Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Movie Review: Terminator Genisys


Movie: Terminator Genisys
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke

Terminator Genisys tries to undo the damage wrought to the renowned sci-fi series by Salvation, but while the Governator adds a surprising charm to his tired role of mechanized guardian, the unwieldy time travel plot, mechanical acting, and a serious case of continuity lockout almost had me longing to hop in a time machine and reclaim my lost 126 minutes.

In depth:
I’ve long admired The Terminator for practically codifying the type of dark Cyberpunk that would eventually become such a cliche a decade or two later, so it’s no surprise that I had a strong, visceral reaction to the news that they were coming out with yet another sequel.  Like Jurassic World, Genisys has been smothering box office premieres for the past few months with a cascade of teasers that offered plenty of visuals, but very little story.  I learned well from the god-awful train wreck that was The Last Airbender to be skeptical of any preview that follows this formula, and I certainly wasn’t fond of any attempt to resurrect a franchise that may have served its purpose admirably in the past, but was now better off resting in peace.  But, then again, I had said the same thing about Jurassic World, and while I’d hardly call it a masterpiece, I was, nonetheless, pleasantly surprised.  Unfortunately, I can’t quite say the same for Genisys, for although it works reasonably well as a mindless action flick, even this meager fun is dampened by the stale acting and mind-bendingly convoluted plot.

Like its predecessor, Terminator: Salvation, our story begins in the future, where John Connor (Clarke), the ever crucial leader of the Human Resistance Movement, was set to launch the final offensive against the drone army of the homicidal A.I. system Skynet.  With him as always was a contingent of Red Shirts and the his ever-faithful right hand, Kyle Reese, played this time by actor and living crash test dummy Jai Courtney.   Admittedly, these early battles and the obligatory exposition they embodied were quite enjoyable; as a Terminator fan, I’ve always wanted to get a glimpse at the final few days leading to the future destruction of Skynet, and the time travel plot that set the mythos in motion.  Plus, all of its other soon-to-be discussed failings aside, Genisys doesn't skimp on the action one bit, and proved remarkably proficient at building tension - a key action ingredient many modern movies tend to neglect.  Jason Clarke was perfunctory as the legendary figure, his typically lazy and understated method of acting for once actually adding character by nailing down Connor as a weary, prophetic old soldier.   

On the other hand, I had an...unpleasant reaction to seeing Courtney step up as Kyle Reese. The time-traveling soldier is arguably the great cipher in the Terminator franchise, as he is pretty much the Adam to Sarah Connor’s Eve in terms of root importance to the fate of the future, and yet receives little recognition in comparison - not counting the laughable travesty that was Salvation.  However, I didn’t believe for one second that Courtney could do Reese any justice.  His acting is notoriously wooden, and I predicted that he would likely fade into the background as soon as the plot really kicked off - and sure enough, Courtney didn’t disappoint.  Throughout the first fifteen minutes or so he was barely a presence on screen, being overshadowed by Jason Clarke (yes, really) and filling more the role of a spectator than a participant.  While you may make excuses in the beginning as this being Connor's way of keeping Reese out of the action in order to preserve his own existence, this becomes impossible as the movie drags on and Courtney's stiffness and general lack of charisma grates like nails on a chalkboard.  Michael Biehn may not have been the world’s best actor, but Kyle Reese felt alive in his hands - tense, militarized and unsociable, but still very much alive.  Courtney offers nothing but a pretty face and a well-built physique, and I was both astounded and disappointed by how very little I had to think of him over the course of the film.  

Fortunately, Jai-doll’s co stars were there to help pick up the slack, though just barely.  Emma Clarke was an odd choice as Sarah Connor, but eventually an acceptable one nonetheless, storming in like a bat out of hell soon after Reese and the T-800 are deposited unceremoniously on the streets to inform the good soldier that everything he (i.e., we, the audience) was expecting is wrong.  I was displeased at what I initially thought was a shallow bid for “grrl powa,” the kind of janky, “I don’t need you to protect me!” mindset that seems tacky in a cinema climate that’s far more accepting of strong female characters, even if there’s a long way to go still.  Thankfully, the filmmakers steered her in another direction, giving a sensible reason behind her attitude and even linking it to the series-wide theme of fate and predestination - something the rest of the movie apparently forgot.  Still, Clarke plays a recovering child soldier with little depth or conviction, stifling the desperately needed level of gravitas that had always been a staple in the series, but yet seems mostly absent here.  

There was one star that didn’t fail to slap a smile on my face - and ironically, he was the one I least expected.  There was a lot of buzz both before and after Genisys’ release centered on Mr. Schwarzenegger and his status as a box office draw; his performances since his retirement from politics has been a thoroughly mixed bag in the strictest sense, with a few enjoyable surprises and a lot of trash.  To be honest, I err on the side of the neighsayers, especially since Schwarzenegger hasn’t been the engine of any big movie publicity since, and I’m being very generous here, End of Days. That said, Genisys, much like The Last Stand, shows that the aging action hero still has a certain charm and appeal that will never truly fade.  Although the Terminator character, affectionately named “Pops” in this incarnation, doesn’t allow much in range, the veteran actor knew how to exploit every cranny to either get a good laugh, like his hilariously creepy attempt to fit in by smiling, or to convey the film’s few moments of well-executed pathos. It’s sad to say that he’s the only character who evoked genuine concern over his survival from me.

