Deus Ex Machina

Film Review- ‘Terminator Genisys’ (*)

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He's been waiting for this moment.  He, alone, has been waiting for this moment.
He’s been waiting for this moment. He, alone, has been waiting for this moment.

 

Terminator Genisys  * (out of 5)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith, Dayo Okeniyi, and Courtney B. Vance

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier; based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd

Directed by: Alan Taylor

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Say what you want about the Terminator franchise (you surely could), but there exists an absolute earnestness to each film that elevates the “B” movie premise.  I love that about the first four films, how unabashedly sure they are about themselves.  That’s the glue that holds them together.  On the other hand, it is quite possibly the most milked of all the franchises, barely hanging on for relevance. So many have had the rights to the property, so many have tried to capitalize on the name, that I’m amazed anything is still left to present.  Terminator Genisys is the long-gestating culmination of an attempt to make new what many had seen as old, unappealing, and unnecessary.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the film is an astonishingly vile culmination.  The final product is far worse when considering the time and effort put in to resurrect this lifeless brand, as well as our time as the audience, shoveling in the drivel, waiting for the payoff.  Genisys is a clear indication that a new direction, whilst noble for creative purposes, is not always the best direction.

Describing the story of a Terminator film cannot happen without a prior understanding of the utter silliness.  We are, after all, talking about pseudo-science, killer robots, and time travel here.  The beginning of the film brings us up to speed on the eve of victory for John Connor (Jason Clarke) and the ‘Resistance’ against Skynet and the ‘machines’ in 2029.  Connor, his right hand man Kyle Reese (Courtney), and the remaining soldiers arrive at a typical ‘Deus Ex Machina’ inside Skynet headquarters.  Connor knows what happens next, and so do we- in a last-ditch effort to save itself, Skynet sends a terminator back through time to eliminate Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) before she gives birth to John.  He then sends Reese back to protect her.  This takes us up to the opening of the original film, and we’re in familiar territory.  So familiar, in fact, that the film even reproduces (as much as possible) the arrival of the original T-800 in 1984 Los Angeles.  Here’s the catch- another T-800 (Schwarzenegger) is waiting for him, and a brief battle ensues.

Meanwhile, Reese has arrived in 1984, but there’s another catch; a T-1000 (the liquid metal version) has inexplicably shown up to dispose of him.  Sarah Connor appears out of nowhere and helps him escape.  What?  Come again?  I know, this all seems strange, and it is, even though we knew this from the surprisingly revelatory trailers.  According to the following expository scene, the future has been ‘reset’ due to the events of the first two films.  It’s the Star Trek ploy- once you reset the past, you can write whatever you want to fit the needs of a new franchise, based on a loose understanding of parallel universes.  Nevermind that we lack an explanation for how a T-1000 appeared, nor do we understand why his appearance is altered.  Nevermind that somehow, John and Kyle are the most clean-shaved post-apocalyptic soldiers to ever appear on-screen.  Nevermind that this entry blatantly ignores the events of the unpopular third and fourth films, despite audience investment in new characters and destinies.

Audiences have been trained by now to accept most time travel films on faith alone, for there is no basis for reference.  However, Genisys lacks the common decency to even follow the franchise’s rules.  Before, we knew that characters could never ‘return’ to the future, but here, it’s as simple as using material from 1984 to accomplish the goal.  Before, we understood this story’s timeline to be cyclical- Kyle Reese came back, fathered John Connor, died, Connor survived a second attempt, and it all led to an inevitable future war that Connor was to overcome.  Before, we understood the real threat of nuclear holocaust as the driving force behind our heroes’ actions.  Now, this film wants to tell us that “Genisys”, a “cloud” type of system invented by the Miles and Danny Dyson (remember them, Terminator 2 fans?), and our attachment to smart devices, will be our demise.  That’s how these writers brought social consequence to this film?  Give me a break.  By ignoring the third and fourth films, and thus creating an alternate timeline devoid of nuclear fear, Genisys has spat in the face if its’ own continuity, a bold statement to make for what amounted to an already flimsy timeline.  The film even creates a subplot about wanting to know who actually sent ‘Pops’ back to protect Sarah as a child, but then never resolves the matter.  In fact, that’s the whole onus for Skynet to find out that info, yet it isn’t resolved.  This film is simply not intelligent enough to coerce us into forgetting what came before.

