Terminator: Genisys (2015)

The hype for Terminator: Genisys suggested it might prove emblematic of much that’s wrong with contemporary “big” cinema. The trailer offered little more than a procession of recreated beats and call-backs to James Cameron’s beloved 1984 film The Terminator, laced with shots of ageing Arnold Schwarzenegger and a CGI simulacrum of his younger self, nostalgic references for a middle-aged audience to a model film that was defined by a bristling confidence in it very own self, whilst giving away many of the surprises the new edition had in store. Cameron’s film was the B-movie that could, a triumph for craftsmanship and invention on a limited budget that gave its creator a singularly successful career. It also kicked off a wayward film franchise that Cameron himself continued first with the prototypical CGI-era blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but then was driven into the ground by hacky continuations Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and the god-awful Terminator: Salvation (2009). Terminator: Genisys follows a now-familiar pattern, also plied by this year’s Jurassic World but first worked with deliberation by Hollywood cinema with Halloween H20 (1998), of not exactly retconning a pile-up of haphazard sequels out of existence, but effectively ignoring them in an attempt to get back to basics. To my surprise, however, Terminator: Genisys proves rather more resourceful and unpretentiously enthusiastic in its errant attempts to wring some new life out of this material than I expected. For its first half, at least, Genisys fiddles entertainingly with the settled continuity and conceptual basis of Cameron’s model, with director Alan Taylor condensing and inverting series tropes. After all, Cameron’s original suggested a complex approach to time and consequence, with the future of Skynet only “one possible future,” opening up the possibilities for a more complex zone of interacting realities.

Thus Taylor kicks off with futuristic action as John Connor (who, having gone through incarnations of Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Christian Bale, has now settled on the form of Justin Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) triumphing over the forces of Skynet and penetrating one of the evil AI’s inner sanctums. John, knowing thanks to his mother Sarah’s accounts what to expect, zeroes in on Skynet’s time machine, and calls for volunteers to chase down the terminator that’s just been sent back in time to kill Sarah. But as Kyle is swept up in the time portal, he glimpses John being attacked by a secreted terminator, and is wracked by ghost-memories as he plunges into the past. That past soon proves both familiar and strange: the original T-800 model terminator, whilst encountering the punks outside Griffith Observatory (sadly, no Bill Paxton in their midst this time), is confronted by another T-800, this one older and in the company of Sarah (Emilia Clarke, no relation to Justin), who guns the malevolent cyborg down with an armour-piercing round. When Kyle arrives, he in turn is attacked by a T-1000 terminator disguised as a policeman (played mostly by Byung-hun Lee). Two real cops try to arrest Kyle but the T-1000 kills one and forces Kyle to hide along with rookie cop O’Brien (Wayne Bastrup). The fun of these scenes lies in how Taylor fastidiously recreates the visuals of Cameron’s original whilst also subverting them. Sarah sweeps into action, already a hardened warrior in her still-babyfaced years, whilst Kyle is confused by both being rescued by his nominal charge and the spectacle of a good terminator, whom Sarah refers to as ‘Pops’. The unstoppable forces of the first two films stalk our heroes, but prove vulnerable to well-laid traps. 

Taylor, who once upon a time made the likeable, low-key comedies Palookaville (1995) and The Emperor's New Clothes (2001), came to this project from TV’s Game of Thrones, which stars Clarke, by way of Thor: The Dark World (2013), his first blockbuster-scaled work. Taylor doesn’t yet show any great distinctiveness as a filmmaker in this realm, and he’s only a competent orchestrator of action. His established working relationship with Emilia Clarke perhaps helped make her Sarah one of the film’s best qualities however. Aiming for the mid-ground between Linda Hamilton’s milquetoast first performance and brutalised, raw-nerved Judgment Day characterisation (which has been canonised in the action heroine pantheon but I’ll admit I always found a bit hard to take), Emilia’s Sarah is gritty but still has an immature, vulnerable streak, whose powerful attachment to her cyborg patriarch has partly rescued her from the darkest dimensions of her fated identity. Through some strange crossover of timelines, an attempt by Skynet to kill Sarah as a child saw the good terminator who is now ‘Pops’ sent to save her, but he was too late to save her parents, and so ‘Pops’ became her surrogate father. Here screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier remember that theme from Judgment Day where the T-800 became something like that for young John, and amplify it. I recall how strong that note was in Judgment Day: a friend I saw it with as a kid, who had a less than agreeable home life, wept bitter tears by the fiery conclusion because his own father wasn’t as upright as Schwarzenegger’s fiercely protective robot. I appreciate that Taylor and his writers understood this element. As with the swivel of the Tyrannosaurus from villain to hero in the original Jurassic Park (1992), a touch Jurassic World honoured effectively, there’s something emotionally punchy about the idea of a monster reprogrammed as guardian, our id-beasts turned into paternal spirits. Sarah also, like her son in the future, knows her life as ordained prophecy, and thus occupies an amusingly similar space to the viewer as someone who knows the plot and thinks she’s past spoilers. Meanwhile both she and Kyle wrestle with the notion of their supposedly fated romance which will result in John’s birth – as well as perhaps cause Kyle’s death. That they’re now much more similar people than the pair who met in the first film is exposed as the two hard-headed warriors bicker and clash over tactics and purposes. 