So far, what I’ve described seems like the makings of a kinda fun if thoroughly "meh" movie.  So what went wrong?  It wasn’t Courtney woodenness, or Clarke’s uneasy grasp of a legacy role she can’t quite fill; it wasn’t Schwarzenegger’s faded Hollywood star, or audience apathy in the wake of yet another Terminator sequel.  In fact, it was all of these things, but wrapped in a convoluted plot that ties itself into an incomprehensibly tight knot, leaving little room for anyone who has not been following this series from the beginning.  I got my first warning sign right at the start; everything immediately after Reese followed the original Terminator through time - where both he and the killer cyborg landed, the reactions of the bystanders, and even the encounter with the hobo in the alley - mirrored the original Terminator sequence of events to the tee.  The problem is that we aren’t quite sure of the purpose for all this: is it a homage to the original film, a little inside treat for the series’ long-time fans?  Or was it a stamp of recognition, letting the viewers know that this wasn’t their parents’ Terminator?  I suspect that it was all of the above, but the execution was so clumsy that the likely result for most newcomers to the franchise was a great deal of confusion.  This, of course, is a serious problem, as a sequel - and most definitely an alternate remake - should stand on its ability to draw in new viewers who need not be versed in the series’ past lore.  Unfortunately, Genisys ignores this basic cinema principle, and I can only imagine how the rare Terminator newcomer must have felt watching it, as I know I would have been completely baffled by the inside references and their annoying prominence on the screen had I no familiarity with the franchise.

If the continuity lockout wasn’t enough, the movie's extraordinarily confusing take on the time travel plot renders any attempt at reaching clarity totally futile.  This is rather sad, as one of many boons of the Terminator series as a whole is the relative simplicity with which it approached time travel; not particularly realistic, but at least it didn’t require a Masters in Physics just to keep up.  Taylor and Co. threw all of that out the window, stacking on the temporal paradoxes like a snow fort, but leaving the foundation just as flimsy.  Just in case you missed what the plot was throwing at you at every second, a brief summation: Reese is sent back a la the original timeline, but the surprise ambush of a new Terminator model, that may be Skynet incognito, on John Connor throws a depth charge in the time stream that apparently, somehow, allows Reese to simultaneously recall memories from both his original timeline, and an alternate timeline where Judgement Day hasn't happened and he’s a sheltered teenager firmly in the bonds of puberty.  He encounters Sarah and "Pops," who apparently exemplify this new change not only by departure of characterization, but by the fact that “Pops” had actually been sent back to protect her from a Terminator attack ten years earlier.  So now, all three of them are hitching a ride to the future through a makeshift time machine - not to the 1997 ground zero of the original timeline, but to the alternate future found in Kyle’s time travel brain haze a few decades after.  Got it so far?  Good.  Makes any kind of sense?  Probably not, and it only gets more complicated from there on.

The sheer unwieldiness of the plot is problematic in itself, but what’s particularly troublesome is the intent behind it.  This film is the first in a planned series aimed at retooling the franchise, a fact so painfully obvious as to render the studio’s confirmation after it’s release unnecessary.  Reboots, in my eyes, are generally a bust, but can be pulled off if done with care and respect to the conventions of storytelling.  Here, though, it's like the filmmakers wanted to clean house as quickly as possible, throwing out much of what constituted the old mythos (i.e., John Connor mythic hero status, if I'm allowed to spoil for a bit) for no other reason than the fact that it's not needed anymore in the wake of this new "vision."  In fact, watching this unfold reminded me of an X-men storyline a few years ago called House of M, which without going into too much detail ended in the termination of a large majority of the comic's known mutants in one form or another.  Such an extreme plot in a beloved major franchise is bound to be controversial no matter what, but what really ticked off most fans was the later admission that its prime reason was to reduce the number of mutants to a more "manageable" level.  While the sentiment enmeshed in House of M is understandable, and it'd be foolish to claim that no fictional storyline had ever been influenced by the pragmatic demands of extra-textual limitations, to have it conducted in such a hamfisted and instrumental manner does justice to no one and nothing, least of all the story.  While Genisys doesn't wear its intent to anywhere near that level of provocation, it can still be quite jarring to anyone perceptive enough to see it.

Genisys is, to a certain extent, a fun film; I didn't come into it expecting to have my mind blown in any way, and Schwarzenegger and the special effects were good enough for an evening's distraction.  I'd even go so far as admit that it contains within the seeds for a better sequel in this inevitable new series.  However, they need to learn from the mistakes of this first foray (and maybe think about getting a better Kyle Reese) if they want the next film to be met with anything other than groans of indifference and confusion.

Grade: D