Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sideways Along The Terminator Timeline: Why Terminator Genisys Is Taking Unwarranted Flack!

The Good: Decent plot, Good character development, Decent special effects
The Bad: Some repetitive action elements, Odd casting choices, Neglects prior two films
The Basics: Including a number of ideas that are widely regarded - and lauded - in other science fiction works, Terminator Genisys entirely reimagines the Terminator franchise!

Sequels are inherently fraught with problems, not the least of which is the attempt of the sequel to live up to the reputation of the original. As sequels turn into a franchise, viewers tend to become ever more picky and the writers and directors work hard to find the balance between reinventing the franchise and making sure the new work is familiar-enough to not alienate the fans. With Terminator Genisys, the Terminator franchise takes a page from the Star Trek franchise. Like the 2009 film Star Trek (reviewed here!), Terminator Genisys reboots the timeline for the Terminator franchise with a (near) complete recasting and a (near) complete reimaging of the timeline and concepts of the Terminator franchise.

While Terminator Genisys is currently taking a great deal of flack - some people apparently found it confusing - fans of the Terminator franchise seem very willing to forget just how cheesy certain elements of The Terminator (reviewed here!) were. Rewatching The Terminator right before Terminator Genisys, it surprised me how many gaffes made it into the film - when Kyle Reese first appears in 1984, he and the police officer he squares off with are screaming at one another but not making anything remotely close to eye contact, for example. Going back through the cinematic Terminator franchise before taking in the new film, what surprised me most about Terminator Genisys was how the latest installment managed to use the most tired elements of the franchise while doing a surprisingly good job of infusing new elements and concepts to the franchise. For sure, those who are savvy in science fiction will find elements of Terminator Genisys entirely derivative, but the writers of the latest Terminator film use the familiar elements well in the rebooted setting.

Terminator Genisys is more effectively a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (reviewed here!) than it is to Terminator Salvation (reviewed here!). While that is not inherently problematic, it is incredibly awkward that Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (reviewed here!) is not referenced. The basic timeline for the Terminator storyline had nuclear armageddon - Judgment Day - occurring on August 29, 1997 . . . until the events of Terminator 2 caused it to be postponed. The temporal incursion into 2004 resulted in Judgment Day happening then, along with important relationships being revealed and developed. Terminator Genisys entirely reboots the timeline, but the failure to reference 2004 or Kate Brewster is more problematic to the die-hard fans than John Connor being recast from Nick Stahl to Christian Bale to Jason Clarke (though, to be fair, Clarke is closer to Stahl than Bale, making for a more natural transition from 3 to Genisys). Of course, the apologist critics would write off such inconsistencies as "function of the reboot," but even with temporal rearrangings, there are constants and known factors . . . which is where some of Terminator Genisys goes wrong.

That said, Terminator Genisys gets far more right than wrong.

Opening in 2029, John Connor leads Kyle Reese and other human survivors on the two final attacks of the war against the machines who have enslaved and killed most of humanity. While one team destroys Skynet, Connor and Reese attack a secondary facility where John Connor knows Skynet has its fallback weapon stored. The humans take control of the facility too late, though; Skynet has sent back the Terminator that made the trip to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor to prevent John Connor from being born. Kyle Reese volunteers to go back in time to save Sarah, but as the time displacement device is activated, Reese witnesses John Connor being attacked by one of the members of the resistance. In the act of moving back in time, Reese experiences memories of events he did not experience, most notably his younger self noting that Genisys is Skynet and that Genisys has to be destroyed before it goes online.

Arriving in 1984, Reese encounters the homeless man he was supposed to, but the police officer who pursues him is a T-1000 style shapeshifting Terminator. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, the Terminator sent back to kill Sarah Connor is dispatched by another Terminator, who is working with Sarah Connor. Reese is rescued by Sarah Connor and the other Terminator, whom he is mistrustful of. As the T-1000 pursues Reese and Connor, Reese learns that Sarah Connor is not at all helpless; she leads the T-1000 into a trap where she is able to destroy it. Following that incident, Connor shows Reese the plan she and Pops - the Terminator working with her - have developed: Pops has built a time displacement device and, using the processor from the dead Terminator, they can activate it. Connor wants to use the device to go to 1997 to stop Judgment Day, while Reese believes that the key is a trip to 2017 to stop Genisys from going online. Tapping into his altered memories, Reese convinces Sarah Connor to go to 2017 to stop the Genisys version of Skynet from becoming active. But in 2017, Reese and Sarah Connor are almost immediately captured by the police, which fuels Reese's distrust of Pops (who was supposed to be waiting for them when they arrived). When Reese and Sarah are rescued by John Connor, the pair finds themselves struggling to avert the disaster that once again seems unavoidable!

