initiates the 1984 Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese to go forward in time to stop the new threat. In 2017, Skynet is embedded in an all-inclusive operating system called Genisys created by the Dyson Company (fronted by Myles Dyson that will soon go live on billions of computers and devices on the planet, starting in San Francisco.
The knowledge of the twist and villain turn in advance takes away a great deal of the fun that was possible for "Terminator Genisys." What is thrown together is wasted potential. Recent Oscar winner J.K. Simmons gets an intriguing small role as a retired cop that was a witness to the 1984 events and has since become a Jack McGee-style headline chaser and blogger, hot on the trail of all things Connor, Reese, and Terminator. It's a clever dynamic that goes nowhere and is pushed to the sidelines by the required zany action. The level of post-apocalyptic importance that weighed heavily in the previous films is absent, so is the hard R-rating for jarring violence. The updated main casting of Courtney and the two Clarkes (no relation) never feels right. They are thrust upon us to like and accept. They do the best with what they are given, but they too become extra vehicles in the endless set piece chase sequences.
Even with the attempt at new takes on the Connor family and Kyle Reese, the centerpiece of this franchise will always be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Including expository details of how his Terminator's outer human tissue ages was a smooth and easy way of still including the 67-year-old superstar. He's still a blast to watch and he's clearly having fun, even if the character has devolved into a punchline more often than not since 2003. His presence is what connects this to the original James Cameron films from 1984 and 1991, but that itself is then the problem when this new film starts to change timelines and franchise canon. By retconning things in this way, director Alan Taylor ("Thor: The Dark World") and company are souring and even eliminating the significance of those two greats. That's how this film goes to far. It overcomplicates itself, especially when compared to the other long-distance sequel this summer, "Jurassic World" which kept things simple as a creature feature.
Sure, the toothpaste has been out of the tube, so to speak, ever since 2003's misguided "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines" and 2009's tangential "Terminator: Salvation" untied the perfect franchise-sealing bow that was 1991's incredibly perfect "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." As a single film, you could argue that there has never been a finer direct sequel than "T2." It raised the stakes, retained and improved on the menacing tone of the original, opened new technological doors, and executed the greatest "face turn" in movie history to propel everything to a tidy and resonating conclusion that didn't need extra sequels and future cash grabs.
Finally, for as much as we know the villain twist thanks to the marketing, the celebrating studio execs at Paramount have already announced two more sequels even before "Terminator: Genisys" hits the box office. You know everyone is going to live and make it, so where's the peril? The obsessive monologuing main villain doesn't help matters either. Where is that relentless stalking quality and suspense from 1984 and 1991? In the end, that's the missing edge. None of the gravitas, exhilaration, thrill, or sense of peril is left here in 2015. All that's left is a muddied mess and an aging star squeezing us for adoration as an over-the-hill cinematic Babe Ruth. The only cure possible is when James Cameron himself regains the rights in 2019 to the franchise he started and ended. If anyone can give us a superior Terminator story, it's him.
LESSON #1: FATHER-FIGURES AS CARETAKERS AND PROTECTORS-- Ever since Arnold's Terminator turned into a good guy for "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the character has been assigned to a defacto father-figure role. This new film continues and panders to that by extending the amount of time Pops and Sarah have spent together. He is the closest thing she has to a father and continues to save her life, creating a strong connection between the two. While purists will groan and long for the killer version of Arnold from 1984, he plays his friendly role just as well and it works to provide some, albeit shallow, human quality to the film. The Terminator's strength is what builds the strong female character that this version of Sarah Connor has become.
LESSON #2: THE FUTURE IS NEVER SET-- The posters for this film carry the tagline "reset the future." Thanks to a near "Back to the Future: Part II" level of time-travel convergences, the narrative loves to remind us that anything and everything can change the future. The self-imposed significance of that seems to end every character's speeches and explanations in how the future is everything. In point of fact, this lesson is true in real life. Very little is determined and our actions do echo our own futures. That said, these time-travel films cheat because they see what is coming, so take it for what it is until our real-life society invents time travel. Get on it, Apple or Elon Musk!
LESSON #3: AGE DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY MAKE SOMETHING OBSOLETE-- Arnold's heroic cyborg likes to remind us that old is not obsolete. Maybe someone could make a case that one layer of "Terminator Genisys" contains a commentary on society's craving for the next big thing or new shiny object with the approaching Skynet invasion via device operating systems, but it's a stretch. The lesson is more talking about grizzled veterans and how, even they may move slower than their younger or more advanced counterparts, their wisdom and smarts can overcome the physical disadvantages. It rings true, but more than anything, this repeated mantra in the film is a reminder that Arnold Schwarzenegger himself isn't going anywhere from this franchise. How else is he going to pay the bills and remain relevant?