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?
Avengers: Age of Ultron ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johanssen, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, and James Spader (voice)
Written by: Joss Whedon, based on the comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Directed by: Joss Whedon
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
In the past few weeks, it seems as though I’ve developed a little something called perspective as it relates to the comic and superhero genres of film. Despite this blog’s moniker, I’m poor with the perspective on whether or not a comic film achieves what it sets out to do. Seeing the unfortunate, typical ‘fanboy’ reaction to the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teaser trailer taught me something, however- nothing can be achieved or enjoyed if we take this genre too seriously, or expect Oscar-caliber material with each entry, despite how much The Dark Knight spoiled us. These films should strictly be for fun, despite how deeply into the mythos we might delve. I admit to caring far too much for them, but I now can tell myself these things: they do not exist to alter filmmaking as a medium (even if they have certainly influenced it), they rarely bring hidden issues to light, and they rarely open my mind to new ideas. Having taken that necessary step back from the ‘everything is awesome’ attitude towards these films now, I can see this genre in a new light, the correct light.
It’s a good thing for Avengers: Age of Ultron that I came to this way of thinking. Despite his likely best intentions, director Joss Whedon has not busted open the proverbial creative bank, nor has he topped what he accomplished the first time around. He has, however, kept the material from being stagnant, whilst maintaining Marvel’s unique identity and giving us all the wit we can handle. Age of Ultron can be scatterbrained from time to time, lacking the focus attributed to previous films in this universe. Some plot points are non-sensical, some are skipped over (like the entire point of the Iron Man 3 film), and we’re handed a surprisingly heavy dose of emotional detachment. On the other hand, it’s an enormously entertaining and witty superhero epic, with gigantic, sometimes even unintelligible battle sequences that pound our senses into oblivion. If we hadn’t invested our time, energy, and emotion in these characters already, the film would be a mess. Alas, we’re invested so hard that it somehow works in spite of its’ flaws.
The film begins tying up the loose end that is the remainder of HYDRA, the World War II-era Nazi spin-off organization. We know from the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, and that HYDRA is holed up in the fictional land of ‘Sokovia’ with Loki’s scepter from the first Avengers story arc. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Kretschmann) is in charge here, looking all “Bond villain-y” with his monocle and utilizing the technology within the scepter to do…something. The Avengers storm his castle, which is oddly littered with unfinished robots, some newfangled tech, and two ‘special’ twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively). When we first encountered these ‘specials’ (they’re mutants, but because of silly rights issues, this film can’t call them “X-Men”) in the Winter Soldier end credits, they were caged, as if dangerous. Clearly, things have changed, as Strucker can ‘unleash’ them like weapons against the invading Avengers.
One of the twins, the “witch” (Olsen), uses her mind-projecting powers on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey) to show him a future in which he is responsible for the end of the Avengers, and, in essence, the end of the world. It’s a neat power she has, for it allows the plot to use her based on what it needs, almost like a ‘get out of jail free card for Joss Whedon. Stark’s experience in Sokovia causes him to rekindle a romance with an idea he had shelved- the ‘Ultron’ program. As he explains to Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), this defense program would, in essence, take the responsibility of saving the world off the Avengers. Here’s the problem- in starting the Ultron program, he inadvertently creates artificial intelligence. The film doesn’t focus on the greatest achievement in mankind’s history (the creation of A.I.), but we must remember- this isn’t a science fiction film, and talking about science would delay the explosions.
The ‘essence’ known as Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that emerges from a successful trial of the program rapidly becomes self-aware, gathers a rudimentary ‘body’, and in turn, begins to attack those that would reign it in. I found it interesting, and sensible that at no point did Ultron choose the path of least resistance, and at no point did he show much sympathy- he simply chose the natural path of defending himself, another sensible option considering the framework of evolution. You can imagine what happens after that- Ultron finds the Avengers to be a threat, and systematically attempts to eliminate them. I also find it interesting that the combined intelligences of Stark and Banner couldn’t predict this outcome, with their acute scientific acumen and all. I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a film if they had.
Everything that follows Ultron’s escape and subsequent terror plans is rather standard, and requires no explanation. The fun in this film does not come from trying to make logical sense of what Stark and Banner did, nor does it come from most of the action set pieces. Age of Ultron, like its’ predecessor, is at its’ best when the characters have time to talk. It’s an epic action film, sure, but what myself and most of the crowd cheered for were the personal moments. From the comraderie of the team when they storm the HYDRA castle to the exchanges at Stark’s party at Avengers tower, I loved the ‘lived in’ nature of the film as it recognizes and plays with the familiarity we have with these characters. The banter between fringe team members like Falcon (Mackie) and War Machine (Cheadle), the budding romance between Black Widow (Johanssen) and Banner, and the other side of Hawkeye (Renner) that we get to see is the most fun we’ve had in a Marvel film. Captain America (Evans) again asserts his status as the rightful leader of this team, never wavering in his morality or his dedication. This is an excellent, well-cast team of (mostly) professional actors, and when they’re allowed to interact as a team, it’s an extremely entertaining film.
I’ll go a step further on the casting brilliance and admit that Ultron is so much fun. Spader’s voice is a perfect complement to the CGI creation- completely and totally unhinged, sarcastic, all-knowing. Basically, he’s a psychotic hunk of vibranium. Despite the fact that we know Ultron’s plan cannot ultimately succeed, as there are future movies already planned, I still appreciate and revel in his lunacy, even laughing in disbelief at some of the words spewing forth from his mouth. Spader’s performance may not be the complete tour-de-force that Heath Ledger’s Joker was in The Dark Knight, but honestly, I don’t think it’s that far off. At the very least, it is certainly the film’s main attraction.
As I said before, I needed to step away from my fanboy feelings as I watched the film. Well, I suppose I needed to step away from my feelings on logic as well. I’m sure “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” explains where Agent Coulson is, but I haven’t watched the show, so I’m asking- where is Agent Coulson? Where are any of the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents? Why would Falcon sit out the end battle? Why would Tony Stark push Iron Man aside in his last film, only to come back without question this time? Why should I care?
I shouldn’t, and I won’t care too much. Marvel has done a commendable job of creating their own cinematic world while keeping most of the moving parts in place. I suppose one could consider that the whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts in reference to the Marvel Universe. That doesn’t excuse some of the missteps and all-too-easy confluence of events in Age of Ultron, but if you see the film as part of a twenty-two picture saga (including future installments), the missteps are more palatable. This is the eleventh film of the saga, the literal midpoint, which would seem to be the fulcrum for future change in this universe. We sort of see it, and some events, like the immaculate conception of Vision, show a different voice and look from what we’ve seen before. The fanboy side of my brain, however, just wished for a slightly bolder, and braver, take on this universe we’ve come to know so well. I wish I could have sat with Whedon as he put the pen to paper, whispering ever so gently as he wrote, “Come on, man. Do something brave. Do something bold. We can take it; heck, we WANT it. We love these characters, even enough to let them go if necessary”. Instead, as our mid-credits scene promises, Age of Ultron is simply another bridge-builder, forcing us to stay tuned for the climax. Here, I begrudgingly give you my future money.