Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review - Terminator Genisys

          Insofar as I have made multiple references to Terminator Genisys in my previous two reviews, it would only seem appropriate that I review it now. This is especially the case since, as I have previously mentioned, I have set out to review the representative sci-fi films of summer 2015, of which a new installment of the Terminator series will inevitably be a part of. I've noticed an eerie pattern developing here: many of the major sci-fi and action movies of this summer have either been reboots (Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World) or screen adaptations of long-standing IPs (Avengers: Age of Ultron). One might wonder whether or not Hollywood has run out of creativity and imagination. This is not to say that reboots are inherently bad (Fury Road and Jurassic World were quite the contrary), but, when one confines himself to a particular fictional universe, one has to follow the rules of that universe (for example, it would have been grossly out of place to have aliens invade while the Indominus Rex rampaged around Jurassic World). By constantly falling back on reboot after reboot, filmmakers tend to paint themselves as incapable of creating a new universe with its own characteristics and rules, a new universe which could potentially illuminate a yet unrealized facet of life by serving as an expression of art.
          I don't expect this review to be as long as my previous ones. There are a handful of reasons for this, but the most significant reason would be that Terminator Genisys is just bad. I could literally end this review right now by saying that almost every facet of its content and production that one can imagine is of poor quality, and this wouldn't be too disingenuous of a summary. However, it might be an interesting endeavor to try and give Genisys the benefit of the doubt and find those things that it does well that might actually be able to redeem it (though, I must say, this would require a degree of optimism beyond my possible potential). Besides, the Terminator series was initially one that, like Jurassic Park, asked many of the right questions, and presented those questions with great imagination and detail. It would be somewhat of an injustice to the early installments of the series to simply dismiss both Genisys and the entire series so quickly. As such, I will add some substance to this review, but again, it probably won't be anything like that of my Fury Road or Jurassic World reviews.
          The Terminator series emerged in the late 1980s as a series initially about a robot that gets sent back through time, by machines in a machine-dominated future, to try and kill the up-and-coming leaders of the human resistance against them. This series is famous for contributing to the lineup of campy action movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 80s and is more or less considered a core series that defined his career. The first installment in the series, simply dubbed The Terminator, directed by James Cameron in 1984, sees Schwarzenegger as the eponymous Terminator, a robot sent back in time from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the soon-to-be mother of John Connor, the future leader to the resistance against the machines. It is important to note that Sarah, with the help of Kyle Reese, a soldier sent back through time to defend her, survives the events of the first film and destroys the original Terminator. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, produced in 1991 and also directed by Cameron, is sometimes considered to be the best installment in the series, and sees Schwarzenegger return as the eponymous Terminator, but this time reprogrammed and sent back through time to defend both Sarah and John Connor from the T-1000, an advanced Terminator model consisting of liquid metal. Terminator 2 was memorable for being at the forefront of special effects for the early 90s, using those effects to really explore the dangers of an advanced world that inevitably gives way to the control of the machines. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines wasn't produced until more than ten years after Terminator 2, in 2003, and did not feature Cameron as either a director or producer. In Terminator 3, John Connor is an adult, more or less in hiding after the events of Terminator 2. Since his whereabouts are unknown to the machines, the machines send the T-X, a new model Terminator, back in time to try and assassinate those that would eventually become his officers in the future, including his not-yet-realized girlfriend. And much like Terminator 2, the human resistance sends back Arnold Schwarzenegger to defend John Connor from the T-X.
          It's at this point in the series that I pretty much stopped following it. On it's own, Terminator 3 was a decent sci-fi action film, but when compared to the first two installments, seemed very mediocre, and unlike Fury Road and Jurassic World, was unable to renew interest in the series among millennials, the demographic that it needed to attract in 2003. That said, I wouldn't consider this to be the most damaging thing to the series. What has probably hampered the series more than the mediocre success of Terminator 3 was the extremely poor and inconsistent handling of the series after that. Perhaps the biggest example of this has to do with the recent portrayal of John Connor. Terminator Salvation was the fourth installment in the series and featured Christian Bale as John Connor, a radical departure from Nick Stahl in T3. Thomas Dekker portrays an adolescent John Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a hyped-up TV series that some question whether or not should be considered canon in the Terminator universe. The Dekker version of John Connor is supposed to be a continuation of the Edward Furlong John Connor from T2, but doesn't quite hit the mark in that it doesn't capture what was unique about the T2 John Connor. The John Connor in T2 was young, rebellious, and characteristically 90s, so trying to capture the traits of a 1991 character in a 2008 TV series requires a certain degree of observation and skill. Add to this the fact that, by the time Genisys is produced, the timeline of the series had been presented out of chronological order, so we are not quite sure where we are supposed to be with regard to John Connor and the current state of his character.