Furthermore, what happened to these characters?  Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Conner was inept at first, but gracefully inept; then menacing and ruthless.  Hamilton made this role legendary for those very reasons.  This film fails Sarah Conner by writing, then portraying her, as a petulant brat.  Emilia Clarke bears a slight resemblance to Hamilton, and her vocal imitation is close enough, but that’s where the comparisons end.  She certainly lacks the grace and gravity of Hamilton’s performance, and it’s a befuddling choice.  Jason Clarke is unintentionally comical as John Connor, lacking the weariness and cautious optimism we’ve grown to understand from the role.  He opts for a plain delivery, and clearly doesn’t know the character like we do.  I say this knowing full well that the character isn’t the character we know for most of the film (no spoilers there, the trailer gave it away).  The worst offender, again, is Courtney.  Not only does he inexplicably react differently than the Kyle Reese we knew before, he offers the polar opposite performance to Michael Biehn’s in the original (even markedly different from Anton Yelchin in Salvation).  We’ve previously known that the man adores Sarah Connor, but somehow can’t manage to care much about her in this film.  I’m confused.  I can handle obvious needs to re-cast for a film 31 years later.  What I cannot accept is a bland, unaffected delivery from an actor playing a character that grew up in an apocalypse, yet clearly has no shortage of access to grooming products, weight training equipment, or protein-laden foods.

Not every performance is lacking, however.  If there is anything to take from Genisys, it is again the presence of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.  For what little he offers in depth, we always love him in this role, for his limitations as an actor actually work for the character.  His choices have been curious and reasonably unsuccessful since his stint as governor, but the old reliable T-800 fits him so well.  He’s also the only main character that appears to understand he’s in a Terminator film.  He’s the franchise’s best asset, the constant amongst the changing of ownership, the bevy of different writers, and the re-casts.  He’s the one delivering the most honest performance, which is clearly ironic, as he’s the freaking robot.  I mean this with the greatest of affections for our most unlikely of screen legends, but when your film’s most professional moments come from Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’re doing it wrong.  I’m almost sympathetic to the man, for his earnestness deserves a better film.   J.K. Simmons, the recently minted Oscar winner, is also inexplicably in this movie.  He deserves a larger, more integral role as someone who actually watched the first four films, and appears to be the only human putting the pieces together.  The audience needs that character, yet we barely see him.  It’s another miss in a series of misses on character development.

The success of the previous films (even at their worst) relied on the effort put forth by the filmmakers to take a B-movie concept with mostly action stars and attempt science fiction or comment on society.  Genisys is neither honest nor successful in that venture.  The whole project appears to suffer from bad intentions, which appears to be the desire to proliferate a story once thought of as complete back in 1991.  It suffers from poor marketing decisions, such as the baffling choice to showcase the film’s one big twist in the theatrical trailer.  It suffers from a constant need to shed what we already knew (and loved) about the story just to get a new direction, and thus new films.  Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the films have progressively been worse, even as they’ve promised to take the material in newer, darker, and more exciting directions.  It’s a patchwork quilt of a franchise, constantly changing actors, scenarios, and stakes to fill whatever the plot needs.  Now, these new caretakers have made it a Transformers clone- unintelligible special effects, paper-thin characters, grand but dumb ideas, and “inconsequential consequences”.  You’ll find none of the tense, almost horror-film tendencies and tones of the early films here, none of the realistic, brutal, physics-accessible fight scenes we know and love.  In Genisys, you’ll get only easy, lazy moments meant for broad appeal.  That just sucks.

It would be silly of me to suggest that the Terminator franchise actually mattered beyond a reference to what James Cameron’s career has become, or the prescient undertones warning us about artificial intelligence.  They don’t matter- but like many, many others, I harbor an unreasonable, deep-rooted affection for this property.  The strong desire of Megan and David Ellison of Skydance Productions to ‘reboot’ or ‘reset’ this franchise’s timeline is wholly unnecessary, for even the weakest of the previous films (Salvation) attempted continuity of tone and character.  Genisys is the worst possible outcome, ignoring Rise of the Machines and Salvation for no reason other than lazily succumbing to popular opinion.  It stands to reason that if your story asks us to ignore the events of two entire films because of their supposed poor quality, yours should exceed that quality, or at least be replacement level.  That’s not the case here.  One of the most exciting, tense, groundbreaking, enjoyable franchises of the modern film era has been reduced to lazy cliches, substandard effects, inaccurate call backs to what we already experienced, and a clean PG-13 sheen.  It’s the apocalypse, sponsored by The Sharper Image.  How depressing is that?

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Film Review- ‘Transcendence’ (**)

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"Evelyn, I've done it!  I'm just like Max Headroom!"
“Evelyn, I’ve done it! I’m just like Max Headroom!”

