Terminator: Genisys (dir. Alan Taylor)

Posted: July 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

James Cameron delivered two great films with his “Terminator” films.  They were original (regardless of what Harlan Ellison will tell you), very strong on character, had an interesting (if paradoxical) mythology, and a tone of gloom with just the tiniest shiver of hope.  They never let action divert from the story and characters, and yet didn’t skimp on the action. They are quintessential action and sci-fi films for anyone who considers themselves a fan of either genre.
Then there are the sequels, which have been abysmal. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003), aside from being horrendous and unnecessary, decided to have the exact opposite message of the first two films.  If the first two films were all about there being “no fate but what we make”, the third abomination was about the future being inevitable.  The film was an insult to fans of the franchise and disrespectful to Cameron’s vision.

After that, there was hope.  A film entirely set during the future war was slated, and the brilliant casting of Christian Bale as John Connor was slated for the next film “Terminator: Salvation” (2009).  Sadly, that film was directed by McG, the hack behind the two “Charlie’s Angels” movies (which I gave Fs too, and you know how rare I give full-on Fs to movies), and it didn’t focus on Connor, but rather a new character we, as an audience, didn’t give two shits about (a human/cyborg hybrid played by Sam Worthington).  While I’ll give credit to Anton Yelchin as a young Kyle Reese, that film was every bit as a failure as “Rise of the Machines”, but at least it could have potentially been saved with a different director and a few more screenplay drafts shifting the focus back to Connor.

I will, however, say that I did enjoy TV’s “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”, which ran for two seasons on Fox.  That show, while constrained by the format of network TV, at least seemed true to the characters, even if its tone was too light at times.  Honestly, though, the best follow-ups to Cameron’s films have often been in comic book form. I remember one comic book which showed that Skynet was still around because of the arm Arnold had to break off when it got trapped in a gear in T2.  Granted, no CPU was present, but I liked the callback to Dyson having the arm that survived out of the first film.

So now we have “Genisys”, a film which decides to alter the mythology by adding in different time travels to further the paradoxes and wonder why Skynet didn’t just send an army of terminators back to the 1950s to ensure there would be no opposition, enslave the human race early, and develop all of the technology themselves.  How many damn robots have they sent back now?

I’m actually surprised by how much I liked “Genisys”.  The trailers were pretty bad. The director, Alan Taylor, is mainly a TV director who has only recently started doing film work (I didn’t see his “Thor: The Dark World”, but I’m familiar with his work on shows like “Oz”, “Carnivale”, “Six Feet Under” and others), and I feared the new film would look too TV-like.  The writers, Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, are not known for quality.  Kalogridis has worked on unremarkable films like “Pathfinder” and Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” (though she also adapted Scorcese’s B-movie-with-A-cast-and-direction “Shutter Island”).  Lussier used to be Wes Craven’s editor, and moved on to direct bad direct-to-video movies about Dracula and wrote the Nic Cage B-movie “Drive Angry” (which I liked, but wouldn’t call “good”) and the lame horror film “My Bloody Valentine 3D”.  So yeah, the creative minds behind this film didn’t inspire optimism.

But you know what?  The film is decent, and at the very least better than the last two sequels.  Yes, this new film is a bit too action-heavy, not pausing nearly long enough to let the characters breathe.  However, Cameron’s mythology and message are paid homage to and not trampled upon, even as the mythology is adjusted.  The makers of this film definitely respect Cameron’s films and vision, which might be why Cameron ultimately liked this film.  Yes, Arnold’s Terminator is a bit too comical in this film, with a lot of focus on his “aging”, but it’s nice to see him play the Terminator again, and he gets a nice opportunity to play a father-figure again. In T2 he was a father to the young John Connor (Edward Furlong in that film), and in this film he’s the aging father to Sarah Connor, now played by Emilia Clarke.

A word about Clarke.  Not having watched “Game of Thrones”, I was worried about Clarke from the trailers of this film. Why?  Because she’s not a good actress when it comes to line delivery.  It gets stilted and sounds forced and awkward when she says a line.  That being said, I was actually surprised by how much I liked her in this role.  She’s pretty, sure, but she somehow is able to communicate both strength and vulnerability, the two qualities that Sarah Connor must have in this film.  Linda Hamilton was great because she could play vulnerable and naïve in “The Terminator”, but then tough as nails in “Terminator 2” and still make them feel like the same character.  Because of the altered timeline, Clarke has to play Sarah as a little bit of both, and bad live delivery aside, she does a good job.