          Another component of the recent installments of the Terminator series that ultimately worked to its detriment has to do with the inconsistency of its production team. It is quite curious that the best installments in the series, the first two films, were directed and produced by James Cameron, and that, as soon as he left the project, the series was taken in several highly questionable directions. Terminator 3 was directed by Jonathan Mostow, while Salvation was directed by McG, and the jarring shift of tone in the series because of the shift between the two directors was apparent. While all of this is happening with the films, there is also this television series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, that is adding its own input, muddying the waters even further. One always assumes a risk in trying to augment a film series with a TV or book series; there is a thin line between a TV series successfully adding content to a fictional universe and a TV series adding nothing but calamity, which is more or less contingent on the stability of the film series at the time. Unfortunately for the Terminator universe, the film series was in this schizophrenic stage of inconsistent tone when the TV series was produced. The end result is that the TV series adds to the mess that is the current state of the film series as opposed to augmenting it.
          As one can imagine, towards the end of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the series stagnated and went quiet for some time. If one were to try and successfully reboot the Terminator series at this point, then one would have to try and bestow order on the chaos that was the state of the film series and fictional universe while also paying homage to the first two films. Enter Alan Taylor, yet another director to take over the series, and Terminator Genisys, his attempt at rebooting it and making sense of everything that came between T2 and Genisys. Which failed. Miserably. I want to try and be courteous to Taylor's attempt at saving the Terminator series, but I just can't seem to find any way that anybody with half a brain and familiar with the series can do that. Genisys makes so many wrong moves that one must really wonder how production was allowed (actually, it's not that much of a mystery; it's Hollywood trying to cash-in on the nostalgia dollar).
          Where should I start? There are so many things one could say about all of the wrong moves that Genisys makes that it's difficult to find one to start with. Perhaps I should start with the most broad and, in my approach, the most important one: the plot. All other errors held constant, if Genisys had a solid plot that, like Jurassic World, invoked the philosophical motivations of T1 and T2, then it might have actually been a decent film. Unfortunately, Genisys just completely goes in the other direction, retconning everything that was good from the first two films. Recall that, in the first film, Sarah Connor was a young waitress in Los Angeles, completely unaware of her role in the impending apocalypse and the future of mankind until both the Terminator and Kyle Reese show up. Genisys revisits this storyline, though focusing more on Kyle Reese as opposed to Sarah Connor. When Kyle Reese gets sent back through time, however, he shows up to an 1980s Los Angeles where Sarah Connor is already fully aware of future events, somehow already has Arnold Schwarzenegger at her side, has stockpiled an arsenal of weapons, and fights a younger CGI version of Arnold Schwarzenegger (presumably the Terminator from the first film), all before John Connor is even brought up in conversation. The justification for this is that, when Sarah was a little child (before the events of the first film), yet another reprogrammed Terminator was sent back through time to warn her about Judgment Day and protect her (the Terminator she has by her side when Reese shows up). It is important to point out that this more or less renders the events of the first film pointless; with this childhood Terminator by her side, there is no need for Kyle Reese to even be there (granted, he is supposed to be the father of John Connor, but even the need for this is called into question by the end of Genisys), especially since they manage to kill off the antagonizing Terminator in the first five minutes. It should be said that there are times when it is OK to retcon old canon and improve upon it (J.J. Abrams will supposedly be doing this with the Star Wars series), but this only works when the original canon is decidedly bad. On the other hand, it is an egregious error to retcon the canon when it is actually the highlight of the series, which is what we have here. It was the responsibility of Taylor and Genisys to fix the mess that was everything after T2, not let that mess consume the first two films as well. At this point, the only justification for Kyle Reese to be in the film is to properly direct Sarah Connor and her childhood Terminator friend to 2017 (using the time machine Sarah just has locked away in her basement), where Skynet, under the alias "Genisys", will launch Judgment Day, but "for real" this time, now completely bypassing the events of T2 (which took place in 1995).
          Genisys' mishandling of the plot doesn't stop there. After more or less making the events of the first two films a footnote on the series as opposed to building on them, Genisys undermines the importance of John Connor by seemingly removing him from the series completely. This is why I earlier questioned the importance of Kyle Reese; if we render the events of T1 pointless, then the only reason for Reese to be there is to father John Connor, but Genisys pretty much kills off John Connor and refocuses the series around Sarah. For example, soon after Kyle Reese is sent back to the 1980s by John Connor, Skynet, thought defeated in the future by Connor's resistance, infiltrates Connor's unit and kills him by transforming him into a new Terminator model, a model based on nanotechnology, which gets sent to 2017 to try and stop Sarah, Kyle, and Schwarzenegger's T-800 model from preventing the launch of Genisys (a.k.a. Skynet in disguise). There is never really any attempt to try and reverse the effects of Skynet on John Connor - Reese briefly entertains the idea when he initially realizes what has happened, but, towards the end of the film, Sarah Connor makes the declaration that the machines have "gamed" the system and that they (i.e. Sarah, Kyle, and the T-800) are the future of mankind. Perhaps this is supposed to be yet another justification for bypassing the events of T1 and T2, or perhaps Genisys is choosing to build off of The Sarah Connor Chronicles as opposed to building off of anything else in the series (it should perhaps be noted that the events of T3 aren't even mentioned or alluded to at all in the film). Again, this would be permissible if T1 and T2 were the bad parts of the Terminator canon, but quite the reverse is true. As such, refocusing the series on Sarah Connor and pretty much writing out John Connor, while shifting the role of science fiction action hero to a strong female lead, which is commendable, undermines yet another key characteristic of the Terminator universe.
