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Non-Review Review: Terminator Genisys

“I am inevitable,” the villain boasts towards the climax of Terminator Genisys, just as things look their darkest for our heroes. He is a fully 3D digital image sourced from wall-mounted projectors, reflecting the way that the film itself has been marketed.

He might as well be talking on behalf of the film itself. The Terminator franchise has evolved into an unlikely juggernaut, spanning over three decades and evolving from a low-budget science-fiction film into a blockbuster series. Critical (and popular) reception to Terminator III: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation has been somewhat muted, but the film franchise just keeps coming. In a way, it feels like Skynet making itself manifest. Or, more appropriately, the eponymous robot killing machine.

Fresh off the factory line...

Fresh off the factory line…

There are points where Terminator Genisys seems incredibly self-aware, posing the sort of existential and philosophical questions that are confronting the audience. In The Terminator and Terminator II: Judgement Day, James Cameron positioned time travel as a metaphor for the strings of fate and destiny that seemed to bind free will. In Terminator Genisys, time travel becomes a powerful metaphor for the process of film- (or franchise-) making itself.

Both a sequel and a prequel, a reboot and a remake, the time travel plot element of Terminator Genisys turns the franchise into a gigantic mix tape. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier collaborate to turn Terminator Genisys into a live-action version of a Jive Bunny and the Mix Masters track, a sample filled with familiar beats played at the wrong tempo. There are moments when the wrongness seems the point, when Terminator Genisys wanders into the uncanny valley. There are points where it almost achieves consciousness.

Prick me, do I not leak?

Prick me, do I not leak?

As the trailers indicate, Terminator Genisys plays like a smorgasbord of franchise highlights, offering a delightful sampling of iconic moments for a millennial audience to peruse at their leisure. “Come with me if you want to live,” advises one character. Another promises, “I’ll be back.” We get to see the Terminator menaced by (and immediately menacing) some street punks in 1984. We get a liquid metal man chasing a vehicle while turning his arms into claws to catch them. We get a helicopter chase in the proximity of Cyberdyne Laboratories.

The movie hops through time like a video game sampling favourite levels. We hit the various franchise highlights. Post-apocalyptic holocaust zone! 1984 clothes store! Silicon Valley headquarters! 1984 metalworks! Tunnels! Our lead characters are no longer confined to one or two time periods; they move freely through the time stream. In fact, our heroes are no longer confined to a single time-line. Through a bunch of nonsense techno-babble, we are assured that alternate time-lines exist.

An eye for an eye...

An eye for an eye…

Of course, this is all completely illogical and arbitrary. At one point, John Connor ruminates on whether he would continue to exist to send Kyle Reese back in time if Kyle Reese were to die before he could become John Connor’s father. Don’t think too hard about it, you’ll go cross-eyed. The time travel rules of the Terminator films have always been flexible. The future can be written in stone as The Terminator suggested, the all actions and reactions preordained; there is also no future but what we write for ourselves, as Terminator II asserted.

Terminator Genisys seems to insist that every part of the franchise makes sense; therefore none of it does. As the characters journey back and forth in time, they write and re-write history to the point where only the faintest echo of the original can remain. When Kyle Reese travels back in time to find Sarah Connor waiting for him, she advises him that continuity and consistency cannot possibly coexist in a universe where time itself if constantly revised. “The 1984 that John sent you back to no longer exists,” Sarah insists.

Time is the fire in which we burn. Also, fire is the fire in which we burn...

Time is the fire in which we burn.
Also, fire is the fire in which we burn…

There is a strange poignancy to Terminator Genisys, as if the film acknowledges that a lot of what made The Terminator and Terminator II such classics has been lost to history, erased and re-written in the mad scramble to leverage the film into a franchise. Between Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World, it seems like 2015 is the year of the postmodern franchise sequel, franchise monsters that almost seem to mourn their own existence. “You didn’t think it would be that easy,” a villain taunts just when the film looks to be wrapping itself up.

At its best moments, Terminator Genisys suggests that the characters are themselves trapped in an gigantic machine. Over the course of the film, Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor might just try to fight their fate, but they seem to resist the franchise narrative that is forming around them. Adapting the principle of Skynet for the digital age, Terminator Genisys proposes a monstrous artificial intelligence that has been eagerly invited into the lives of an unsuspecting audience. All-knowing, all-consuming.

Domo Arigoto...

Domo Arigoto…

Even the casting feels like a sly nod towards to audience, drawing their attention to the artifice of the situation. Emilia Clarke is cast as Sarah Connor; an actress who was only born two years after the release of The Terminator. Clarke is best known for her work on Game of Thrones, where she stars alongside Lena Headey, the actress who played the role of Sarah Connor on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It seems like Clarke has received a metaphorical baton passed from her co-star. Sophie Turner may headline the next reboot.

Similarly, the movie makes a rather odd use of Matt Smith. The actor occupies a rather surreal place in the narrative. He is largely rendered redundant in his second scene, but haunts the climax nevertheless. During the sequence where the rebels discover the time machine that drives the plot, the camera lingers on Smith in the crowd shots. Part of that is simple set-up for what comes next, but it also provides a nice nod towards Smith’s own history as a time-travelling trickster on Doctor Who.