So here’s the plot: In the future, John Connor (Jason Clarke, whose performance I don’t particularly like) and his human resistance have almost defeated Skynet.  The last mission they have to do is find Skynet’s time machine and attempt to stop them sending a Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah before John is born.  They don’t, so it’s up to John to send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, who does a decent job), his right-hand man and father, back in time to protect Sarah, and also knock her up so that he can be born.  This has always been an awkward and creepy story point, but it’s rich with material to play with.

Just as Reese is about to be sent back, he sees a man posing as a fellow soldier attack John. In 1984, we see the events of the first “Terminator” play out a tiny bit differently.  Reese now encounters a liquid metal T-1000, and Sarah is already geared for battle with a Terminator of her own, who saved her from an assassination attempt when she was 9.  Who sent back her protector Terminator?  We never find out.  We also don’t know when in the timeline all of these other terminators are sent back.  The film seems to imply that Skynet is aware of the timeline of the first “Terminator” series and has watched it play out multiple times with it losing, and has decided to try a new tactic. I’m not saying it makes sense, but it makes sense enough, I guess, to not be bogged down by it.

Look, the film has to change some stuff to explain why Judgment Day never happened in 1997. The attempt to refresh the mythology works well enough, and while lack of explanation is kind of maddening, it doesn’t distract from the film proper.  In any case, after 1984 Sarah and Kyle are able to travel to 2017, when Skynet, not masked as an operating system named Genisys that will link everyone’s computer together (kind of an obvious attack on how our society has willingly given away its privacy for the narcissism of social media…the film literally has scenes where EVERYONE in a hospital has their face buried in their cell phones, when while working, that’s kind of ridiculous) that will go live once the program is finished.  I’m not sure Skynet needing to be mature to upload itself to the web is a realistic depiction of how an A.I. compute program would work (does it have to be “finished” to go online?) but it provides us with a ticking clock that the heroes have to beat.

If it weren’t ruined in the trailers, it would be a spoiler to tell you that John becomes infected by Skynet to become an evil Terminator that was remade from the cellular level to be a better version of the half-man-half-robot creation “Salvation” tried to make.  I only wish the actor was better at Connor.  He doesn’t feel like an adult Furlong the way that Christian Bale felt like he was.  Hell, even Nick Stahl did a better job at p[laying Connor in “Rise of the Machines”, even though I always felt like Stahl’s character in “Carnivale” was closer to Connor than his actual attempt to play Connor.  In any case, this new type of Terminator feels better than the attempt to make a new one in “Rise” but, come on, nothing will ever beat Robert Patrick’s portrayal of the T-1000 in T2.

“Genisys” occasionally slows down to develop the relationship between Kyle and Sarah, especially how hard it must be to fall in love when you’re told that you’re supposed to, or that it’s inevitable.  When the choice to fall in love is taken away from you, you almost want to spite fate.  This new Sarah, raised by the Terminator, is an interesting iteration that feels new and yet a logical alternate version to the Sarah we already know.  If anything, though, the film lacks a slow, stalking sequence, such as the metal institution attack in T2.  This new film is all car chases and shootouts, and for all of their bombast, they don’t beat the police station in the first film, or the night club in the first one, or the mental institution in T2, or the blowing up Cyberdyne systems in T2 (even though they also try to blow it up in this film).  “Genisys” is a much better film if you can stop comparing it to Cameron’s films, but you also can’t help but do so.

I don’t exactly like that Skynet is given a personification in the film (Matt Smith, who is an actor so ugly it actually distracts. Sorry Whovians). It’s the Borg Queen all over again, and it doesn’t work.  I do, however, like the addition of J.K. Simmons as comic relief. Simmons is a joy in anything he’s cast in.

I expected to hate “Genisys” and found myself liking it. if you compare it to Cameron’s films, you’ll be disappointed.  If you compare it to “Rise” and “Salvation”, you will find yourself being kinder to the film than it maybe deserves, but thankful for doing something that’s harder than it seems: to make a good Terminator film.  I would call this new film decent, and enjoyable, but also disappointing…but I’m so grateful that’s better than those last two films that I’m more forgiving of it than if those films hadn’t been made and this was a third film. B-

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