Deep Focus: Terminator Genisys
The producers of Alan Taylor’s ambitious, interminable Terminator Genisys have circulated James Cameron’s praise for the movie as an official seal of approval. In a promotional featurette, Cameron says that this dogged entry—the fifth in a mammoth dystopian series—is the only sequel that measures up to the first two movies in the franchise, the ones he co-wrote and directed. They should be glad Cameron made that statement on camera. Back in 2003, Cameron said he could describe Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, “in one word: great,” but apparently now he considers it … not so great. He’s been more consistent about Terminator Salvation (#4): back in 2009, the best he could call it was “interesting.” I don’t mean to denigrate Cameron either for fickleness or ungraciousness. I think his responses simply reflect how difficult it is for a director—even one as canny and accomplished as Cameron—to understand the appeal of his own work.
Cameron says if you like Terminator movies, you’ll love Terminator Genisys, and in the same promotional interview he goes on to link his movies’ popularity to their characters. He means Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 model robot, a relentless killer from the future in The Terminator that gets reprogrammed as a noble automaton starting with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And he means Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, the frightened, vulnerable waitress turned fearless survivalist and warrior. She’s also the mother of John Connor, who will lead mankind’s do-or-die battle against Skynet, the thinking super-machine, designed as an American defense system, that through most of the Terminator canon triggers a nuclear war in 1997 (“Judgment Day”) and aims to wipe out every man, woman, and child in the 21st century.
Schwarzenegger returns in Terminator Genisys for the first time since T3, and Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) plays a suitably buff new version of Sarah Connor. But are the T-800 and Sarah, as characters, really the reasons why audiences flocked to The Terminator (84) or Terminator 2: Judgment Day (91), or why zealots may reassemble for Terminator Genisys? The T-800 and Sarah are iconic, all right, but only their positions in Cameron’s scary, suggestive mythology have brought them movie immortality. Schwarzenegger has always had just enough personality and vitality as an actor to glitter as a robot. As the Terminator, he's both a mechanical assassin in mission mode and a performer who knows himself and his audience so well that he can suggest a self-aware wit without succumbing to self-parody. In Terminator Genisys he’s so mellow that his character is billed as “Guardian” and nicknamed Pops. He’s like an action-hero parody of a mundane helicopter parent, ordering Sarah to “fasten her seatbelt.” His imitation smile is more unsettling than ever, and there’s a whiff of melancholy to his new catch phrase, “I’m old, not obsolete.” Still, when you add it all up, what he offers isn’t enough to anchor a two-hour movie that brings humanity to the brink of destruction.
As for Sarah Connor: Hamilton’s hard-body transformation electrified audiences in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Her emergence as an obsessive fighter, and Cameron’s breakthroughs in CGI, were (I think) the two keys to its popularity. Cameron had already used up most of his ideas in The Terminator. In Terminator Genisys, Emilia Clarke is as physical as Hamilton. But in this film’s re-conception of the character, Sarah has trained to be a savior’s mother ever since Pops saved her life when she was 9. She’s spunky, resilient, and remarkably well adjusted. Clarke gives a game performance, but she never gains traction as a distinctive individual. And given the stakes, it’s difficult to summon sympathy for her character when she whines that all her choices have been predestined.
As in The Terminator, the other major character, resistance soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn in the original, Jai Courtney in the new film), goes back in time, from 2029 to 1984, to prevent her from being killed before she can give birth to John. The opening crawl and the introductory action, set in 2029, lay out the story. John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his troops deliver a knockout blow to their mechanical enemy only to discover that Skynet has deployed its fail-safe strategy—using a time machine to transport a T-800 to Reagan-era Los Angeles. Reese volunteers to travel in the same time machine to protect Sarah from the Terminator.
This film’s faithful re-creations of the original movie’s time travel—the T-800 lands in Griffith Park and Reese in a downtown L.A. alley—will tickle legions of T-heads. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier work variations on these classic scenes that will briefly enthrall fans. The screenplay boldly alters the series’ character arcs and timeline. We learn that “nexus points”—history-changing cataclysms—generate alternate chronologies. One such point occurs when Reese sees a hazy figure assaulting John and perhaps killing him precisely when Reese begins to leap through time. So the events Reese and the audience expect to happen in 1984 change by the time he gets there: though it was introduced in Terminator 2, the liquid-metal, shape-changing T-1000, for example, attacks Reese immediately. When Reese meets Sarah, she’s not a worried waitress but a take-charge gal, thoroughly aware of Skynet, Judgment Day, and her Messiah-like son-to-be. She even knows, as Reese does not, that he is meant to be John Connor’s father. And in the film’s most pungent fanboy moment, the murderous T-800 comes face to face with another T-800: Sarah’s Guardian.
Unfortunately, as the action develops, it becomes as pleasurable as manipulating a Rubik’s Cube with no hands, just your mind. The explanations of nexus points and quantum physics are thuddingly abstract, and, what’s worse, they fail to draw viewers into the physically extravagant but conceptually routine chases, crashes, and showdowns. It’s always fun to see a T-1000 turn humanoid arms into blades and prongs. All these movies, though, over-depend on the kick of seeing lifelike robots tear each other to metallic ribbons and sew themselves right back up. After the thrill is gone, what remains is mere sanitized carnage.
