Jul 1, 2015

They Abramsed It: Terminator: Genisys Review

Friday Night vs Monday Morning Reviews are simple. I go see a movie and do a write-up of my initial feelings and reactions so you have them by Friday Night. Then on Monday Morning I write another section after I've had time to think about the movie that will go more in depth.

Now clearly it isn't "Friday Night" but Terminator: Genisys opened on a Wednesday so you're getting the review now. So that means on Friday you're getting the "Monday Morning" section.

"Friday Night"
Terminator: Genisys is a movie that shouldn't exist. I don't mean to imply that this movie is hot garbage because it most definitely is not. I mean to say the whole shebang was tied up in a nice little bow back in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. But despite the narrative coming to a worthwhile conclusion two movies ago we're getting the fourth outing for the series because this is a moneymaking franchise dammit and Hollywood wants their money. So can Terminator: Genisys offer something worthwhile? Or is it just a cash-in?

It's both. And therein lies the movie's weakness. Mild spoilers will follow. (But none bigger than the HUGE one given away by all the marketing.)

There's a lot to like about director Alan Taylor's Terminator: Genisys. It's embraced the shenanigans of time travel and rebooting everything into a new branch of history by following the plot of the first film but, surprise surprise, Skynet's plan clearly didn't work so by the time Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) shows up there's a T-1000 already there waiting for him so they can kill him. Meanwhile the original T-800 is greeted by an older, reprogrammed T-800 and is put down almost immediately after touching down. So the first movie is now completely negated and we're off on a new path. It's following the J.J. Abrams style of time travel he introduced in 2009's Star Trek. It's a reboot brought about by events of the original series.

By rebooting the franchise and royally screwing with the timeline we get a lot of interesting ideas here that couldn't be explored otherwise.

  • Arnold's good Terminator is given a name "Pops" and because he's been around so long he's given a character arc that could be seen as a natural progression of the T-800's from the second movie: a paternal relationship (with Sarah this time rather than John,) a competitive relationship with Kyle Reese (an old soldier proving he can compete with his younger replacement.) Pops also has physical problems (bad knee, hands occasionally shake.)
  • The dynamic of Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is flipped on its head because knowledge of their budding relationship is given to them before they have a chance to actually have it.
  • A beat cop (named O'Brien, played wonderfully by an underused J.K. Simmons) that witnessed mayhem in 1984 when he was a rookie dedicated his thirty year career into figuring out just what the hell happened.
  • John Connor knows the trajectory of his entire life up to a point but has no idea what's going to happen to him after having reached that point.
The film is peppered with these interesting ideas but doesn't really dedicate any time to explore one of them in a satisfying way. It throws all these ideas at the wall and then moves quickly on to the next action set piece. Speaking of which, the action scenes were well done. They are clear and easy to follow and each one has it's own goal rather than, "we just need to survive/escape."

But the thing that's really holding the movie back is the overall superficial look. James Cameron's original films had a grit, realistic feel to them. Michael Biehn as the original Kyle Reese actually looked like a tired worn out man that had been fighting a guerrilla war his entire life. Jai Courtney looked like he just left the gym. This film is completely missing the look of "lived in" universe. It all looks fake and clean. This is true even during the robot apocalypse scenes. The sounds, the colors, the uniforms, the designs are all the same but rather than look like "the real thing" it looks like Reese and John Connor went to the local lazer tag arena for a Saturday afternoon.

So on the one hand Terminator: Genisys offers a lot of interesting new ideas but on the other hand the movie is a commercial product aimed squarely at perpetuating the franchise's continued existence. That's no way to tell a compelling narrative in the same way the first two movies were. I'm aware that all of this makes it sound like I didn't like the movie. I did enjoy it but I can see the potential for so much more from the new ideas it introduces. It comes down to what you, dear reader, want to see. Do you want to see a competently done sci-fi film you'll enjoy but probably forget about in two months? Or do you want to see a new classic that will be remembered as fondly as James Cameron's Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day? You will get the former but you will not get the latter.

"Monday Morning"
So I've been thinking the last day or so about what really bugs me about Terminator: Genisys and what I think is holding the movie back from being in the same league as Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It's the ending and the overall "clean" look to the movie. So because I can't go any further without talking about the ending I'm going to put a big ol' spoiler warning.