Smile time...

Smile time…

The first two Terminator films are venerated almost as holy relics. When the iconic Terminator from the original film adopts his distinctive kneeling time travel pose, it feels almost like genuflection genyflection. The familiar is elevated. Entire monologues are repeated almost verbatim. Familiar plot beats are hit over and over again. At worst, it feels like a cynical exercise in pandering. At best, it feels like a conscious commentary on the nature and mandate of the film.

Key to Terminator Genisys is the idea that the franchise has come a whole circle – that pop is eating itself. Skynet is all things. The movie suggests that Skynet is not seeking domination so much as equilibrium, with the climax of the film reversing the traditional structure of the Terminator franchise. The film plays out the classic “John Connor versus the Terminators” plot that has reverberated through the franchise since the back story to the original film, but in a way that is designed to render that conflict uncanny and perverse.

Pop's home...

Pop’s home…

The ideas underpinning Terminator Genisys are fascinating, if cynical. Sadly, the execution is mediocre at best. Part of this is down to casting. Jai Courtney is a charisma vacuum as Kyle Reese, sharing absolutely no chemistry with Emilia Clarke. Jason Clarke feels slightly miscast as John Connor throughout the film, to the point where it might have worked better had the film swapped his role with that of Matt Smith. It feels like J.K. Simmons is wasted in the role of obligatory comic relief.

As interesting as the themes of the film might be, the dialogue is terrible. The film’s characters provide a whole host of awkward exposition, above and beyond that required by a standard time travel narrative. The script hits the same points over and over again, as if worried that the audience might have difficulty following this movie about killer robots from the future. As thematically effective as copying and pasting the work of James Cameron might be, it is not always elegantly interwoven.

Melting, melting! Oh what a world...

Melting, melting! Oh what a world…

The movie’s action set pieces feel a little hollow and flat. Perhaps the movie is over-reliant on the CGI that Terminator II helped to pioneer all those years ago. Perhaps it is simply the fact that imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery and a major thematic point, but it winds up feeling shallow and over familiar. There is never a moment where the movie’s pulse gets particularly high; the film never even brushes against the highs of Cameron’s original two films.

And yet, for all this, there are some strangely affecting moments. There is something almost heartwarming about seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger step back into his classic role – affectionately identified as “Pops” and steadfastly insisting that he is “old, not obsolete.” Schwarzenegger might be the top-billed cast member, but the character does not anchor the narrative in the same way that he did the first three instalments. There is a sense that Schwarzenegger’s ageing wise-cracking Terminator makes a more life-like protagonist that Courtney’s Kyle Reese.

Calling time...

Calling time…

For all its very serious flaws, there are some interesting concepts at work here and a surprisingly emotional return from a veteran performer. The fact that Terminator Genisys is aware of its flaws – and even tries to own some of them – goes some way towards redeeming them. It doesn’t get the movie home (or even close to home), but it does count for something.

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10 Responses

  1. Not going to lie, your post-modern analysis of the film has caused me to go from relative disinterest towards the film to being actually quite curious. I suspect I won’t read anything into the film beyond time travelling robots fighting each other but the time travelling shenanigans you reference seem like an interesting narrative concept.

    • My suspicion is that Darren’s words invest the story with a dignity, gravitas, and level of thought that the underlying screenplay probably doesn’t merit. This is what happens when brilliant reviewers tackle warmed-over blockbuster-by-committee releases…

      • Ha! Thank you, although if I am generous in my review, you are more generous in your assessment.

        Quite candidly, it’s more interesting than good, which I hope I conveyed in the review. There are elements that are fun and playful and cheeky, but there are also elements that really don’t work. (I have an intense reflexive dislike of Jai Courtney, so I’ll admit to having difficulty liking any movie centred around a performance from him.) But I stand by my “better than Jurassic World”, even if that is damning with faint praise.

    • I mean, I should clarify that it is a dysfunctional mess of a film. But I think it’s an interesting dysfunctional mess of a film that comes close to working at points. I enjoyed it more than Jurassic World, which is a low bar. (But it still ranks below Mad Max, Magic Mike XXL and Age of Ultron in the summer sequel stakes. That’s actually pretty much the ranking order there.)

  2. It was decent. i kinda liked it.. and the best part was the credits because the original terminator score is playing 🙂

    • When I attended the screening, Paramount had two guys outside beating steel drums in rhythm to the music. It was pretty amazing. Love that theme music.

  3. Brilliant analysis!

    While Terminator Genisys has nothing new to offer but it does succeed in making us experience several bouts of nostalgia. Perhaps, the best way to approach Terminator Genisys is to see it as a fan’s tribute to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s a movie for the fans, by the fans. So, watch it for the love of T-800 and the man who has immortalized it: Arnold Schwarzenegger!

    Here’s the link to my review of Terminator Genisys:

    http://www.apotpourriofvestiges.com/2015/07/terminator-genisys-2015-alan-taylors.html

    • Thanks!

      I’m not sure I’d be quite so positive, but it is the best terminator film since T2. Which is damning with faint praise.

  4. I like films with Schwarzenegger. Last movie that i watched is Terminator

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