The film’s strongest image reminded me a little of the techno-mystical-sexual finale of Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979), as Kyle and Sarah step naked together to ride a home-made time machine into the future, a moment laced with a sense of wispy eroticism that again expands on a note sounded by Cameron, in his concept of such travel as a form of birth bringing beings naked and defencless into the world with “white light (and) pain” as Kyle described. Kyle and Sarah step into the machine as individuals and emerge remade as a unit. The plot involves sarcastically diegetic rebooting – Sarah wants to stop off in 1997, canonical start of Judgment Day, whilst Kyle, left with a set of dual memories by possibly moving through a branching point in two different dimensions, insists they go to 2017 instead. This proves the right call, as all the timeline tinkering has seen Skynet’s inception pushed back to that date, when the delayed project is being pushed ahead by the son of Miles Dyson (Courtney B. Vance, wasted), Danny (Dayo Okeniyi), with the new name of Genisys, a new multi-platform AI operating system for the world’s computers (making this the second film of the year, after Kingsmen: The Secret Service, to tie the end of the world to a software download). But there are more players in this game than just our scrappy anarcho-futurists: Skynet, who has embodied itself in the lanky shape of former Doctor Who Matt Smith (who is now getting airs and styling himself as Matthew Smith), in the future, has stepped up its game with an ability to turn humans into terminators via nanobots. Skynet has assimilated John in this fashion, and sent him back as emissary and facilitator of his birth.

John-bot reaches out to his perverse family, his mother and father who are younger than him and constructed brother/son/grandfather, with a desire to unite all of them, albeit in realms digital-molecular rather than some Society (1989)-esque flesh massing. Possibilities lie in such motifs, particularly the mean but ingenious notion of John Connor, the great enemy of Skynet, joining it however unwillingly in a way that changes Skynet’s own motivation and sense of purpose. Frustratingly, Genisys backs away from its better ideas, and retreats into a very ordinary second half of bland, familiar action fare, like a set-piece in a school bus dangling off the Golden Gate Bridge that owes a lot to the RV sequence in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and the race-against-time attempt to blow up Skynet interchangeable with five dozen other race-against-time attempts to blow something up in action flicks over the years. Taylor suggests a good touch with performers developed in years of TV work, and he tries hard to give the film body through the by-play of the actors, but he doesn't have anything like Cameron's feel for crowd-pleasing. It goes without saying, too, that Genisys, like all of the previous sequels, can’t touch the original’s specific mood of blasted, grimy, bleary survivalism, in which Kyle was an ill-shaven, perma-sweaty future-hobo improvising his defence against an evil that, although animated with less sophistication, was far more threatening than just about anything CGI cinema has offered so far. Reese was a worn and tattered knight, afflicted with PTSD and a definably post-Vietnam variety of haunted grace and guilt (a definite part of Cameron's world-view that would later inflect Aliens, 1986, and Avatar, 2009). Now, Reese is just a slightly uptight straight-arrow, quickly making pals with fellow marines across the ages: warrior protagonists have become the flat dullards they were in ‘50s B-movies after 15 years of the War on Terror. Courtney, who had previously seemed best employed playing squarehead assholes as in the Divergent films and contributed to the worst revival by far of beloved ‘80s fare, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), does better by the role than I expected (by which I mean, compared to nothing), but still seems callow and lumpen compared to Michael Biehn’s wiry intensity and pathos. 

Genisys also dangles interesting plot elements – the mysterious origin of ‘Pops’ and his programming, and O’Brien, who turns up in 2017 played now by J.K. Simmons, now an elder detective raving about time-travelling robots and happy to be vindicated by the sudden reappearance of Sarah and Kyle – but does very little with them. I’m not sure if such loose ends and extraneous flourishes are left for the sake of further proposed instalments, or represent haphazard development and scriptwriting. Moreover, although obviously intended as a revival for Schwarzenegger as well as a victory lap in returning to his most familiar role following a handful of underperforming post-gubernatorial vehicles, he’s actually given very little to do. ‘Pops’ is more often than not serving as comic relief rather than unstoppable romper-stomper. Perhaps that's inevitable: Schwarzenegger is no spring chicken any more, and he was never the nimblest of action stars. Sabotage (2014) suggested a way for him to age with gravitas as well as stature, but he can’t really do that here: it’s telling that the CGI-decorated “young” Ahnuld often looks more convincing than the actual man. Although Schwarzenegger’s peculiar cachet as a movie star is still worth a hundred FX shots, part of me wondered if the film wouldn’t have been far sleeker and more functional if the action had just been left to Sarah and Kyle, particularly as Emilia Clarke has a winning way with a rocket launcher. Many commentaries on Genisys have knifed it with aplomb, and to a certain extent that’s understandable, as it remains true that it exemplifies much that’s wrong with current Hollywood. But there are qualities to it I can’t entirely dismiss, and which add up to a passable day at the movies. Although it’s certainly a product of the current obsession with branded, recycled franchise cinema, Genisys actually feels more like the kind of sequel that used to be made back in the ‘80s, a loose, odd assemblage of ideas and recurring elements the filmmakers threw together half out of mercenary desire and half out of what-the-hell affection for the material. 

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