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?
“Divergent” ** (out of 5)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort,and Kate Winslet
Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor (screenplay), Veronica Roth (novel)
Directed by: Neil Burger
divergent [dih-vur-juhnt]: diverging; differing; deviating
If you find yourself lost in the apparent endless sea of similarly themed young adult novels & movies these days, please allow me to join you in your malaise. Sifting through the titles can easily become annoying, as it is chock-full of semi-colons and non-sensical word pairings (i.e. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”- huh?). Imagine my relief when I first learned that “Divergent”, based on the first in a trilogy of novels, only had one word to remember for each book. How refreshing!
Combined with the dual casting of young Shailene Woodley (brilliant in “The Descendants” but restricted here) and Kate Winslet (trying her best to keep a straight face), I allowed a modicum of hope to creep in my head for this project. Perhaps this would be the one young adult adaptation up to the task of legitimizing the genre, thus allowing discerning audiences to take it seriously. Try as it may, “Divergent” struggles mightily to make logical sense, drags on for an eternity, and leaves us scratching our heads in befuddlement. Ironically, this offers very little in the way of deviation, or divergence, if you will, from its’ genre predecessors.
Please allow me to illustrate, for it is the crux of the film’s failure. Strong, free-spirited heroine that can’t be held back by the constricts of society? Check. Token description of a brutal, world-changing ‘war’ with no resonance or background? Check. Dystopian future with a factionalized society convinced to the point of law that human nature is the enemy? Check. Mysterious absence of babies or seniors? Check. Initially misunderstood, controversial hunk turned sensitive, wounded lover? Check. Hushed references to life beyond a ‘wall’ that is never explored, much to our bewilderment? Check. Young people required to perform adult actions without the film lending the gravity that those moments require? Check.
There are more, but I’ll spare the reader additional sarcasm. What I mean to point out is the film’s sincere lack of any fresh ideas or believability, despite its’ protestations that the ideas it presents are clearly a big deal. How can we take the ‘test’ seriously when we aren’t given the slightest dose of scientific reasoning behind it? Shoot, even if it’s an awful “Jurassic Park” half-hearted version of an explanation, at least give us something. For that matter, how can the ‘test’ be so important in determining where one belongs, yet the individual still has the ability to choose their destiny? Is the plot telling us that free will is an illusion? Does the plot know what it’s telling us? How can we buy that heroine Tris (Woodley) is able to wake from an unconscious stupor to catch up with a speeding train thirty minutes after Four (James) tells us she has “no muscles”?
It would be preferable to take the film on its’ own merits, and not allow silly things like logic, science, or cynicism to cloud my judgment. After all, it does appear that films like this are critic-proof; they simply need to satisfy fans of the source material, quality be damned. For fairness purposes, please consider that I gave the film a shot to impress. In fact, one particular scene struck my fancy, nudging me in the direction of satisfaction. On the eve of “Choosing Day”, the Prior family (Tris, her twin brother Caleb (Elgort), and her parents) shares a few quiet, tender, tense moments as Ellie Goulding’s entrancing “Hanging On” plays into the next scene. In this, I sensed the filmmakers deciding to elevate the source material and create a more human film.
Alas, ’tis but a fleeting moment, for the film nosedives into the typical immediately afterward. Tris goes against the grain and chooses “Dauntless”, quite possibly the most awkward-sounding, goofy name for a faction ever created. We’re treated to scene after scene after scene of training, training, training, with nothing particularly cool, noteworthy, or original to speak of. All the while, this Chicago-based society (where is the rest of the world???) is trying to eliminate ‘divergent’ minds. Conveniently (lazily), divergent Tris is tested by the one government-sanctioned tester that’s sympathetic, or we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose. Think about this, though- murdering someone who doesn’t conform is a cold, ruthless, interesting, albeit unoriginal science-fiction premise. This isn’t the type of film that wants to understand or explore those big ideas, unfortunately.
In the time that has passed since viewing “Divergent”, I’ve actually grown more weary and less accepting of the film. Maybe I’m just tired of the genre’s attention. Perhaps I’m raw that the far superior weekend release (“Muppets Most Wanted”) will garner less box office and less audience affection. The likely truth is that I’ve grown more weary of ‘products’ marketed as films, especially in this particular genre. When there’s nothing new to take from the experience, and I feel like I’m simply contributing to the greenlight of a sequel, it’s an empty feeling. Whether it’s Gryffindor, District 12, or ‘Dauntless’, it’s all starting to run together for me.
“Divergent”, like others before it, and presumably more to follow, simply offers a structured way to package an entire entertainment experience in a consumable bundle, masquerading as a moving parable for our time. In the end, I feel less like having just seen a film, and more like I just got swindled by a used car salesman. It’s confusing, illogical, lacking in chemistry, and just doesn’t mean anything. Presumably, those familiar with the novels but somehow not bewildered by this film will inform me that I shall ‘understand’ by the end. Frankly, I can’t imagine caring less what happens to these characters. Give me the story of those living outside the wall, or the likely interesting and complicated series of events that lead up to the film, and I might just be on board. This? There’s nothing remotely ‘divergent’ about it.