Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In Theaters: TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Alan Taylor. Written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Sandrine Holt, Dayo Okeniyi, Michael Gladis, Wayne Bastrup, Griff Furst, Afemo Omilami. (PG-13, 125 mins)

The fifth entry in the TERMINATOR franchise also functions as a reboot that eliminates the third and fourth films from the series continuity. That's too bad, since the middling TERMINATOR: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003) and TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009), about which I recall nothing except Christian Bale's on-set meltdown with cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, look like neglected, misunderstood classics compared to the ill-advised TERMINATOR: GENISYS. The best thing GENISYS has going for it is the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fans will no doubt get a kick out of his re-introduction but that joy quickly fades into a blurred rubble of narrative incoherence, CGI histrionics, and post-Michael Bay destruction porn. Indeed, TERMINATOR: GENISYS represents the TRANSFORMERS-and-Marvelization of the franchise. James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR (1984) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) look like quaint, quiet relics compared to the garish stupidity on display here. Story and character are sacrificed in place of so much computer-generated mayhem that half the film looks animated. There's no need for a CGI'd Arnold to be bouncing around the frame like a pinball, and good and evil Terminators hurling one another around like WWE stars. It's THE TERMINATOR reimagined for gamers who don't have a problem with the way movies look today in yet another attempt to make Schwarzenegger matter to teenagers and millennials, when it's clear from his recent box-office grosses that, while his aging fan base might come out to see him, younger fans don't give a shit, and GENISYS isn't likely to change that. To them, Schwarzenegger is a relic whose films they've occasionally seen their dads watching on TNT. GENISYS resorts to cheap references and groan-inducing pandering to the lowest-common denominator because it has nothing to say and no reason to exist. Don't believe me?  Then justify the scene where the Terminator, Sarah Connor, and Kyle Reese get arrested to the tune of Inner Circle's "Bad Boys."  Yeah, that's right...the COPS theme.  Do you find that funny? Yeah? Then by all means, go see TERMINATOR: GENISYS. And thank you for being the reason blockbuster movies are as dumbed-down and generic as they are.

Veteran TV director Alan Taylor (THE SOPRANOS, GAME OF THRONES) has THOR: THE DARK WORLD under his belt and GENISYS feels very much like The Terminator was dropped into a Marvel superhero movie. The script by Laeta Kalogridis (NIGHT WATCH, SHUTTER ISLAND) and Patrick Lussier (DRIVE ANGRY) gathers the Terminator, Sarah Connor (GAME OF THRONES' Emilia Clarke), Kyle Reese (Hollywood still trying to make Jai Courtney happen), and John Connor (Jason Clarke) into an alternate timeline of the events of the first two films. In an attempt to thwart Judgment Day on August 29, 1997, a 2029 John Connor sends Reese back to 1984 to follow the original Terminator and stop him from killing Sarah Connor, thus preventing John's birth and his eventual victory over Skynet, the sentient computer system that brings about nuclear destruction. So far, so familiar. But when the Terminator arrives in 1984 (in scenes recreated from the first film due to rights issues, so you get a punk who sort of looks like a young Bill Paxton), things already look a bit off, starting with the Terminator itself. It's a CGI recreation of a young Schwarzenegger, and it has that same eerie, dead-eyed, not-quite-there look that the young, CGI Jeff Bridges had in TRON: LEGACY. The Terminator is then ambushed by what appears to be the Terminator from the second film (Schwarzengger, for real), but is actually another Terminator sent back to 1973 when Sarah Connor was just nine years old. The events of GENISYS take place in an alternate reality based on Sarah encountering the good Terminator from T2 much earlier than that film's setting of 1997.  In GENISYS, an orphaned Sarah has been raised by the Terminator and has already been trained for her role as a soldier in the upcoming war on Skynet. Much like the audience, Reese is confused, but in his travel back to 1984, has seen visions of his own alternate reality and realizes Judgment Day is not in 1997 but in 2017. So after some perfunctory chase sequences involving a return appearance by T2's liquid-metal T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), Sarah and Kyle time travel to 2017 where they're met by a graying Good Terminator (though he's a machine, his human casing ages) and prepare to take on Genisys, a powerful computer program created by Cyberdine Systems, the corporation behind Skynet. Genisys will electronically link everything and everyone and put their entire lives online, thereby allowing the self-acting Skynet to bring about Judgment Day.