          One could go on listing the other ways in which Genisys mishandles the Terminator universe. The T-1000 (the liquid metal Terminator from T2) makes a cameo appearance, if only for fan service since it gets killed of in the first five minutes of the film, which is kind of annoying considering the marketing for Genisys really hyped up the fact that the T-1000 is back. (Perhaps a note should be made here that doing something for fan service is a poor reason to do something, insofar as one's fans could very well have no sense of what it takes to make a movie good, nor any semblance of art or character.) The writing was exceptionally bad as well; Arnold Schwarzenegger's script, for example, reads as if someone watched the first three films, copy/pasted all of his one-liners together, and, whatever the result of that was, inserted some dialogue for Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. And it should be noted that the dialogue in the film literally felt as if the T-800 was communicating to Reese and Connor in Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liners. For example, there is a helicopter chase scene where the T-800 has Reese fly the helicopter with him, the T-800, and Sarah in it above the helicopter with John/the T-3000 in it, to which Reese asks the T-800 what his plan is before the T-800 responds "I'll be back" (for about the third time in the film) and jumps out of the helicopter.
          And on that note, the last blunder that Genisys makes that I will point out is the insistence on bringing back Schwarzenegger and prolonging the series to kingdom come. It is clear at this point that Schwarzenegger is past the age of being the action movie hero that he once was, as evidenced by the very aged appearance of the T-800 in the film. And like many of its other blunders, Genisys tries to provide a justification for this with the phrase "old, but not obsolete", a phrase that is echoed by both Reese and the T-800 throughout the film. The problem with this justification is that Schwarzenegger appears to be past the point of adding anything unique to the series; as mentioned, his script for Genisys was notably bad, and he didn't have any outstanding acting moments that couldn't have been performed by any other actor. His character literally just walked around, shot stuff, and punched stuff - nothing even remotely close to the great performance at the end of T2 in the foundry, where really only Schwarzenegger could have pulled that scene off so well. At the end of Genisys, unlike the ends of T1, T2, and T3, the T-800 actually survives, however in a way that (perhaps to our great dismay and the further detriment of the series) is highly suggestive of further installments in the series. During the fight with the T-3000, the T-800 gets knocked into a vat of the same liquid metal compound used to create the T-1000. After the explosion at the Genisys complex and when the T-800 was thought destroyed, the "upgraded" liquid metal T-800 helps Sarah and Kyle out of the rubble explaining that he was "upgraded". Now we are left with the prospect that the series will continue, but, instead of a T-800 helping Sarah Connor, we now have Arnold Schwarzenegger in liquid metal form, which may perhaps be an excuse to buffer out his old age with liquid metal special effects in the future.
          It seems as if the prolonging of the series is inevitable, which, at this point, is starting to feel as if [insert variable director here] will drive the series further into the ground and keep beating a dead nostalgia horse. In such a case, we might try to console ourselves by asking what it is that Terminator Genisys does well. Perhaps the one point that deserves praise are its special effects. It's clear that the film took advantage of its Hollywood status and, continuing with the tradition of the Terminator series, demonstrated that it is at the forefront of special effects and CGI technology. For example, early on there is a scene where John Connor's resistance unit storms Skynet's compound in the future. The aesthetics of the compound are very nice; sharp, dark buildings with borders of glowing orange and red light, very reminiscent of Tron or Blade Runner or the machine cities in The Matrix. That said, after praising the series for its effects, I am inclined to sober up a little bit; many science fiction and action series in the past couple of decades seem to try and take advantage of the special effects capabilities of Hollywood, so, unlike the previous generations, where the effects in T2 were innovative, the effects of Genisys seem competitive, where it more or less seems like the standard that science fiction films are built around CGI and explosions.
          If you are looking for the creme de la creme of 21st century science fiction, then you won't be missing anything by skipping Terminator Genisys. If you are a longtime fan of the Terminator series looking to see if Genisys reorganizes the mess that is the Terminator fictional universe post Judgment Day, then you would probably be better served by skipping Genisys as well (in fact, you would probably cringe when you see how Genisys retcons the first two films). However, if you are a generic movie-goer who is so easily entertained by Transformers-style CGI and explosions, then, by all means, go knock yourself out - there is no shortage of action in Terminator Genisys, despite the complete incoherence of the plot, which more or less renders that action pointless.

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