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Monday, July 6, 2015

Recent Watches: Terminator Genisys (2015)

There was a time when the announcement of a new Terminator movie would have caused plenty of excitement among sci-fi and action nerds. However, the series has been badly abused over the last decade. “Terminator 3” was divisive. “Salvation” was bad. “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” developed a cult following but did little to raise the series’ cultural value. With “Salvation’s” failure, the franchise’s rights were purchased by another production company, who promised a new film, leading into its own trilogy. What this sequel would have that the last one didn’t was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even I, a faithful Arnold fan, was not anticipating seeing the 67 year old star playing the killer android again. The fifth entry in the series, “Terminator Genisys,” was dampened by a goofy subtitle and, upon release last week, faced negative reviews and mediocre box office. Maybe this left me with low expectations because I enjoyed the flick.

In the final days of the Machine Wars, John Connor leads the human army against Skynet’s last stand. Connor, aware of the Terminator’s impending arrival in 1984, successfully takes the Machine’s base, where the time machine is. However, he arrives too late, the T-800 already on his way. Resistance solider Kyle Reese follows the machine back in time. However, when he arrives, things are different then John described. Sarah Connor, raised by a friendly Terminator who rescued her as a child, has been ready for the machines’ arrivals. The timeline has been altered. Sarah, her protector, and Reese have to prevent Skynet’s ascension to power in this universe, while dealing with a new Terminator with a familiar face.

There’s no positive way around this: “Genisys” makes mince meat of the series’ established mythology. The film’s first act is set in 1984, with a prepared Sarah Connor, an old Arnold, and a sudden appearance by a liquid metal Terminator. This change wipes out all previous four films, especially the much reviled third and fourth entries. Using a time machine they built in the sewers, Sarah Connor and Reese then travel forward into the future, to 2017, the new arrival date of Skynet in this altered time line. (Skynet is presented as an operating system called “Genisys,” lending the film its awkward subtitle.) This second time-leap is another side-effect of the movie’s convoluted plot line. Here, the trio encounters a new threat, a plot twist spoiled by the trailers. Skynet’s newest weapon is a nanobot virus that can infect living tissue, transforming it into mechanics. Yep, it’s John Connor himself, transformed into the deadliest Terminator yet. The film throws about a hundred new plot points up in the air, only resolving a few of them. The result is a movie that’s rift with ideas, good ones and bad ones, but isn’t always easy to follow.

That’s a problem but not one that affected my enjoyment of “Terminator Genisys” too much. Having a senior citizen Schwarzenegger play an unaging robot is silly. The solution to this problem is an awkward one. See, the organic flesh that covers a Terminator ages like regular flesh. This T-800 has already been around twenty years at the story’s beginning, and ages twenty more before too long. Playing an elderly version of his trademark character feeds into Arnold’s obvious desire to explore his old age on-screen. This Terminator, referred to by Sarah as Pops and by the credits as Guardian, constantly reminds us that he’s “old, not obsolete.” The machine suffers injuries and has a case of robotic arthritis. Because he’s been around so long, the robot has made further in-roads with his developing humanity. He attempts to smile and act normal, a funny gag the movie returns repeatedly. He even tells us that he held down a job and surfs the internet. All the while, Arnold maintains the cyborg’s dead-pan delivery. The film literally has modern day Schwarzenegger fighting with his younger, more toned self. “Genisys” shows that Arnold continues to be willing to play with his status as an aging action icon. His humor and persona are the most consistently entertaining things about the film.

Schwarzenegger is the only familiar face in “Genisys.” The film’s time-leaping plot line requires lots of new actors cast as established characters. Emilia Clarke plays our new Sarah Connor. Having never seen “Game of Thrones,” I have no familiarity with Clarke. However, she’s ideally cast as the character. Aside from her slight resemblance to Linda Hamilton, she successfully combines both approaches to the character. This Sarah maintains the girlishness and humor of the original’s final girl. However, she’s more then capable of being tough, if less psychotic then the first sequel’s Sarah. The father/daughter relationship she builds with the elderly Terminator is surprisingly touching and feeds into the series’ reoccurring fascination with parenthood. Clarke’s lovely to look at too.

Not all the casting is so inspired. Jai Courtney plays Kyle Reese. He’s no Michael Biehn. Courtney is the latest actor in the Sam Worthington mold: Short-haired, buff, Australian, and completely bland. The film begins with a voice-over from Courtney which is an especially bad idea, considering his voice is like auditory Quaaludes. Courtney is a non-presence and has no romantic chemistry with Clarke. The rest of the supporting cast is better. Casting Jason Clarke as a villain was a smart idea, since there’s always been something off-putting about his face. The same could be said of Matt Smith’s Neanderthal-like features, though the movie gives the former Doctor Who way less to do. J.K. Simmons is amusing, if underused, as a conspiracy theorist police officer on the Terminators' trails. Byung-Hun Lee nicely apes Robert Patrick as the newest variation on the T-1000.

At times, “Genisys” does feel like “Terminator: The Greatest Hits.” All the catch-phrases are present and accounted for. The appearance of the liquid metal Terminator doesn’t add much. The way that mechanical assassin is dispatched is likely to raise fan debate. As is the revisions made to Skynet’s origin. At times, it feels like the movie is messing with the well known lore simply for the sake of it. The way Pops survives his seemingly final fate is the movie’s biggest ass-pull.

However, the nano-bot Terminator is a genuinely cool effect and a clever variation on the killer robot formula. The creature’s status is cleverly illustrated, such as a trail of machines being left in a giant magnet’s wake. The skinned machine’s visage, which looks like mechanical muscles, is a nice touch as well. The action in the film is heavily CGI'd and frequently gets ridiculous. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. A chase scene on the Golden Gate bridge features a flipping bus, Arnold slamming face-first into a windshield, and the characters dangling from the bridge. A hospital shoot-out features plenty of slamming and wrasslin’. The helicopter chase begins at a badly ridiculous place before escalating to a nicely ridiculous place. The climatic Terminator brawl makes good use of a laser. The finale also answers a question fans of the series may have asked from time to time: What happens when something non-organic tries to travel through time? As an action movie, there’s nothing especially memorable about “Terminator Genisys” but it more then has its moments.

Despite an ending that neutralizes the series’ threat in a fairly final way, “Terminator Genisys” features more then enough dangling questions to build upon in further sequels. Whether or not those sequels will get made remains a question mark. The U.S. box office take for the film have been subpar so far but there’s plenty of time for global receipts to save it. Goofy, convoluted, but packed with action, humor, and some solid performances and effects, I had fun with “Genisys.” It may be the most enjoyable “Terminator” film since the second one. [7/10]

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