The Paradox of TERMINATOR GENISYS

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I remember seeing the first James Cameron TERMINATOR film as a young man, 17 years old. We had heard the scuttle on the film, mind you this is an era with instant news and the internet, and advance word through magazines indicated the film was revolutionary and would make a star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, we all loved Arnie in CONAN: THE BARBARIAN from a couple years before, so he was fast becoming a genre action hero. Knowing how excited we were, my friend’s Mom felt we should see it, and sneaked us into the R rated flick. The deal was we never tell. I think the statute of limitations has expired on that, some thirty-one years later. Needless to say, I was amazed at what I saw. THE TERMINATOR told a simple story, the themes engaged me and the special effects amazed me. I’d already been exposed to the nihilistic, post-apocalyptic fair of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE ROAD WARRIOR and BLADE RUNNER during the preceding few years. But as the opening sequence of THE TERMINATOR unfolded with a tank tread crushing a road of human skulls, my life changed. From that moment forward, nothing could top THE TERMINATOR or my adoration of the film. It also encouraged my interest in time travel, something we’ll do through out this essay. Starting… then…

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Last night I watched TERMINATOR GENISYS. IMAX 3D, of course. If the advance word I had on this entry into the venerable series held any truth, I would need the 3D. The theater was empty, for the most part. I blame that less on critics panning the film than the actual advertising campaign. Here’s where we add TERMINATOR GENISYS to a select group of films that aren’t actually bad, but suffered from a marketing faux pax, ala JOHN CARTER, and are now prejudged to be awful in advance. The advertising for TERMINATOR GENISYS has been off the mark since day one. Couple that with revealing the “twist” of the story three months prior to its release, and you have a recipe for disaster. Now, I can picture the pitch to the studio, “In this one, John Connor is the Terminator!” And the studio heads approved the film. It looks good on paper, right? When initial reactions to the first trailers were met with fanboy hate, an unwise marketing rep decided to make an executive order to cut the infamous twist-reveal trailer. If it worked with the studio, it will work with John Q. Public, right? Wrong. When people watched that trailer, they shook their heads, proclaimed, “John Connor is a Terminator?” And checked out. Why bother watching it, we found out all we needed to know in the trailer. And that’s a shame. TERMINATOR GENISYS isn’t exactly a horrible film, it’s certainly flawed without a doubt, but it doesn’t deserve the vehement hate it has received. At least that’s how I felt after watching it and during my ride home. Time to go… there…

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I got home and started making notes for this review. What I liked, what I didn’t like. Something didn’t sit right with me. So I watched THE TERMINATOR again. This wasn’t good for TERMINATOR GENISYS. I found myself very unhappy with TERMINATOR GENISYS for the same reasons I dislike 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. Someone, and I’m not sure if it was director Alan Taylor or writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, forgot what made both THE TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, work. The blame does not lie with Arnold, oh no.  He plays the Terminator like a pro. He’s the most refreshing thing of the film, and he’s oldest part of the franchise! The in jokes surrounding this are abundant. Part of the blame lies in the casting of Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese. Courtney is a solid actor, but he’s not the right actor for this part. Kyle Reese, as given life by Michael Biehn, is an embodiment of The Man With No Name, he’s gritty and flawed, a man of few words. Jai Courtney transforms Reese into a wise cracking motor mouth and he’s not very likable. His presence on screen often took me out of the film, wishing for Biehn. By contrast, Emelia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is done very well, but it’s almost over the top, she’s less morose than Linda Hamilton, and acts somewhat like a spoiled teenager. Yet it’s not either of those that bring the film down. It’s the dick whipping Terminator count and time traveling run amok.

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More Terminators doesn’t mean better, and this is where they forget what made both T1 and T2 work: the Terminator films are horror films, simply put. The Terminator is a scary, unstoppable force. It is supposed to frighten you. Yet in TERMINATOR GENISYS, they’re plentiful and get knocked off left and right. It’s like a porn convention of Terminators. Everyone is a Terminator. Even John Connor. And that is the ultimate problem with TERMINATOR GENISYS. Starting with TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, John Connor became the series protagonist. He was the hero we bonded with. Making him into a Terminator caused a disassociation with the audience, predicating the film’s imminent failure. Yeah, it looked good on paper, but it didn’t play out that way on screen. It also doesn’t help that Jason Clarke has played the least likeable John Connor since the franchise launched.

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Just as more Terminators are bad for business, so is more time traveling. It’s a cop out plot MacGuffin when you answer your problems with a hop on the time travel machine. But more so, the time traveling issues are an ironic representation of the movie’s inherent pacing problems. There’s no sense of urgency in the narrative, no suspense. We aren’t given an opportunity to build any, and that’s due in part to the plot line. There’s so much going on, we can’t waste a moment for any development. This is evident from the opening credits, as we get story from the opening frame. Which leads us to… now.

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TERMINATOR GENISYS has come out, people are hating on it. There’s no doubt that the TERMINATOR franchise has hit some bumps in the road, and TERMINATOR GENISYS is one more but as a film on its own, it really isn’t that bad. It’s certainly better than TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES, which can be machete cut out of your viewings of the saga. TERMINATOR SALVATION is solid stand alone film, albeit misguided in its McG-ness, and I would say TERMINATOR GENISYS is a notch better. But when comparing modern films to classic cinema such as THE TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, the bar is already set so high, it is nearly impossible for the newer film to achieve any positive notoriety. Plus, keep in mind that THE TERMINATOR ascended its B-Movie status to become much more than it was intended to be. So give TERMINATOR GENISYS a chance. You might enjoy it for what it is, a B-movie homage. I did.

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