Tuesday, July 7, 2015

He’s Back: A Review of Terminator: Genisys

     This may be a shorter review than usual, and there are two reasons for that. Firstly, I already gave a pretty thorough explanation of the Terminator franchise last Tuesday, so if you’re looking for background knowledge then I suggest you take a look at that article. Secondly, on Saturday Mirriam Neal also addressed some of the perks of seeing Terminator: Genisys in theatres. As for me, I’m going to go a little deeper in to the pros and cons of the film as a whole, in the hopes of giving you a slightly more thorough (still spoiler-free) outline of what you might be getting yourself into.

     The film, which just baaarely managed to cut down on its violence and nudity enough to scrape down to a PG-13 rating, begins with a recap of the nuclear apocalypse. And it's told via narration… which frankly, was immediately a bad sign to me. It’s one thing to try and introduce new viewers to an old saga’s plot… it’s another thing to literally explain that plot for them as if reading out of a book. The point of a movie is to tell a story with images and events and actions, not with descriptions of said images and events and actions. That is precisely what books are for. I love film, and I love literature. But there are certain formats that work best in each medium, and narration is best left to books. And Winnie the Pooh videos.

     The narrator, Kyle Reese, explains that the war and destruction was caused in 1997 by machines — specifically the conscious computer program known as Skynet, which now rules over the dregs of civilization and keeps any humans it finds imprisoned… or worse.

     Kyle reflects on his childhood that was spent on the run from the machines, and he recalls the one man who rallied all of humankind like a prophet. This man, John Connor, knows how and when and where to strike at the enemy as if he can see the future. At long last, Connor leads the armies of men in a final battle and defeats Skynet for good… but not before it manages to deploy its backup weapon: a time machine.

     When they discover that a Terminator — a deadly robotic assassin — has been sent to the year 1984 to kill Connor’s defenseless mother before he is ever conceived, Kyle opts to travel back in time and protect her to the death.

     In other words, Terminator: Genisys spends nearly the first half-hour of its running time as little more than a recap (and even, in several scenes, a reenactment) of the original film. Yes, it tells the story from the perspective of Kyle Reese instead of Sarah Connor. And yes, it is admittedly exciting to see the “other side” of the story. But at the very moment that the movie finally starts to change the plot and go in its own direction… well, let’s just say that it immediately makes itself a bit harder to swallow.

     Instead of finding Sarah Connor as a helpless waitress, Reese instead finds a Terminator waiting to kill him… and instead of him coming to Sarah’s rescue, she in fact comes to his. Why? Because a Terminator also traveled into her childhood to kill her parents, and she has been raised to prepare for Kyle’s arrival ever since.

     There’s not much else that I can explain without spoiling anything… but that’s okay, because there’s also not much else that really makes sense.

     The characters never find out who sent the extra Terminators back in time, and the audience is never clued in either. The fourth movie (Salvation) is entirely negated, and the first three are eventually re-written. What starts out as an homage to the original film ends up a sloppy reboot. Alternate timelines, time travelers, and an extra journey to the year 2017 are just the start of the convoluted plot. In other words, the movie has as many unanswered questions, timey-wimey “just because” reasonings, and Matt Smiths as an episode of Doctor Who.

     You heard right. Like Mirriam, I completely forgot Smith was in this movie, until I glimpsed him sporting a buzz cut in the middle of Connor’s nameless resistance fighters. I was surprised that such a talented actor had been selected for such a minor role… but fortunately, in time he did get more attention than I expected, and it was an impressive (if slightly strange) surprise. I suppose casting directors will forever be reserving Smith for roles in movies that only deal with time travelers… just like Arthur Darvill!

     So in short, where the plot and its time travel were concerned, Genisys was a bit of a letdown. But intellectual storylines are only one of the reasons why viewers enjoy Terminator movies. What about the explosions? The weapons arsenal? The special effects? The fight scenes and the car chases?

     They were… well, frankly, they were average. There was no breathtaking combat move that audiences had never seen before, nor any original stunt that really caught our attention. Physics were largely ignored for the sake of re-creating all-too-familiar action cliches, like dangling off a precipice in a large rectangular vehicle.

     It was exciting, yes, but it held nothing that could compare to the twirling-to-recock-the-shotgun-while-on-a-motorcycle maneuvre.

     But there’s more to the franchise than the testosterone-induced destruction, right? There are still the interesting characters, witty dialogue, and amusing moments with Arnold Schwarzenegger*. And this is where Genisys finally pays off.

     * (And no, I didn’t need to look that up to spell it.)

     For all it lacks in a clear plot or particularly riveting action sequences, this movie makes up for everything with a surprisingly entertaining human element. I often found myself interested not so much in what was being said, but how it was being said and who was saying it. Sarah and Kyle start out grating on one another with very little chemistry, but to my utter surprise, they start to develop a banter-filled relationship as they get to know one another. Sarah’s prior knowledge of her predicted fate has changed her, and those mental complications are well-handled.

     And those two weren’t the only characters to blindside me; does anyone else agree that an entire movie could (and should) be dedicated just to the brand new character known as O’Brien!? (You may know him as the Acadamy-Award-winning actor of Whiplash, the obnoxious J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man… or, you know, “the Farmers Insurance guy.”)

     Though O’Brien initially comes onto the scene as a seemingly-minor character, his personal storyline builds and builds until it becomes worthy of far more closure than he is eventually given.

     Last but absolutely not least, there is one central factor that drew us all to Terminator: Genisys, no matter how much some people may try to deny it. That factor is Arnold Freakin’ Schwarzenegger.

     For anyone who even remotely enjoyed Ah-nold’s performance in Judgement Day, this latest installment in the Terminator franchise gives us another chance to fall in love all over again with that robotic hulk-with-a-heart. He makes perhaps one comment that is filled with more irrational emotional attachment than we usually see from him, but the other 99% of his lines are the perfect blend of computerized logic and protective snark. The banter between him, Kyle, and Sarah is entirely superb. It hardly seems to matter that the rest of the film fell flat, because the deadly Terminator’s ability to somehow become adorable is very likely what will draw me (and many other viewers) back for another screening.

     So, in the end, you really have two options. You could view Terminator: Genisys as a contrived, pretty mediocre piece of professional filmmaking… or, when you think about it, you could regard it as a fairly impressive and enjoyable fan-fiction. Chances are, against my professional judgement, I'll eventually choose the latter. What about you?


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