The director, Alan Taylor, who showed a flair for character and atmosphere in his early indie Palookaville (95), and directed splendid episodes of The Sopranos and The West Wing, developed a reputation for grandeur and a rapport with Emilia Clarke as one of the directors on Game of Thrones. But he displayed few gifts for pop epics or myth building in his first big-screen extravaganza, Thor: The Dark World (13), and his work on Terminator Genisys is more heavy-spirited and even less entertaining. The PG-13 rating stymies him from exploiting his stars’ erotic appeal; he resorts to amateurish shadow play and clunky waist-up framing. Not even J.K. Simmons, a comic spark plug as J.J. Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, provides a shot in the arm as a San Francisco police inspector. When Reese and Sarah hurtle ahead to the Bay Area in 2017, this cop recognizes them from his days as an L.A. patrolman. The script hands him one good comeback: Sarah says, “We’re here to stop the end of the world,” and he replies, “I can work with that.” Sarah’s Guardian, of course, is ready to help. He has aged as naturally as only a T-800 can, and he has prepared an arsenal and a hideout.
Reese’s new visions of his “past” and Sarah’s “future” tie Skynet’s emergence to the launch of an app called Genisys by Skynet’s manufacturer, Cyberdyne Systems, based on a glittering campus south of the city. The filmmakers weave humanity’s downfall into consumers’ desire to link every gadget they own to one all-consuming cloud. It’s a move that should bring the apocalypse into “now” and fire up the audience. But there’s too little breathing room for any semblance of real life to take root in this movie. The L.A. scenes revolve around one more fight to the finish with a T-1000, while the S.F. scenes pivot on the series’ trademark breakouts (from a hospital, again, and a prison) and another death race to the finish. In a huge “Spoiler Alert” move that’s actually revealed in the trailer, John Connor appears to spring his father and mother from a tight spot in 2017. But her Guardian senses that Skynet has transformed John into the ultimate Terminator, a destructive triumph of nano-technology. When he argues that he’s an advanced form of life, not something evil but something “more,” even casual sci-fi fans will think, didn’t we just hear that dialogue in The Avengers: Age of Ultron?
Whether this twist means anything at all depends on how much allegiance you already have to the series. Jason Clarke helped imbue Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with nuance and depth, but his best moment here is strictly a special effect: the marvelous image of a magnetic field tearing nano-particles off his new body. After the Apes movie and this one, you wonder whether some lodestone keeps pulling this Australian actor toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
None of the characters can flourish within a script that’s organized like a cerebral crazy quilt. The verbal and visual clues contained in Reese’s visions do patch the holes in the story, but they’re not magical or poetic enough to resonate or to produce a catharsis.
In the press kit, producer David Ellison says that “Terminator 2 reinvented the modern day tent pole.” He’s right, but not in the way he intended. In T2, the sight of T-1000 liquefying and repairing itself like a living sculpture wowed both fans and other filmmakers. But what Cameron started was the process of reducing everything that was suggestive and enticing in the first film to literal dead weight in its follow-ups. What conventional wisdom might call “the Matrix syndrome” really began with T2. The first Terminator film remains the peak of the franchise and the height of Cameron’s career: it’s the kind of beautifully worked-out B movie that is all the more powerful and expressive because it’s elliptical and terse. It was rooted, Cameron said, in a nightmare about a metallic torso tugging itself away from an explosion. By the time he’d finished fleshing it out—including putting organic tissue on the Terminator’s metallic endoskeleton—each piece of action added to a master plan. In his own comic-book fashion, Cameron expressed a genuine, organic point of view reflecting America’s love-hate for technology as an endless source of stimulation and amusement as well as a threat to whatever makes us human. (A bar in it is called Tech Noir.)
The movie’s meaning and power are still greater than the sum of its spare parts, which include motifs from the collected works of George Miller and Walter Hill. The clueless psychiatric trauma specialist who becomes a figure of fun in three Terminator films calls the proposed assassination “a retroactive abortion.” It’s inspired wording for a movie that wrings visceral thrills and black comedy from postapocalyptic notions of the sanctity of life. In my favorite touch, Cameron gives canines the ability to sniff out terminator “infiltrators” in human ranks. Cameron doesn’t over-explain Skynet, and his film resists easy interpretation: when Arnold takes a scalpel to his wounded eyeball, it’s pure pop Buñuel. When he runs over a toy truck, you realize that his world has gone beyond dog-eat-dog and into machine-eat-machine.
Considering all the sequels, I thought director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571), and a cast headed by Claire Danes, packed the most entertainment value into Terminator 3. It features Kristanna Loken’s sleek T-X model Terminator materializing in a Rodeo Drive shop window and seeking clues on how to be seductive from a Victoria’s Secret ad. Loken doesn't overdo the sadistic witch stuff; her sneaky smile makes her seem just homicidally mischievous. When T-X molds a finger into a long, thin break-in tool, it resembles the creepy metallic fingernails of a villainess in a Fu Manchu adventure. And Schwarzenegger’s naked entrance into a saloon's Ladies' Night, where his T-850 rips the leather off a male stripper and learns the phrase “Talk to the hand,” still feels both campy and up-to-date, especially in the era of Magic Mike. But not even Mostow’s witty, elegant staging could re-energize the franchise at its core.
When he talks about Terminator Genisys, Cameron slights Mostow’s work. He contends that Taylor and company have “reinvigorated” Terminator movies and catalyzed “a Renaissance.” Actually, Terminator Genisys fails to provide what this series has needed for a full quarter-century: the soul of a new machine.