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The Kooky Pleasures of Terminator Genisys

July 19, 2015

Time travel is really hard to write about.

– Craig Pelton, Dean of Greendale Community College

Part of the fun with these types of movies is soaking up all the hand waving and non-explanations written in to smooth over the continuity gaps. In alternate timelines we trust. Terminator Genisys serves up a heaping plate of “it doesn’t matter how the past was changed, but now that it is, here’s what we need to do.” Why bother explaining any more than you have to? While that may not sound promising, it isn’t so much a criticism either. What the story lacks in scientific rigor (faint damnation for a movie), it attempts to make up for in Back to the Future-style time-hopping hi-jinks.

We all know the story. War rages between humanity and Skynet. Skynet sends a robot assassin disguised as Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to prevent the birth of humanity’s savior. A protector is also sent back in time, and it’s up to him to stop the assassin. Terminator Genisys shows us the future war, then rehashes the plot of The Terminator and then jumps to 2017. The main kernel of the story is unchanged, only this version has opened the floodgates on time travel. In The Terminator, time travel was Shakespearean tragedy. Now, it’s convenient.

Genisys effectively terminates the original story, making the 1984 film seem like a relic from a long-forgottten alternate universe. Genisys lifts dialogue and a number of story beats wholesale from The Terminator. Actually, dialogue is repurposed from several, if not all, of the prior films, lending a Groundhog Day-level of callbacks to the mix. Out are the thrills of the first two films; in are lighter misadventures. But Kyle Reese is no Marty McFly.

Genisys dispenses entirely with the intensity of the original film, attempting to fill the void with comedy. The first two sequels to The Terminator shifted incrementally in this direction, adding humor with varying degrees of effectiveness. Terminator Salvation over-corrected in the other direction, dialing the intensity back up, but also losing it’s playfulness. Genisys flips the Salvation formula, giving us the lightest Terminator yet. It’s levity arguably makes Genisys the most entertaining of the post-Terminator 2 sequels, though it’s also the least emotionally satisfying.

Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers), Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys)

Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers), Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys)

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the new-look Kyle Reese. Reese’s scrappy determination has been replaced by the quippery of a Marvel superhero. The musclebound Jai Courtney even looks like a terminator compared to the previous incarnations of Reese. He’s an interesting performer but this doesn’t seem like the right fit. The incongruity smacks of the controversial choice Paul Verhoeven made in casting the rather Aryan-looking Casper van Dien in what was originally a Filipino role in Starship Troopers (1997). Courtney is more van Dien than Michael Biehn. The rough edges have been sanded off the character leaving a glossy blandness. Starship Troopers is a great satire and has more than a cult following almost twenty years later, so glossy blandness isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Another comparison I couldn’t help but draw for Courtney is Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim (a film I LOVE).

Schwarzenegger was great, more or less reprising his role as an aged early-model terminator. One thing that worked in this movie was Schwarzenegger’s parental relationship with Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor. After the first two films, it’s easy to forget that her character was only nineteen in 1984, and that she could be funny. Clarke acquits herself as the burdened teenager with a smart mouth, secretly aching for a normal life. It’s all there in her performance, simmering beneath her warrior veneer. Jason Clarke is John Connor, resistance leader. He has strong action chops, and his character takes a few dramatic turns. Alan Taylor’s direction felt like a mixed bag, but there were definitely good decisions made, particularly with the recreated eighties scenes. A James Cameron simulacrum. With the exception of some of the helicopter stunts, the action crackles.

Byung-hun Lee’s T-1000 is one of the highlights from Genisys. His athleticism was put to great use, and he was every bit as fearsome as Robert Patrick’s shape-shifting assassin from Terminator 2. The heroes of Genisys face an array of Skynet’s terminators, and that variety is one of the film’s assets. Parallel to the increasing number of terminators, Cyberdyne gives way to Genisys which is set to morph into Skynet. The constantly changing face of the enemy felt very appropriate in this movie, one in which the circumstances never seem to be quite what the heroes expect.

The brain trust was clearly determined to give Terminator the sequel/prequel/reboot face lift that Star Trek (2009) and X-Men: First Class (2011) applied to their respective franchises. The key ingredients are the new cast, the screenplay heavy on call-backs, and a gleeful irreverence to the source material. It’s the reboot model at work, and it works reasonably well in Genisys. The story feels open to infinite possibilities now, provided your willingness to weather the increasingly convoluted plotting. The writers may have sacrificed the tone of the original, but in doing so, they potentially have the foundation of a new franchise with broad appeal. Genisys does feel like a moral victory (if not an outright one at the box office), especially in the wake of the dour Terminator 3 and Salvation. If the foreign box office comes through, we may be in for more of these mashup-based sequels, jumping from nexus point to nexus point; constantly in a state of getting the band back together (the standard bearer in that category is currently the Fast & Furious series).

Because The Terminator was such a singularly great achievement, I cannot say that this “greatest hits”  approach to sequel-making is one I would have chosen for Terminator Genisys. That said, Genisys was entertaining and grafted the core story onto a sustainable blockbuster model. It feels less artful, but hey, not every film can be The Terminator. James Cameron himself has given Genisys his blessing and if more movies get made, it seems that he will be interested in helping to pen the scripts. With Cameron and Schwarzenegger on board, it would be difficult to bet against more Terminator films getting made. Not that I would want to anyway.

(MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT)

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