No Money But What We Make
A few weeks ago, writer/director James Cameron said this after catching an early screening of Terminator Genisys, the fourth sequel to his massively influential 1984 film, The Terminator:
“I feel like the franchise has been reinvigorated, like this is a renaissance. You look at why the films became classics. They had characters that you like. In the new film—which, in my mind, I think of as the third film—we see Arnold [Schwarzenegger] take the character even farther…It’s pretty cool because you’ve got to riff against expectations. It’s all about the twist.”
Like the human-hunting cyborg Schwarzenegger made famous, a display of three possible reactions popped into my brain:
- James Cameron has lost his mind.
- James Cameron knows what he's talking about, and everyone is in for a smart, surprising thrill ride.
- Paramount Pictures paid James Cameron ungodly amounts of money to alleviate the stink of their hollow, horribly marketed summer blockbuster.
Sorry if this is surprises anyone, but we can safely rule out option two. Terminator Genisys is as confused, desperate, and pointless as the trailers and posters make it out to be. Director Alan Taylor and writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier buzz by all the franchise signposts but, like Jurassic World, neglect to imbue their chapter with any of the heart, originality, and awe that made this series even possible. It’s an amusement, a distraction, a branded shiny object that is to the art of cinema what Six Flags’ Batman: The Ride is to The Dark Knight.
Sadly, that’s all many audiences expect from summer entertainment nowadays. As long as the latest iteration of this week's comic-book movie, sequel or reboot is unquantifiably “better than the last one”, and as long as it lures some portion of each major theatre-going demographic out to the multiplex opening weekend, we are to adore and reward these effects spectacles--simply for being expensive and packing lots of star power. Look no further than Schwarzenegger’s T-800 character devolving from a ruthless, practically silent killing machine into joke-prone CGI-puppet reference, whom his former target, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), now affectionately refers to as “Pop”.
In this reality, Sarah was raised by a reprogrammed T-800, following her parents’ assassination in the early 70s by an evil, liquid-metal T-1000. He trains her to survive the nuclear apocalypse brought on by a self-aware defense network, as well as attacks from various terminators the computer sends back from the future to finish the job. Meanwhile, in the future (you still there?), Sarah’s son, John (Jason Clarke), sends BFF Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save Sarah from the “original” terminator and mate with Sarah to become his father—because everyone thinks the events from the first film are the definitive version of history. Thanks to all the Terminator series' mucking around with timelines, though, there's no longer a starting point that makes sense.
And I haven’t even touched on the mind-controlling super-terminators, the doomsday app, or the resurrection of Star Trek V and Resident Evil as viable reservoirs for the reboot well. Nor am I going to, since that’s still only a third of the “business” the filmmakers have stuffed into this thing.
Yes, if you thought the last two Terminator movies were poorly thought out exercises in time-flipping fan fiction, Genisys overheats the motherboard to positively nuclear results. Characters leap from era to era to era, using time machines both ultra-sophisticated and homemade, and incorporate memories from alternate-universe versions of themselves into blueprints for attacks in disparate timelines. Got all that? Neither do the writers—but it gives the lead actors lots to talk about while they’re busy not establishing chemistry.
In fairness, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney have been saddled with the thankless job of replicating the tragic, magnetic energy of their roles’ original actors (Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn), while muscling through a lousy screenplay. I could feel Clarke working especially hard to get Hamilton’s iconic glare and orders-barking intimidation down. But instead of being her own self-assured, ass-kicking woman, she seems constantly on the verge of threatening to call her older sister for help.
Courtney is just a non-entity here. He’s too pretty, too clean, and too wide-eyed to buy as a battle-hardened future warrior. The mysterious thug from Jack Reacher has turned out to be just another capable but forgettable movie star, a franchise-killing bad-luck charm who works the same charisma-free, bad-luck magic on this fifth installment as he did in A Good Day to Die Hard.
And poor Arnold Schwarzenegger.* Having spent the last few weeks revisiting all the Terminator films, it pains me to see how far this towering action star has fallen. Scary in part one; charming, funny, and bad-ass in part two; goofy but passable in part three; and all-but absent in part four, the actor shows up as a sleepy version of himself in Genisys. Schwarzenegger gave me some hope for his post-politics career, with surprising turns in Maggie and even Sabotage, but his performance here is as close as I've seen him come to his Simpsons parody-doppelganger, McBain. Because Sarah Connor has, I guess, provided his character the ability to learn and develop a personality over decades, we get a lot of funny-sounding-robot-saying-silly-things jokes—and the obligatory unstoppable-creature-versus-unstoppable-creature violence that this series has, sadly, become famous for.
The most interesting part of the film’s highly touted young-Arnold-fighting-old-Arnold scene is that it took a team of visual effects artists twelve months to construct a mostly convincing five-minute fight scene. They poured over every Schwarzenegger film, interview, and piece of archival footage to nail each expression, movement, and deltoid. An Australian bodybuilder was hired for the fight choreography and then digitally replaced, bit by bit, until the final showdown was as seamless as technologically possible.
And for what?
The fight has no stakes and, aside from that meta tidbit about its creation, is indistinguishable from the dozen other scenes in which people get thrown onto, over, and through things. The first two Terminator films, perhaps limited by their budget and available resources, placed a premium on inventiveness to realize impossible visions: a metal endoskeleton emerging from fire to stalk a helpless heroine; a liquid shape-changer faultily absorbing elements of its environment. Taylor’s film is a wall of digital white noise, unencumbered by limits and thus creatively uninspired.
I won't discuss Genisys's main villain because A) I'm really tired of writing about this movie, and B) I'd like to give you a leg up on the picture that I never had. Early in the Genisys marketing campaign, some genius decided it would be a great idea to put the movie's major plot twist smack-dab in the center of the trailer. A couple weeks later, that twist also became the focal point of the new lobby poster. I don't know if marketing teams think we're so stupid as to need everything spelled out and spoiled for us in order to get our money, or if they think moviegoers will simply forget the relentless advertising once the lights go down.
The only way to enjoy Terminator Genisys is to power down your CPU for a couple hours. What was once an innovative cautionary tale about selling our humanity short in favor of technological convenience has morphed into a weapon against intelligence--endorsed by an off-brand approximation of its creator.
*Figuratively speaking, of course.