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Terminator: Genisys (2015)

genisysDIRECTOR: Alan Taylor

CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jai Courtney, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Matt Smith, Byung-hun Lee

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL “SPOILERS” OF THE FILM’S PLOT

Much like several other once-mighty film franchises from the 1980s and 1990s, including the Alien and Predator series, the Terminator just doesn’t know when to quit.  1984’s The Terminator was a solid launching pad, and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, like its predecessor helmed by James Cameron, stands to this day as one of the best sci-fi action thrillers ever made, and represented the franchise at its peak.  Unfortunately, like Alien, everything was downhill after #2.  Cameron’s two installments told a self-contained story with a beginning and end.  Cameron moved on and Hollywood should have too, but as is so often the case, a property is never left well enough alone when studios smell profits to be made from an iconic brand name.  2003’s Rise of the Machines was serviceable diverting action entertainment but a marked step down, and 2009’s Terminator: Salvation was a superfluous side tangent to nowhere, and now in 2015, just when most people probably thought they’d heard the last of Terminators, the intrepid Connor clan, Judgment Day, and Skynet, Genisys has come along and attempted to bring things full circle by hearkening back to the glory days of the first two episodes.  Unfortunately, despite all its playing on nostalgia and callbacks, Genisys does not represent a return to form.  In fact, it’s a muddled and convoluted episode, marred by bad casting and questionable narrative choices, and comes across like mediocre fanfiction.  “Ah-nuld” may once again utter the words “I’ll be back”, but neither he nor the film makes that an exciting prospect.

Genisys’ time-jumping narrative is convoluted even by time travel standards, but here is as clear a synopsis as possible.  We open with a sort of prologue to the original film, with future resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) leading the climactic battle that storms Skynet headquarters and shuts down the machines….but too late to stop Skynet from cheating to avoid its own destruction by sending a Terminator back in time to 1984 Los Angeles to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and undo everything John and his soldiers have just accomplished.  Reese volunteers to follow the Terminator back through time to safeguard Sarah, but is warned by John that in 1984 Sarah was not the hardened survivalist she would later become, and Reese will find a naive oblivious waitress who needs his protection.  For the next few minutes, we get virtually shot-for-shot reenactments of opening scenes from the original film.  Reese steals a homeless man’s pants and hides from cops in a store.  The Terminator (an almost indistinguishable CGI Schwarzenegger made to look like his 1984 self) demands clothes from some punks.  But things quickly get skewed.  Original 1984 Terminator is confronted and beaten by an older-looking identical model (Schwarzenegger as his natural 2015 self).  The cop pursuing Reese in the store is no cop, but a T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), the shape-shifting liquid metal creation from Terminator 2.  And just when it seems Reese’s mission is about to be cut very short, he’s rescued by none other than Sarah Connor, who to Reese’s surprise already knows her way around firearms and knows all about Terminators, Skynet, and Judgment Day, thanks to “Pops”, the outwardly aging Terminator who, in this altered timeline, rescued her from a T-1000 when she was nine years old.  Snatches of memories of an alternate childhood glimpsed during the time jump convince Reese that Judgment Day has been pushed back from 1997 to 2017, and he and Sarah jump into the future (courtesy of a makeshift time machine “Pops” handily constructed) to thwart Skynet’s alternate upload date.  But something is fishy here too.  In this alternate timeline, Judgment Day hasn’t happened yet, and 2017 civilization is still alive and kicking, but then how does adult John Connor show up, still sporting his scars from a Terminator during the war?  And what does he want with Sarah and Reese?

Terminator: Genisys is convoluted even among films using time travel as a plot device, with the characters here jumping between three time periods (2029, 1984, and 2017), and elements of the plot are difficult to follow.  For example, it’s never clarified who sent “Pops” back in time to rescue nine-year-old Sarah, the event which kickstarted the entire alternate timeline.  The movie throws around a lot of vague jargon about “time displacement” and Reese passing through a “nexus” during his time travel, allowing him to glimpse alternate timelines, but this comes off like tossing out some big words to hand-wave away plot holes and questions.  Genisys chooses to ignore the third and fourth installments (which many fans are likely okay with) and, like last month’s Jurassic Worldplay heavily on nostalgia and callbacks to Cameron’s films.  The scenes of Reese and 1984 Terminator’s arrivals, Reese stealing the homeless man’s pants, The Terminator confronting the punks, and Reese fleeing into a department store, are virtually shot-for-shot remakes of those from the original film, right down to identical shots of Reese tying his trademark Nikes (though the movie doesn’t get the punks’ hairstyles right).  The CGI digitally recreating 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger is exceptional, making him almost (not quite, but almost) indistinguishable from the real thing.  Later, there is a confrontation with both the 1984 Terminator and the T-1000 in a factory that echoes both the climactic battles of The Terminator and Terminator 2, and there’s a cameo from Skynet’s original architect Miles Dyson (though here played by Courtney B. Vance…Joe Morton wasn’t available?), whose son Danny (Dayo Okeniyi) is now the man behind Skynet’s 2017 rise to power.

