Saturday, 25 July 2015

Terminator: Genisys (2015) - Movie Review

Back in the tail-end of May of this year, I looked at the latest instalment of the sand-encrusted cult series Mad Max with Fury Road, a surprisingly amazing offering. Then, a little while ago, we had Jurassic World, a mildly entertaining but ultimately pointless addition to the already flagging franchise. Today, we conclude this look into how Hollywood today deals with reviving older sci-fi series with a reboot of the Terminator series. Terminator undoubtedly has the strongest footing of the three series for a follow-up, regardless of how my opinion of Mad Max differs from the norm: The first film is a seminal classic of neo-noir and sci-fi in general, and Judgment Day is the epitome of the ‘perfect sequel’, along with being one of the greatest films in any genre without question. Then came Rise Of The Machines which, through a baffling mixture of self-parody, re-hashing of the second film and just plain disrespect for the series mythos as a whole, heavily contrasted what came before it by being one of the worst sequels ever, not to mention a pretty atrocious film in its own right. Salvation had its fair share of issues, but it was nevertheless a fun watch. Yeah, lots of baggage behind this one even without getting into its core theme of bending the space-time continuum over every table. So, how does this work as a means to reboot the series?

The plot: John Connor (Jason Clarke), the leader of the resistance against the machines in 2029, discovers that a T-800 Terminator has been sent back in time to kill his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) before he is even born, ending the resistance movement. His right-hand soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to go back to protect Sarah, but what awaits him in 1984 is far from what he expected: Sarah is a battle-hardened soldier, a liquid metal Terminator (Lee Byung-hun) chasing her down, a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) serving as her protector and even John himself is in the past, although he may not be all that he seems. It seems that whatever timeline John was taught by her mother, and he taught Kyle in turn, to prepare for has been drastically altered and Judgment Day is coming.

Rather than tackle the mass of continuity that is the Terminator series right out of the gate, let’s talk about the technical side of things first. Given how a large number of characters here are ones that fans of the series are familiar with, and hell some of them have transcended the films into pop culture legend, their casting for this reboot is crucial... and it’s mostly good. Jason Clarke does a great job as the human resistance leader as well as the intimidating Terminator that he becomes (such information is in the trailer, so no spoiler tag), which honestly makes him the best pick for the character yet in the entire franchise; as much as I love T2, Edward Furlong could get a little too whiny in places. Arnie comes back in prime form as Pops (or Guardian, as he is officially credited), showing a character that is similar to the iconic T-800 we’ve seen in Judgment and Rise, and yet has enough to him to make him stand out, making for the most human portrayal of the role he’s given yet; it also makes for the most jocular portrayal too, fitting in with the very in-joke tone of the film overall.

Byung-hun may not have the same menace as Robert Patrick, but he fits the T-1000’s shoes nicely enough. We also have Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame as Skynet itself, and while his obviously unnatural American accent is off-putting, he carries a certain presence that works with his role of a tyrannical computer program; then again, that might be because he has had some experience with portraying evil robotics as part of Doctor Who. However, one look at Emilia Clarke and I immediately tilt my head; I know that the character is only meant to be about 19 or so, but Emilia looks too young even for that age as Sarah and the fact that the writers were clearly going for a T2 iteration of the character makes things even more awkward. Oh, and our own sentient red flag Jai Courtney is here too, but really, the only notable thing about his casting here is the fact that it happened at all, given the rest of his filmography of late.

With the first two films showing rather spectacular practical effects, and the next two sticking to run-of-the-mill CGI for their respective times, I’m genuinely surprised at how good the visuals are here. Audiences who remember the unintentionally disturbing look of CG-Arnold from Salvation should also be surprised as, when the film does its own take on the scene from the original where the Terminator gets his clothes from a gang of punks, the Terminator looks really good. It may be in that "this guy is obviously a robot with a human-ish face" kind of way, but he is a damn nice looking robot with a human-ish face. Shame that they went with CGI for when he’s fighting Pops, but what we get is very welcome regardless. The T-1000, and by extension the T-3000 John Connor, looks really good and works as a logical cinematic progression for the liquid metal look as rendered in CGI. It may overuse the effect of making the Terminator immediately facing what’s behind him, which admittedly made my jaw drop when I watched it in T2 for the first time, but overall not only is it visually appealing but the filmmakers made good use of it, whether it was the scene with the MRI machine or the fight scene with Pops.