SPOILERS START. So the ending is arguably the most optimistic of any of the Terminator movies. That within itself is not a bad thing. It's just that the ending is so obviously designed to leave plenty of wiggle room open for the continued adventures of Reese, Sarah and Pops. Essentially the trio avert the activation of Skynet and now can live out their lives however they see fit. They are no longer bound to their futures. Coincidentally this leaves them in the year 2017, so contemporary times. How convenient. Reese and Sarah can explore (or not explore) their relationship with each other. Pops gets an upgrade during the climax of the movie so for all intents and purposes he is a liquid metal T-1000 Terminator now. This serves as a big neon sign that says, "Arnold can come back as often as he wants!" I'll concede it's a nice subversion in that, for once, Arnold's Terminator isn't dead by the end of the movie necessitating another bullshit reason for yet another Terminator of the same model being sent to protect one of the Connors in the next one. This also means we won't have to deal with a Terminator "becoming human" from scratch again. Overall it's a solid open ending that basically means the franchise can now go in whatever direction it wants now that the standard formula for these movies has been completely dumped. But there is a slight problem with that. For once, Arnold's Terminator reached the natural end of his character arc.

Because of Arnold's age they had to make his Terminator older, hence we get the character of Pops. He'd bonded with Sarah Connor from when she was nine to a fully grown adult. It's a very paternal relationship. We see details throughout the movie of Pops being more human. His inexplicable need to one-up Kyle Reese as if he's the father to this young woman being courted by a suitor. Then there's Pops keeping photographs of Sarah as well as her childhood drawings in his bunker. The entire character arc comes to a head when Pops goes for the standard self sacrifice by holding the evil Terminator in place long enough for both to be destroyed. His "final" words say it all, "Kyle Reese, protect my Sarah!" "My." It's such a simple word that conveys so much. It's the closest to genuine emotion I want to see out of a Terminator. It's not a macho one-liner akin to "I'll be back," or "Hasta la vista, baby." It's something genuinely human and frankly, more adult. With that line Pops' character arc reaches it's natural end. Of all the Terminators Arnold has portrayed this is the one most deserving of a heroic send-off and they take it away. It's a prime example of "movies as product" overriding a good story. By having Pops live it undermines his story arc. Movies that are a part of franchises are not allowed to end. This is especially true nowadays. All the big epics are constantly trapped in the second act of the story, never to reach a conclusion until an actor's contract is up or the movie doesn't turn a profit. Then a year or two later there'll be talk of a reboot. *cough, Spider-Man, cough.* Or a decade or more there'll be talk of a continuation of the saga because there's a nostalgia for the better chapters in the series. *cough, Terminator, cough.* SPOILERS END.

The other aspect of the movie I briefly touched on on "Friday" was the cleanliness and falseness to the movie. Emilia Clarke is a more than capable actress and Jai Courtney has shown sparks of a greatness (despite what the internet has probably told you.) But both of them seem out of place in their roles as Sarah and Reese. As you watch the movie you are constantly aware you are watching two people "act." It's like Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton were sick so they called in the understudies. They're perfectly okay but they bring nothing new to these characters and have little chemistry with each other. They don't even look "real" if that makes any sense. Linda Hamilton got notoriously fit for her part in Terminator 2. She's genuinely intimidating and badass looking. While you can tell Emilia Clarke hit the gym to get some more definition in her arms she didn't take it too far because she still has to look "conventionally" sexy for the audience that is mostly comprised of men.

Here's a quick comparison of the look of both versions of Sarah.

One of them is Sarah Connor, one of the ultimate movie badasses and ultra prepared for the coming robot apocalypse. The other is a pretty young lady I'd like to ask out while at a bar (but probably wouldn't because I have issues.) It's not like Emilia can't pull off being a badass either. Just go watch her free the Unsullied and burn Astapor to the ground in Game of Thrones.

The same can be said of our two Kyle Reese's.

One won't hesitate to shove a grenade down my throat if I look at him the wrong way. The other I could stare into his dreamy blue eyes for hours. Same as Emilia, it's not like Jai can't pull off badass, go watch Jack Reacher if you think otherwise.

This is what I mean when I said that Terminator: Genisys is trying to be a Hollywood product and deliver a narrative of worth. It can't be both and in the end the film suffers because of it. Terminator: Genisys is ultimately a good but completely forgettable movie that's interesting ideas go unfertilized.

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