Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Terminator Genisys" (2015)

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney
Written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier
Directed by Alan Taylor
Rated PG-13 — Violence, language, brief nudity
Running Time: 126 Minutes

In a future decimated by machines controlled by the malevolent artificial intelligence known as Skynet, John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a human resistance to take back the world. His best friend and lieutenant, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is always loyal and by his side. On the night that the human resistance finally destroys Skynet, ending its machine reign of terror, John reveals the existence of Skynet's last and greatest weapon: a time machine. He also reveals to Reese that Skynet has sent a Terminator back through time to kill his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke).

Reese, in love with Sarah after all of John's stories and carrying around her picture for years, volunteers to go back in time to protect her. But as he appears in 1984, things are not as he expected. Instead of the T-800 (a young CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger) that he expects, Reese is attacked by a liquid metal T-1000 (Lee Byung-Hun) and rescued by Sarah and her guardian Terminator (the real Arnold Schwarzenegger).

With Terminators traveling to different time periods again and again, the timeline has become fractured. But although Skynet's Terminators get more and more advanced, the changing timelines has given Kyle Reese an advantage: memories of an alternate life he can use to stop it from ever happening. With a new and even more unstoppable machine after them, Reese, Sarah and "Pops" the Terminator travel from 1984 to 2017 on the ultimate mission to stop Skynet — forever.

I remained cautiously hopeful for a while on "Terminator Genisys." I liked the talent that was involved (mostly) in front of an behind the camera, and when the first trailer dropped I actually got a bit excited. The problems started when the second trailer came around and revealed what is absolutely the film's biggest plot twist — that John Connor himself is now the Terminator trying to kill Sarah and Reese.

This is a big mistake because honestly, in the context of the film, it kinda works. If they'd managed to keep this concept secret... I might have come out of this film with a higher respect for it. Instead, the film blew its wad in the trailer and tries to keep another plot twist for the end that pretty much falls flat.

What I loved about the first trailer was how it seemed like the film was looping back on the first "Terminator" film, restaging scenes from that cult classic and subverting our expectations about how things are supposed to go. I got it in my head that this film might be an action-packed robo-warfare version of "Back to the Future, Part II" writ large.

Problematically, all of these cool scenes are contained to the first act of "Terminator Genisys," which is by far the coolest part of the movie. One of the problems with the "Terminator" franchise as a whole is how often it repeats itself. The first three films all have essentially the same plot and structure, and they all also riff images and locations from each other. For example, three out of the first four "Terminator" films have climactic fight scenes in an industrial setting.

"Terminator Genisys" starts off strong by finally playing with some of that, as the Terminators from different timelines all converge. Having Kyle Reese unaware of what the T-1000 is and its capabilities allows that shape-shifting creature to be scary once again. Even the de-aged Schwarzenegger T-800 feels more dangerous here than it did in the woefully limp climax of "Terminator Salvation."

But then it ends, and all the goodwill that "Genisys" has built up over its first half hour or forty minutes just deflates as we for the fourth time in five movies set off to blow up Skynet before it can be created (in "Salvation" there's an attack on an already existing Skynet core).

Complicating the problem is the script that never really takes a breath to allow us to get to know the characters. In the few moments we do get, Reese and Sarah struggle with what is essentially the world's most epic arranged marriage with a sense of fear and resentment — for him, Sarah is not at all like he imagined her to be; for her, allowing herself to love Reese or to be loved by him essentially dooms him. There's fantastic drama to be mined from that, but the film is utterly uninterested in it. The movie runs from action sequence to action sequence so quickly that these two get to have the barest of conversations before they're running and firing guns again.

There are also weird bits of dialogue that feel like no one read the script or questioned the lines they were given. For example, Reese knows what cold beer is and and what happens when you put metal in a microwave, and he even knows how to fly a helicopter but he has no idea what a waitress is when John tells him about his mother. And although we're supposed to believe that this is Sarah Connor of 1984, she talks like she's from 2015 even while she's listening to 80s rock music. None of these inconsistencies is large, but after a while they pile up and the movie just starts to feel... weird.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Pops" Terminator is a machine expressly designed to deliver exposition, it seems. He's always explaining things to Sarah and especially to Reese. His best moments are the ones where a bit of humanity seeps through his robotic exterior — moments where he plays a fatherly figure to Sarah, echoing but going further than his "Uncle Bob" cyborg in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Problematically, it also feels like he's mostly just along for the ride. He explains things to Sarah and Reese, he fights John Connor — a lot — and then he explains more things. He rarely feels like he's all that integral to the story, and the script has an annoying habit of making him disappear during the action sequences only to pop up right at the last second to save Sarah and Reese.

Like "Jurassic World," director Alan Taylor struggles to construct a film with appropriate language. The best parts are when he's recreating bits and pieces of the 1984 film and weaving in and around them, like he's got a target to hit. But the thing is that he throws a bunch of iconic images around and that's great, but those images don't exist in a vacuum. There's a reason why those images work and it's often because the images around them lead us to those singular moments.

"Terminator Genisys" is entirely lacking in suspense to make us care about its big moments. Action films need suspense either in the "holy shit, how are they gonna get out of this one?" sense or in the "holy shit, something bad is going to happen" sense — and neither of those exist in this film. It has all the requisite "Terminator" imagery, but none of it means anything because they're thrown at us without meaning. In "Jurassic World," Colin Trevorrow had the same problem — that film is loaded with iconic "Jurassic Park" imagery, but it all feels aped and derivative, with no heft behind it because there's nothing special happening anywhere else.

There are ideas at play in "Terminator Genisys" that are really cool. The movie plays with time travel in a way that the series never has before but even that is lifted from the sadly short-lived TV series, "The Sarah Connor Chronicles." Still, the idea is sound — the concept of the "Terminator" franchise morphing into a complex Rube Goldberg-esque temporal cold war is one rife with possibility... if we could only manage to figure out how to make a movie out of it that doesn't just repeat the same tired old schtick.

Still, there's fun to be had. There's a refreshing feeling of practicality to the Terminator-on-Terminator fights here. It looks like more was done with real people, props and stunt doubles than the cool-but-cartoony fights from "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." Either that or Mr. Taylor managed to find the one CGI effects team in the world that can make convincing computer stunt doubles (though there are a handful of bad ones in here, too, to be sure).

The phoniest looking sequence in the whole thing is a helicopter chase right before the finale through the streets of San Francisco. But again, the opening action sequences in the future, and then in 1984 all look and feel great. It's once the picture steps into 2017 that things start to fall apart. "Pops" Terminator's final fight with John Connor is pretty cool, too.

If I were to rank the "Terminator" films now, I'd put "Genisys" above "Rise of the Machines" and "Salvation," but that still doesn't say much. And neither, really, does this film.