Looney Ruins: Terminator Genisys Review

Terminator Genisys is a pretty dumb movie. This irrefutable fact can be observed simply by looking at its misspelled title. Whether or not Paramount Pictures failed to activate the spell check on their company-wide computers or they thought they would eagerly be part of the trend of purposefully mucking-up the monikers of their prospective tentpole films, it does not matter. “Who cares? We put Terminator in the title. And isn’t Arnold back? That alone will be enough to satisfy them.” says the imaginary studio exec banking on the stupidity of the movie going public. And I suspect said people going to see Terminator Genisys are aware of the jumped-up nostalgia fest that the film will undoubtedly be. Even I, an elitist cinephile who too frequently bemoans the blockbuster-exclusive impulses of the modern studio system, sat in a seat as the dread of seeing a continuation of two great films and two mediocre ones began to wash over me.

But is there a possibility that a film as dumb as Terminator Genisys can have an unlikely level of amusement for all its moronic lumbering? The answer is an improbable yes. Much like this summer’s other throwback Jurassic World, Genisys is packed with iconography, set pieces, and dialogue that is aimed for knee slapping and elbowing. In other words, these films insist on the audience to exhibit purely primal reactions. For all its eye roll worthy callbacks and overly CG action, the latest entry in the Terminator franchise is an almost meta-commentary on studios running on empty and relying on fan service alone to build a satisfying story. These movies rely on the engagement of mere sensory pleasures rather than any encouragement of critical thought.

Am I proposing that Paramount did this with tactful purposefulness? Absolutely not. There are a handful of places were the movie tries to lay down some new tracks instead of simply playing the hits. Exhibit A: clumsy plot point regarding the technology obsessed culture of today that sows its own seeds with smart phones and an over eagerness to plug in instead of waking up. Wait, have you seen that one before? How about exhibit B: toying with the franchise’s already shaky timeline in an attempt to heighten the pressure of a plot long gone off the rails? No? Well, that is about all new this film has to offer you. Back are the liquid metal killing machines, exclamations of self-return, and questions of choice versus destiny. These ideas were new and fresh once…you know, back in 1991.

And where was Alan Taylor, director of Terminator Genisys, in the early nineties? Directing episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, of course. A veteran of the small screen, Taylor directed some of the finest hours of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire (three of my personal favorites). His recent foray into big budget blockbusters has been less than noteworthy. The most memorable moment of 2013’s Thor: The Dark World (which he directed) was Thor ruefully taking a train after being transported by Malekith the Accursed across London.[1] Taylor took issue with the rigidity the studio posed to him, calling “the Marvel experience…wrenching.”[2] Taylor, while enthusiastically promoting Genisys, insisted that the more open collaboration on this project made for a much smoother and enjoyable time.

Any passion he had for the material must have been put onto the page and left off the screen. For all his assertions that things are different this time, it seems as though Taylor is just another workman director caught up in the Hollywood machine, leaving the construction of the film’s elaborate set pieces to the post production process rather than possessing a clear directive while shooting. Nearly all of the film’s action scenes are bland and unimaginative, with the CGI seams threatening to snap at every turn. Genisys’s bloodless weightlessness just adds to the examples of action franchises that turn their back on the gripping, grounded turbulence of the originals in favor of the possibilities the PG-13 rating grants a movie’s box office prospects. The only set piece I can somewhat vividly recall is the sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge that has been plastered all over the trailers and TV spots. I think I should credit Paramount’s marketing squad for that over Taylor.

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But Genisys’s action is hardly a problem when compared to the black hole of charm that the marketing materials refer to as Jai Courtney. Those industrious minds out in California found a way to subsume the corpses of Hayden Christensen and Sam Worthington (a veteran of the franchise) to create a bland behemoth the likes of which our world has never known. Any time the script does something stupid like forcing Courtney to hit a comedic beat or give an emotional plea, the film nearly crashes to the ground, burning everything in its vicinity. While I knew the movie’s plot would ensure that the character of Kyle Reese would live up through the closing credits, I more than once wished for his quick and painful demise. But nope, his expressionless mug seemed to fit right in with the colorless world the cyborgs wished to impose upon us all. In a film filled with robotic death machines, Courtney’s no-note performance is perhaps Skynet’s greatest weapon.

Luckily, the film does not rely on Courtney to do all of the heavy lifting. The franchise’s most beloved iron pumper (Arnold Schwarzenegger) reprises his role as the T-800, a recurring character who happens to be a different model in every movie. As a lifelong fan of Schwarzenegger who enjoys his work (mostly) unironically, it was genuinely a treat to see him return to the role that made him a household name. Sure, the film relies on many jokes about his advanced age and washed up abilities (a staple of his recent work). But I would be lying if I said I did not find a surreal thrill in seeing the aged Terminator do battle with his younger self. It was an oddly poetic moment in a movie so desperate for one.

Additionally, Emilia Clarke did a worthy job as the beloved action heroine Sarah Connor. The Game of Thrones star’s welcome presence extends well beyond her resemblance to Linda Hamilton. Clarke’s insistence on personal agendas and steely reliance was a more than valid continuation of Hamilton’s takes in 1984 and 1991. Her relationship with Schwarzenegger in particular added a much needed dose of platonic tenderness, as the latter serves as a sort of father figure to the capable but vulnerable Connor. Though their interplay fit right into the film’s echo chamber of references and repetitions[3], the relationship’s restraint is something that even better movies would have a hard time not overplaying.

One character that could have used some drastic revisions was Jason Clarke’s rendition of John Connor, messianic warrior of the Resistance. Many of his most egregious uses approach spoiler territory, so I will leave my critiques vague. It reveals nothing to say that several moves made by his character seem motivated purely by shock value, lacking any sense of narrative coherence. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of the movie is the greater inability of this brand of filmmaking to better integrate Clarke, an underrated actor, into the proceedings. Even a great recent blockbuster (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) used his character in a mostly throwaway manner that did not honor his quiet intensity. On the other hand, the implementation of John Connor has seemed to be a greater problem that the franchise has struggled with. It is quite hilarious to me that a franchise that relies on the importance of one particular character does not seem to find that character very interesting or special.

As you make your grand exodus from the theater, Terminator Genisys’s temporary thrills already begin to fade as you rummage through your pockets for your car keys. You will probably trade comments with your friends or loved ones about how moments or characters stacked up to their original counterparts. Maybe you will even chat about the shameless setting up of sequels even though this franchise has absolutely nowhere else to go. As for me, I walked to my car alone, with my expectations of mild disappointment quite squarely met. My mind immediately returned to the original two films and the joy that they have and will continue to bring me. Maybe that was entirely the intention of producing Terminator Genisys: to appreciate the blissful past while an apocalyptic future eagerly awaits us all.

1.5 out of 5 stars

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[1] (I know, I know…)

[2] http://uproxx.com/movies/2015/06/terminator-genisys-alan-taylor/

[3] Furlong and Schwarzenegger in T2.

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