“Transcendence”   ** (out of 5)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman

Written by: Jack Paglen

Directed by: Wally Pfister

 **POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

To paraphrase a cliché, judging a book by its’ cover can backfire in the other direction, as I have frequently discovered with cinema.  You might envision that a movie depicting the merger of artificial and real intelligences could be both entertaining and mind-bending.  You might think that a film with Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer of choice Wally Pfister at the helm might be as intricately constructed and well-written as Nolan’s films.  You’d be wrong- at least as it pertains to Pfister’s “Transcendence”.  Whether they lacked the skill, courage, or means to create a more resonant film, it most certainly does not resonate.

Johnny Depp stars (kind of) as Dr. Will Caster, the world’s foremost expert on artificial intelligence.  We know this because the film makes sure to ID his brilliance on fake magazine covers, and also because he’s dressed like my former professors.  Through the character’s speech at a ‘TED’-style conference, we also gather that he has a thorough understanding of humankind’s ability to approach the threshold of ‘transcendence’, a term that can have multiple definitions.  In the film’s context, it is meant to explain the act of elevating a consciousness from a human state to a computerized state (or so I surmised).

Well, where there are scientists ‘playing God’, there’s sure to be tech terrorists waiting to prevent such heathenism (science) from happening.  Lo and behold, a tech-savvy terrorist group led by the cutest murderer ever, Bree (Mara) steps in and poisons a lab with multiple innocent people, then shoots Dr. Caster in a crowd.  (If it seems like I’m giving something away, they show all of this in the trailer)  This is a hard group to sympathize with, with their efforts to prevent science from happening and all.    The film doesn’t offer much to get us to understand their point- they are simply obvious thugs.  They’re even shown scowling most of the time, walking ‘oafishly’ through their scenes with thug intent.  Since the film isn’t interested in distinguishing these people from straight-up murderers, why bother investing time in trying to understand them?

Back to Dr. Caster- with death looming, his wife and partner Evelyn (Hall) and best bud Max (Bettany) see an opportunity: this is the chance to attempt transcendence and keep Will’s mind alive.  After all, as they all agree, what’s the worst that can happen?  Sure, they’re all ignoring the potential side effects of their actions, just like all the responsible scientists from “Jurassic Park”, but hey- why not?  The moments leading up to the actual ‘transcendent’ event itself would be fascinating if actual science were involved.  Here we are, in a room with three of the world’s top minds, and the script gives us next to nothing in the way of legitimate scientific discussion.  Sure, they’re hooking Will up to a bunch of computer screens, and attaching electrodes, but what are they actually DOING?  Sure, we notice an errant dry erase board in the background with some random equations scribbled, but what do they mean?  This movie makes history by gathering all sorts of intelligent souls, then not bothering to illustrate their intelligence.  Brilliant!

Dr. Caster does achieve the impossible- transcendence.  He then does all sorts of wonderful/terrifying things to show off his delightful new role as Max Headroom (I’m likely dating myself with that reference).  What does artificial Johnny Depp do with all this newfound power?  First, he steals gobs of money for Evelyn, allowing her to build up a sprawling solar-powered facility in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico to satisfy his growing needs for space and energy.  Then, he begins experimenting with cellular regeneration through ‘nanobots’, a technical word for ‘creepy, microscopic metal bugs’, and invites the community to his place to fix their ailments.  Naturally, there are complications, but I won’t divulge everything here.  Plus, the result is neither surprising nor interesting.

I did have some questions about Omnipotent Will that the film didn’t answer:  why would a transcendent being limit themselves by interacting with humans at all?  For that matter, why improve humanity when all of the fun answers are beyond humanity’s reach?  Sure, it’s a nice thought, but hardly believable that an AI would bother with us once it realized what it was and what we are.  Why would this intelligence even need to defend itself?  Couldn’t it just move somewhere else– after all, it’s connected to the internet, not confined to a physical body.  Why wouldn’t something that duplicates itself thousand-fold not bother to send a version of itself into space, or at least beyond the limits of Earth so that it could expand eternally?   Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have the capacity or the bravery to explore the multiple facets of the very thing it is named for- transcendence.

I believe there is a better film hidden in the ideas presented by “Transcendence”.  I just can’t help but think those ideas would be more realized with better script, and perhaps a better director.  Pfister has created something that seems more interested in the controversy surrounding the act of transcendence than the act itself, a thoroughly depressing missed opportunity.  Fair or not, I viewed the marketing for this film and the movie itself through the rose-colored glasses of a Christopher Nolan fan, assuming that his ‘directing tree’ would produce another progressive, smart film.  Naturally, Pfister’s camera produces images that look like Nolan’s, feel like Nolan’s, but clearly miss that key ingredient- meaning.  I wouldn’t write off his future as a director yet- that would be unfair.  This is a very good looking film, with the feel of something grander.  The truth, however, is that his debut is a resounding bore-fest, a film supposedly about the dangers of science and technology, just without the benefit of any critical scientific thought, or at least the slightest bit of wonder.