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?
The Film Fan Perspective’s 20 Favorite Films
In “celebration” of the fact that my blog still exists after two years, I’d like to share with the readers the movies that are closest to my heart and mind. You may already be aware of them, but the idea was to guess as many as possible.
So, without further ado, here are my twenty favorite films, in countdown order:
20. High Fidelity- “What came first, the music or the misery?” Exactly. With all of his odd takes on society and politics lately, it might be hard to remember when John Cusack was the stand in for all of us neurotic, fast-talking, hopeless romantic white guys. The film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity is the high point of Cusack’s career. The actor’s inherent neuroses fit the character of Rob Gordon, as we both loathe and love him for being so talented yet so indecisive. His desperate need to not grow up and his need to cling to the ‘fantasy’ speaks to all the males that just haven’t figured it out yet. Oh, and Jack Black is an absolute force of nature here as a record store employee that just keeps showing up. Let’s not forget the graceful and gorgeous Iben Hjejle, and the outstanding soundtrack. It gave me a new angle on music, which led to what my current tastes are. It’s amazing how I loved the movie at first for being so crisp and funny, but now I love it for understanding it. Every guy should meet a Charlie, but end up with a Laura.
19. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- Those unfamiliar with ‘Star Trek’ lore may not understand the carnal hatred that exists between Captain James T. Kirk and the nefarious Khan, but it matters not for this sci-fi classic. It works on so many levels, from the hell-bent rage of Khan to the overarching themes of birth, re-birth, and death that you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this, the best of the ‘Trek’ films.
18. The Lion King- As I navigated my pre-teen and early teen years, I wrote off Disney. In my eyes, everything was princesses accompanied by radio-friendly adult contemporary tunes. Then I took a chance and saw The Lion King while I was chasing after a girl (surprise!). It was transformative, for not only would I never see Disney with a jaded eye again, I kept looking for that next Lion King, that next masterpiece. It’s both a darker and more beautiful film than Disney had ever attempted, and every single scene is near brilliance. That soundtrack- not just the well-crafted Elton John pieces, but the Hans Zimmer score as well, just brilliant. It’s just the best thing that Disney has done before, and may ever do, save for Finding Nemo.
17. Alien- It may not be the original “original” sci-fi horror movie, but nonetheless it’s the modern standard for the genre, and the benchmark of female heroine characters. Ridley Scott and crew created a claustrophobic, organic/metallic spaceship, and brilliantly made the choice to hire gothic artist H.R. Giger to design the xenomorph and its’ interiors. Many have imitated, nothing has duplicated, even in its’ own saga.
16. Once- It would be impossible to limit my love of this film to a cell on a spreadsheet. Once is full of wonderful singer/songwriter music, unspoken passions, unspoken loves, missed opportunities, and incredible “moments in time” that seem to last forever, but are limited to 2 hours. The final scene is both touching and heartbreaking in a way that no other film has given me, and the soundtrack is pure, original magic.
15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail- Monty Python’s magnum opus of farce is still the funniest film I’ve ever seen. From catapulted livestock to enchanters named “Tim”, how can one not find this supremely hilarious? Admittedly, humor can be a tricky subject, and some may not find this brand of English witticism to their liking. Me? I think it’s the best comedy ever made.
14. Finding Nemo- Pixar’s best film, in this guy’s opinion, is director Andrew Stanton’s masterpiece. Funny, for sure, but sublimely touching, Nemo is also the most beautiful animated film I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the color of the fish, the interesting way water works with animation, maybe the brilliant Thomas Newman score, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s that I feel exactly like Marlin in the way I see my own son. Wow, I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking of this movie.
13. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial- This film has meant different things to me at different points in my life. At age 3, it was complete wonderment at the sight of aliens, rousing music, and funny moments. As a teen, I was ambivalent and couldn’t find a copy to watch. As an adult, I was bummed about the special edition changes, but rejoiced when the original edition became available, and enjoyed it with my child. It’s a nostalgic, touching film about how children’s innocence occasionally triumphs over adult paranoia.
12. The Dark Knight- There is no doubt that this is the penultimate superhero film. It’s hard to even consider this a superhero film- it’s more of a crime thriller with a moral center. With perhaps the most bravura performance in recent memory, Heath Ledger cemented the Joker as one of entertainment’s best villains, and the chaotic nature of the film’s events make this just as much of an experience as a movie.