Now for the amorphous blob that is the writing for the film, and here is where the bigger problems of the film show themselves. Since this is a reboot of a series that made its name on re-writing history, I was expecting the characters to be re-worked a bit to give some originality to what is apparently going to be the first in a trilogy of new films. What I was not expecting was character… well, assassination is a bit overblown, but mugging at the very very least. Sarah, as per T2 since that is the obvious inspiration for this iteration, was a tad psychotic but overall a strong-willed character that was shaped by the world-shattered events that were inflicted on her, not to mention the pressure on her shoulders to essentially play Mother Mary for the savior of the human race. There are bits of acknowledgement of the more uncomfortable ideas behind her character, like her needing to have sex with Kyle to ensure the future regardless of how she feels or how everyone attached to her is in potential danger, but otherwise the attempt to bring her into her best incarnation prematurely backfires.

What makes this even weirder is the fact that it is probably an unforeseen side effect of trying to correct a possible sticking point from the original: That it was Kyle Reese that essentially made her the 'strong independent woman' we see her as in the sequel. Well, by dodging that potentially anti-feminist bit of character development, they end up doing the exact same thing only with Pops filling in that role with her and somehow making it worse on that front. At least Kyle was only in her life for a very finite amount of time, whereas Pops has been influencing her behaviour for years by the time we meet up with her. Not to say that I have any horses in the race for making strong independent women (at least as Hollywood views them) in this case but when it’s clearly an attempt to correct something and ends up just doing the same but worse, call a spade a spade I reckon. As a result of Sarah being as assertive as she is here, Kyle is gypped and barely does anything for the plot as opposed to Sarah or even Pops, who admittedly has some nice development concerning his relationship with Sarah. He mostly serves as the audience insert point, being just as initially confused by the altered timeline as the rest of us as we learn more about it. Well, as much as the film is willing to tell us at least.

Yeah, the plot is a bit of a mess here, and it really stems from a hallmark problem that comes out of anticipating a series to be made from a film: Not being a complete story. The original Terminator film was a complete story, done and dusted; the sequel built on the original and had a conclusion that, in my own personal canon, is where everything should have stopped. Hell, as much as the ending for Rise Of The Machines took a gigantic crap on the core message of the first two, it had a conclusion that made it feel like a complete film. Here, we essentially get a third of the whole story, as some rather substantial elements of the plot aren’t divulged in favour of waiting for the follow-ups to explain everything in good time. Basically, it’s the same main issue I had with 2012’s Prometheus and considering there’s no word yet on if we’re even going to get a follow-up to that one, that’s not a good thing to emulate. Given how this is the second attempt that has been made to create a new Terminator trilogy, and that the first attempt with Salvation ended up incomplete due to producer The Halcyon Company going bankrupt, you’d think that director Alan Taylor would be more careful. 

Instead, we get the first plot in the franchise that I would genuinely call convoluted, as the aforementioned bending over the table devolves into repeated smashing of the continuum’s head into said table, and a backstory for Skynet that I had to look online for to actually get a grasp on. Don’t get me wrong, the direction they seem to be going with for Skynet is promising, going for a multiversal observer this time around apparently, but the way it’s portrayed in-film is very underwritten even as just a teaser for bigger developments later on.

All in all, this is very much like Salvation in that it is a fun ride but also extremely disjointed. The acting is good, even if the casting is suspect in places, the action beats are fun, Arnie still hits his one-liners just as well as he did in his hey-day, and the plot we’re given shows some potential. However, said plot only gives us part of a complete story, the time travel shenanigans contained within can get confusing, and even though this is a reboot of the entire series, I strongly advise checking/re-checking the previous films if you haven’t already so as not to get more lost as it is still waist-deep in the series’ mythos. And even then, familiarity with the other films might make this feel worse, given the directions some of the characters are taken in. As this stands against the rest of the series, it’s just above Salvation in terms of quality as the characters aren’t quite as dumb as in that one, but doesn’t even touch the first two.

As this stands against the other two films in this impromptu look into 80’s-90’s franchise revamps, it’s squarely in the middle as it has a reason to exist unlike Jurassic World but isn’t as well put-together as Fury Road. I’m definitely curious about where they go with this in Terminator: .exe-DOS or whatever techno-weird name they give the next one, although if this is what they have to tantalise us with, I’m not even sure if a follow-up will be worth it even if it is just for closure.

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