Tuesday, July 7, 2015

TERMINATOR GENISYS Turns Heavy Metal Into Pop


- Maybe it's just the times we live in, but man, I really wanted the new Terminator to be good. We're living in an infantilized age, where as adults we are spoon-fed the same PG entertainment as kids, and we tend to lap it up. So in the age of the PG tentpole movie, I occasionally yearn nostalgically for the glory days when movies like Terminator 2 provided R-rated carnage that, to a generation of kids and teens, put some proverbial hair on their chests and showed them that action movies could deliver more hardcore thrills than whatever sanitized, family-friendly funtimes Disney happened to be peddling. And so, there's something existentially sort of depressing about getting a new Terminator flick that on one hand tries to pay homage to the original James Cameron films, yet on the other hand feels very much like a product of our PG-ized, four-quadrant tentpole times. This is the heavy-metal Terminator franchise as pop-song remix. And not a very good one at that.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS has some elements that could have made it a worthy entry in this franchise. The smartest thing the movie does is it brings back Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aged Terminator, who in this film's timeline has been protecting Sarah Connor since she was a girl. It's a clever way to bring Arnold back to one of his most iconic roles, but in a way that takes into account his advancing age and plays off of it in a fun way. Arnold is the best thing about the movie - the man has always had a gift for spouting off droll one-liners, and his performance here is vintage Arnold. He's got a fun father dynamic with Sarah, and Schwarzenegger seems excited to be back playing a cyborg. But even the mighty Austrian cannot save the film's convoluted and ultimately silly script.

Time travel on film is always tricky business. But what makes it work is the usage of solid internal storytelling logic. GENISYS is severely lacking said logic. Without spoiling anything, the main characters seem to use time travel in a way that fundamentally makes no sense. Not in a nitpicky way, but in a blatant way. Like, why are characters in a hurry to time-travel to the future when the very act of time-traveling makes time relative? Why are they traveling to a specific point that is so close to doomsday that our heroes are now encumbered with a self-imposed countdown clock to save the day? They could have traveled literally days - or months - or years! - earlier and saved themselves the headache.

If the wonky time travel stuff was the movie's only issue, it wouldn't be a total loss. But the time-travel problems are indicative of a script that is just way too careless and hokey and not in keeping in the spirit of Terminator. This is a franchise about evil-as-crap looking robots who want to kill us all. So when we meet the ultimate manifestation of Skynet - the movie's big bad - it's hard not to feel underwhelmed.

The cheesiness also extends to the movie's romantic subplot between a younger-than-we're-used-to Sarah Connor and her sent-from-the-future, would-be savior Kyle Reese. The original Terminator movie did a great job of showing the two's blossoming, apocalypse-tinged romance. Here, there is little chemistry between the two leads, and the predetermined nature of their hook-up is more of a box to tick than a genuinely interesting part of the film. I'm a huge fan of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaerian on Game of Thrones (who isn't?). She's solid here, but even the biggest Emilia Clarke fan has to admit that she seems a bit miscast as badass-female icon Sarah Connor. Ably played in the past by Linda Hamilton - and then by Clarke's GoT castmate Lena Heady in an underrated turn - Clarke's version of the character is more comic-book fantasy version of female hero than the tough-as-nails, legit-badass warrior that Hamilton played. But Clarke still comes off a lot better than Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese. I'm not a total Jai hater - he's been good on occasion. But this is Jai at his most Jai - bland, charisma-less, and utterly forgettable as a hero. Jason Clarke also feels somewhat miscast as messianic John Connor. Unfortunately, previews spoiled the movie's big twist about Connor, but ultimately it doesn't matter that much because this version of Connor is quickly reduced to the part of sneering villain. You've got to feel bad for Clarke, because his role is totally thankless. At one point, he moves in to attack Sarah and Kyle, and they pointedly mention that he can't kill them, or else he'd cease to exist. His response is something along the lines of "it doesn't work that way!" Um, okay. I've also heard some reviewers give praise to JK Simons as a loopy cop who witnessed the first Terminator time-travel incident way back when. It's another instance, to me, of the movie taking a great, very likable actor and giving him a pretty poorly-written role. JK does his best with it, but I found the character to be sort of a waste of time within the context of the film - more comic relief when what the movie really needed was more legit badassery.

As much as I've been ragging on GENISYS, it is occasionally enjoyable. There's some fun action, and watching old Schwarzenegger kick-ass, take names, and even square off with a younger version of himself is pretty fun. When I wasn't thinking about things like plot, character, or justificatoin for this movie's existence, I found myself enjoying some of the movie's more visceral thrills. I love the whole Terminator universe, so sure, part of me was happy just to visit it once more. If nothing else, this one is faster-paced and more dumb-fun entertaining than the Christian Bale-starring Salvation misfire from a few years back. This is a cast you want to like (well, Jai Courtney excepted, perhaps), and director Alan Taylor gives the film a sleek (if somewhat bland) look, with some of the future-set scenes in particular being pretty legitimately eye-popping.

But as a franchise re-starter, TERMINATOR: GENISYS is a near-total bust. The film left me with little interest in future sequels, and gives little to chew on after first viewing. What's funny is the the film tries to do the whole Marvel big-post-credits-reveal thing, but the big cliffhanger reveal is very forgettable. Interestingly, the cancelled-too-soon Sarah Connor Chronicles series on FOX was able to explore the Terminator mythology with a lot more depth and darkness than this movie does. It really does feel like the candy-colored little sibling to the original films - Terminator for the whole family! But in creating this slick, CGI-filled beast, they've lost sight of why Terminator was a sensation back in the day. It was dark, grim, badass, rock n' roll. And it was surprisingly smart in its storytelling. This one tells you what you need to know in its title. Not because it's the genesis of a Terminator revival. No, it's because they spelled "genesis" with a freaking "y."

My Grade: C

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