11. Shakespeare In Love- Despite the clamor to strip this film of its’ Best Picture Oscar, it really is an amazing film, stooped in romance, whimsy, and as Gwyneth Paltrow’s character calls it, a ‘stolen summer’. It may not be an accurate account of Shakespeare’s life, but who cares. It’s the most enjoyable romantic drama I’ve ever seen, topping even the material that it apparently inspired, “Romeo & Juliet”.
10. Contact- No film to this date has better encapsulated the hope, spirit, and arrogance of the human race as it relates to space travel and the universe than this film. Based on Carl Sagan’s novel about first contact, Foster plays my favorite role of hers as Ellie Arroway, a stubborn yet determined astrophysicist. I watch it every July 11th to celebrate the film’s release.
9. Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope- Although not my favorite, it’s the best film of the saga, and one could argue that modern cinema exists in the fashion that it does because of this film. It’s constructed so well, and so delightful in every way that we forget George Lucas created it. It may just be the most popular film of all-time as well. There’s nothing I could say that would be revelatory. Everyone already knows Star Wars.
8. Poltergeist- To me, this is the penultimate ‘scary’ movie. Steven Spielberg’s brilliant mind is all over this project, even if he isn’t credited as director. The touches of nostalgia, the subtle commentary on suburbia, post-Vietnam paranoia, and Reaganomics, and the graceful way Beatrice Straight explains the possibilities of an afterlife are the hallmarks of this classic. I watch it every year in October now, and it seems to get better every time.
7. Field of Dreams- Don’t mistake this as being simply a ‘sports’ or ‘baseball’ movie. While it certainly is both of those, it’s more of a father and son movie, and learning to accept and love who your parents are after you learn they’re real people, and not superheroes. The fact that the film’s main set piece is still available to visit and play on certainly helps to play up the aura of the film.
6. Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi- Not the best of the saga, but always my favorite. The nostalgia oozing out of this film always brings out the best in cinema for me, despite its’ obvious flaws. This film may be the most important to me on this list, simply for the awe factor involved with this being the first real blockbuster saga I experienced.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey- THE quintessential science-fiction film for me. It holds more sway when taking in the entire story, including the subsequent sequel film and novels. Groundbreaking for its’ time, but perhaps no longer as relevant due to the lack of wide interest in the space program, it is interestingly the most spiritual story I know.
4. Aliens- Not only does this deliver on thrills and science fiction goodness, but Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is perhaps most enjoyable female role I’ve ever watched. This is a classic as a sci-fi film, a special effects showcase, a well-honed script, and a blockbuster.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark- A throwback film to a time when movie serials existed, Spielberg’s adventure masterpiece deftly weaves heroism with archaeology, and manages to make history exciting. Harrison Ford has never really been better, and Karen Allen’s spitfire of a sidekick/love interest is still one of my favorites.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King- No other film that I’ve watched has combined so many varying emotions into one and pulled it off with flying colors. It’s an astonishing accomplishment that pushes all of my emotional and technical “film buttons”. Hard to defend as one of my ultimate favorites, and I just recently unseated it- but I still love it, and the whole series.
1. Cloud Atlas- It took me over eleven years to find a new favorite film, and dare I say that I didn’t even realize it until recently. From the film’s extra-long final trailer to the end of my first viewing, I was moved to tears by this sci-fi fable. The tag line of ‘everything is connected’ is far too simple a phrase to explain the emotional impact this had on me. Sometimes, we ‘put’ things onto a film based on what we want to get from it. Sometimes, the film not only fulfills what we want, but seems to explain that the filmmakers believe it too. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer took a beautiful premise and gave it the respect it deserved, resulting in an honest experience that doesn’t pull punches. It is a brave film, occasionally gory and violent, moving to abstract and odd, then tender and graceful. This story blends everything I love about film, and the potential it has to take the fantastic to a higher level of entertainment. It may be pretentious, but maybe I’m pretentious. Or maybe I just fill in the gaps well. Whatever the case is, this is my favorite film.
*honorable mention: Groundhog Day, Casablanca, Seven, L.A. Confidential, Garden State, Ghostbusters, Batman (1989), Pulp Fiction, Fargo.