A film with a modicum of intelligence in its foundation might've used Genisys--essentially an even more evil fusion of Facebook, Twitter, and Google--as a substantive commentary on today's ubiquitous nature of social media and our over-reliance on computer technology. But TERMINATOR; GENISYS is too busy making COPS references and having Arnold spout one-liners and signature quips (of course "I'll be back" makes an appearance) to deal with that. Schwarzenegger is easily the best thing about the film, and there are some scattered moments that work, like the genuine emotion his Terminator feels toward Sarah, or the gleam in his eye when he bonds with Reese, like a father reluctantly letting his little girl go. But do those have any place in a TERMINATOR movie? The film feels in constant danger of abandoning its plot to become WHEN SARAH MET KYLE, with the mismatched pair engaging in rom-com banter, and the Terminator in the role of her overprotective dad, forever about to shake his head, raise his fist, and yell "Reeeeeeese!" On one hand, it's nice to see Arnold as the Terminator once more, but on the other, it's unfortunate that the 67-year-old actor is resorting to this for a hit, especially on the heels of the barely-released MAGGIE, the most out-of-left-field project of his career since directing a 1992 cable remake of CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT starring Dyan Cannon. Not everything in GENISYS is awful, but the worthwhile moments are few and far between, and by the time one character's true nature is revealed in a midway twist (actually spoiled by some of the trailers), the film becomes too confused with itself to care. It doesn't use Arnold to its best advantage, instead relegating the Terminator to basically being a sideline character (much like THE EXPENDABLES 3 left a tired-looking Arnold babysitting the parked chopper) and talkative exposition machine, as he was conveniently implanted with all of this knowledge prior to being sent to 1973 in the alternate timeline. When was the Terminator ever this chatty? While the iconic star gets a few decent moments, none of the other actors fare as well. Emilia Clarke is OK as Sarah, but Jason Clarke is stuck with an unplayable John Connor, and it doesn't help that the film is never really sure what it wants the character to be. Fresh off of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for WHIPLASH, J.K. Simmons, in the most inconsequential post-Oscar role this side of Michael Caine in JAWS: THE REVENGE, plays a laughingstock L.A. cop who believes Sarah's and Kyle's time travel story before vanishing from the movie. Former DOCTOR WHO Matt Smith is a holographic representation of Genisys in a plot development that in no way reminds one of RESIDENT EVIL. Worst of all is Courtney, apparently the go-to guy when you've decided to drive your franchise off a cliff (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD), who's a complete black hole as Reese, emoting like a lunkheaded jock and demonstrating none of the desperation and humanity of Michael Biehn's performance in the first film.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS is odd in that it makes so many references to the first two films yet seems designed for those who haven't seen them or don't like them. Sure, the special effects in the first TERMINATOR are 31 years old and some haven't aged well, but it's still a marvelously inventive and thrillingly-told story, with nonstop action, strong performances, and believable characters that you care about. T2 raised the bar on the action and the visual effects, and while it has its flaws and the attempts to humanize the good Terminator occasionally fell flat, it still holds up. GENISYS, on the other hand, just flounders in its quest for a reason to exist. It's a two-hour video game, as dumb and obnoxious as a TRANSFORMERS movie, and somehow, showcasing extensive CGI that not only makes zero improvements on the groundbreaking work Cameron and his crew did on T2 nearly 25 years ago, but actually looks worse! TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY was the first film with a budget to crack $100 million and every penny was up on the screen. Remember when that was an inconceivable amount of money to spend on a movie? TERMINATOR: GENISYS cost $170 million and looks like it should be premiering on cable. So go ahead and tell me blockbusters have gotten better.

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