As I waited for Terminator Genisys to start, I found my mind wandering and I thought, "Why the hell doesn't Skynet just go into the future a few days after the humans take it down and re-establish control over the machines?" What instantly pleased me about Terminator Genisys was that, for the first time in the Terminator franchise, characters move from an established time (in this case, the alternate 1984) to the future (2017). Even with the altered 1984, the decision Sarah Connor and Reese make is somewhat ridiculous. Connor argues that they should go to 1997, while Reese believes the temporal lynchpin is 2017. There is no clear reason why Judgment Day would not have occured in 1997 (the first time through the timeline, Skynet went online in 1997 . . . while events of The Terminator allowed Skynet to develop its technology based upon the T-800, it still developed independent of that technology the first time, so in the reset version of the timeline, Miles Dyson should still have been able to develop the technology by 1997). In other words, the logical approach to destroying Skynet would have been to leap forward to 1997 to stop Skynet and, if Judgment Day was averted there, continue to foil Genisys as it develops between 1997 and 2017. The somewhat ridiculous premise the characters in Terminator Genisys belabor under is that it makes any sense to try to avert Judgment Day by waiting to the last minute (or the last 44 hours) to do so.

But even that set-up issue is overshadowed by the execution of the plan in Terminator Genisys. Rather than getting mired in the temporal mechanics - most of which make fine sense when one accepts that the future shown at the beginning is fluid and must be followed by incidents wherein both the humans and Skynet send back various elements - the plot that Terminator Genisys possesses is surprisingly engaging. The Terminator franchise essentially introduces The Borg to their cannon as Skynet develops the ability to "assimilate" organic life and that plays well amid the various attacks and chases.

In fact, more than the questions raised by the plot elements of Terminator Genisys, arguably the biggest issue with the new installment of the Terminator franchise is how it is forced to conform to the formulas of the action-adventure movie. The Terminator movies have done chase sequences, they have done gunfights, they have done hand to hand combat scenes that push the envelope. Terminator Genisys does not have new territory to mine in those departments, so director Alan Taylor does his best to make them flow and fit this film, which he does. In fact, there are several sequences in Terminator Genisys that are downright cool and feel fresh, not the least of which is the trap Sarah Connor lays for the T-1000.

What Terminator Genisys has that some of the other installments are a little light on is genuine character development. Kyle Reese is presented as a surprisingly complex and conflicted character in Terminator Genisys. His loyalty to John Connor leads him to a series of revelations that shake his worldview and lead him to completely trust his sworn enemy. While Sarah Connor is given an engaging twist in Terminator Genisys, her character arc is better as a function of the larger franchise as opposed to within this film. That said, Sarah Connor is presented as one of the strongest, coolest, heroines to ever grace science fiction and this incarnation of the character plays to that tradition beautifully.

That brings us to the acting. Terminator Genisys has woefully bad casting . . . but that is based on the fact that so many of the characters have already appeared in the franchise in forms that should have been indicative of their ages in this film. Jai Courtney looks nothing like Michael Biehn and Emilia Clarke plays Sarah Connor with youth and vitality more reminiscent of Hayden Panettiere than Linda Hamilton. Even the punk in 1984 looks nothing like Brian Thompson.

But the acting in Terminator Genisys is generally good. Emilia Clarke plays Sarah Connor without any hint of her portrayal of Daenerys. Clarke is strong and the scenes that require her to be emotive she plays well. Similarly, Jai Courtney might not be stepping into Michael Biehn's shoes, as in trying to play Reese the way Biehn did, but he makes the character compelling to watch. There a moments his character's conflict is evident in his eyes and on his face, even when he does not have lines. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger is decent as Pops; he plays the straightman powerhouse well. Just like Sylvester Stallone playing to his strengths as the boxer Rocky Balboa with minimal lines, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the killer cyborg just fine. In fact, Schwarzenegger even manages to get through his line about being laid off (a condition not uncommon in Schwarzenegger's California!) with the appropriate detachment of his character.

It is J.K. Simmons who steals the show in Terminator Genisys. Simmons is given the supporting role of Officer O'Brien, a police officer who survives the 1984 incursion by the T-1000 and becomes obsessed with Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. O'Brien is a cool role in that it forces the characters (and the writers) to accept that the manipulations to the timeline have consequences and collateral damage. More than simply being available for momentary comic relief and plot convenience, O'Brien is a very human connection for the audience amid the larger-than-life heroes and villains of Terminator Genisys. Simmons finds the balance for the character perfectly.

Ultimately, Terminator Genisys is a film that can be nitpicked to death. But the truth of the matter is, the broad strokes of Terminator Genisys are done incredibly well, both in the franchise and on its own as a film. Terminator Genisys has the expected chases, fights, time travel and robots, but it blends it a story that feels a lot more like 12 Monkeys (reviewed here!) than a cheap retread of the earlier Terminator movies. And reinventing a franchise from the beginning is no easy task; Alan Taylor and the writers of Terminator Genisys manage to make an engaging new tangent universe for those who love the universe of the Terminator.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Dragon Blade
Fantastic 4
Jenny's Wedding
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Lila & Eve
No Way Jose
Inside Out
Jurassic World
She's Funny That Way
The Avengers: Age Of Ultron


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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