Unfortunately, despite its slavish homages to the franchise’s glory days, Genisys‘ similarities to Cameron’s installments are skin-deep and feel like uninspired retreads of things done decades ago.  The shape-shifting blade-armed T-1000 is the niftiest and most formidable adversary, but he’s not around very long, and no action sequence comes close to the dynamite of various scenes from #1 and #2, or even the early car chase from #3.  The action sequences here are uninspired and generic, even when the filmmakers throw in a bus doing some of the most flagrant flouting of the rules of physics and gravity since Speed.  Despite supposedly being the “next level” super Terminator, the SPOILER WARNING John Connor human/cyborg hybrid doesn’t seem all that special; he’s like a T-1000 knock-off with fewer cool abilities.  The filmmakers’ hand-waving explanation of a Terminator being covered by aging human tissue to explain Schwarzenegger’s age feels like a lame excuse to justify a past-his-prime Schwarzenegger’s inclusion in this movie.  Worse still, iconic sci-fi action characters like Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese have been dumbed down into generic action cliches, poorly-written and poorly-acted, who bicker like schoolkids and spout “cool” one-liners that sound like nothing either character would ever say.  A climactic kiss is unearned and unconvincing.

genisys2With the obvious exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the cast is low-profile, and nobody makes an impressive account of themselves.  Both Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney define miscast.  Clarke comes across like a little girl playing dress-up.  Her girlishness works okay for her girl queen Daenerys on the HBO series Game of Thrones (where she’s backed up by dragons and an army), but she is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton, and never does she convince us of her badassery the way Hamilton did in T2.  In fact, not only is Clarke a pale wannabe of one of the most iconic action heroines in cinema, she’s not even the best action heroine of the last couple months; she’s got nothing on Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Charlize Theron.  It was easy to accept Hamilton or Theron kicking ass in action sequences; Clarke just doesn’t look or act the part.  Even more egregiously miscast is the terminally bland Jai Courtney, who’s long on muscles but short on charisma or any evident acting talent and turns this so-called Kyle Reese into a one-note cardboard cutout generic buff action hero completely lacking in any shred of depth or vulnerability Michael Biehn gave the role back in 1984.  Biehn was not a great thespian (though his performance was markedly superior to Courtney’s), but he had a haunted everyman quality; we could believe his longing for Sarah and his world-weariness.  Courtney looks and acts like he just came back from pumping iron at the gym to do some emotionless recitation devoid of feeling of some lines he memorized off a cue card five minutes beforehand.  About the most that can be said for Courtney is that, unlike his fellow Australian wannabe action star Sam Worthington, he can at least maintain a consistent American accent, but with his buff physique and vacant expression, he might have been better-cast as a Terminator.  There’s no chemistry between Clarke and Courtney, and among action duos, they’re a long way down from Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn (or for that matter, this very summer’s Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road).  The supporting cast fares marginally better, but no one does any acting worth writing home about.  Australian character actor Jason Clarke, who’s gotten a little more recognizable in recent years with roles in Lawless, White House Down, The Great Gatsbyand Dawn of the Planet of the Apesis bland and uncharismatic as John Connor (why can’t any Terminator movie get adult John right?), while South Korean star Byung-hun Lee is adequate as the T-1000, though his role could hardly be described as challenging.  Former Doctor Who Matt Smith’s part amounts to a walk-on role.  The only actor who does what could really be called a decent job is J.K. Simmons, who provides a little comic relief as a conspiracy theory-obsessed cop, but his part is fairly small and rather superfluous (certainly nothing comparable to the juicy material he got to chomp on in his recent Oscar-winning performance in Whiplash).  Perhaps most sadly surprising, even Schwarzenegger himself, whom one might assume to be reliable even if everyone around him is miscast, doesn’t seem to have “it” anymore.  As odd as it sounds to accuse Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people of “acting too much”, that’s exactly what’s wrong with his performance here.  He plays “Pops” too human and lacks the robotic deadpan that he brought to the first three installments.  “Pops” doesn’t feel like a Terminator; he feels like an over-the-hill Schwarzenegger going through the motions.  At least in #3, Schwarzenegger stepped back into the Terminator shoes like he never left them, even if everything else wasn’t up to the same level.  He doesn’t manage that here.  A couple familiar one-liners are uttered, including “I’ll be back” and “get out”, but without much panache.  When even “Ah-nuld” can’t play an emotionless robot convincingly anymore, it’s well time to throw in the towel.

My feelings about the Terminator series are the same as those about the Alien series.  Two once-mighty 1980s franchises that should have ended with #2, with everything that’s come along after feeling like increasingly bad fanfiction.  It’s unclear how much of this should rightfully be blamed on director Alan Taylor (for his part, Taylor accuses the studio of interference) but between this and his previously unimpressive Thor: The Dark WorldTaylor is not building a promising reputation for himself, at least not in his attempts to move from his television roots into big-budget summer movies (he previously directed several episodes of Game of Thrones).  It’s obvious that Taylor was attempting to do for Terminator what Jurassic World did for that franchise; sweep generally disliked previous chapters under the rug and try to bring things full circle with the iconic original, but while Jurassic World was no masterpiece itself, it achieved its objectives more effectively than Genisys (it also had a leading man, Chris Pratt, with far more charisma than Jai Courtney).  Genisys may try to set itself apart from and above the previous Terminator sequels, but it’s unable to avoid their fate of feeling like a superfluous episode whose existence is unnecessary.  This time, when Schwarzenegger deadpans “I’ll be back”, it’d be preferable if he wasn’t.

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