I had the free time this New Year’s Day to commit to sitting down and watching Terminator Genisys since I referred to it in my piece on the original Terminator and the new Star Wars Movies.  The point I was trying to make was that any and all attempts to continue old franchises are destined to come across as nothing but cover-band facsimiles.  However, I’m going to avoid taking the predictable path and actually give Terminator Genisys a mild thumbs up.

While it’s true that Genisys has a cover-band effect, I believe that the time-travel aspect of the Terminator franchise makes retreading more permissable.   This is the same reason replaying scenes from the original Back to the Future worked in Back to the Future Part 2, even though the time-interval between 1 and 2 was nowhere near as long as Terminator 1 and Genisys.

It’s important to remember that The Terminator was never originally conceived as an open-ended sequel-happy franchise.  On its surface, the ending contains no loose ends.  Despite the fact James Cameron came back for the sequel, he set the wheels in motion for creating the rube-goldberg plot devices that would eventually spiral so far out of control.  Once you can start going back in time then it’s possible to insert any sort of extra time-travel incident in the middle in order to further complicate things.  It therefore becomes an almost philosophical exercise to decide when to end the madness.

Perhaps the sense of infinite possibilities and paradoxes of time-travel is the ultimate point of The Terminator rather than the pursuit of any singular ending, happy or sad.

The universe of The Terminator seems to be an endless pretzel of alternate realities that keep folding back onto itself.  While that may not have been the original intent, that is how it is now.

Much hubbub was made over attempts to make Arnold look suitably young in Terminator 3.  It worked, but barely.

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Arnold trying to look younger worked better than Nick Stahl trying to be John Connor

After Arnold finally started to look his age, I thought his Terminator days were over, so when I first heard about Genisys, I was shaking my head.  I also was not that impressed with the cliche’-ridden trailer that seemed to want to spoil every repetition of a Terminator trope to the point where it looked like nothing but fanwank.

I’m happy to say that the film has more going for it besides what’s in the trailer.  Is it a great movie?  No.  But it left me feeling mildly entertained.  But why?  Why does it cross over from a thumbs down to a thumbs up?

Jai Courtney doesn’t really measure up as Kyle Reese and nobody’s ever been able to inhabit the ideal of John Connor, not even Christian Bale.  Jason Clarke is not even close to Christian Bale.  But the bad casting decisions were compensated by Emilia Clarke.

I don’t watch Game of Thrones but I know Emilia Clarke is seen as a breakout star.  Now I know why.  I felt that her acting was smooth and natural throughout.  As someone who used to be a huge fan of Linda Hamilton, I actually had no problem whatsoever warming up to Clarke as Sarah Connor.  The same can not be said of the pouty Lena Headey in Sarah Connor Chronicles.

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Should I be carrying a gun or walking the runway?

Sarah Connor was never meant to look glamorous.  She was supposed to be the everywoman girl-next-door who started out waiting tables.

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The Terminator films work on a pattern of subverting its characters.  In Terminator 2, Hamilton bulks up into a fighter.  In this film, a T2-style protector Arnie is sent further back in time to transform Connor into the badass right from the start, which spares her the fate of becoming the everyday waitress in the first place.

What this does is create a role-reversal while replaying Terminator 1.  My original expectation was that much of T1 would replay as-is.  Instead, the film doesn’t really spend much time at all in 1984, and the original young (CGI) Arnie is dispatched by the “pops” protector rather quickly.  Having now “picked up” an alternate 1980s version of Sarah Connor and a recast version of Kyle Reese, they fast-forward into the near-future of 2017 (which we’ve now entered) using a cobbled-together time-machine that Pops is able to build.

The rest of the film involves trying to stop this alternate bootup of Skynet that seems to invalidate the other Terminator movies as well as try to root itself in the plausibility of ubiquitous internet-of-things computing that we now possess.

Depending on how purist you want to be in taking whatever sequel as the final word, you’re either going to like or hate this attempt to add all new wrinkles to the plot.  Overall, I liked it.  I didn’t love it, but I liked it.

And what of Arnold as an age-appropriate Terminator?

Arnold has played a bad terminator, a good Terminator, and sort of a morally ambiguous Terminator.  There’s really nowhere left for him to go without repeating himself.  In this film, he really is the same basic good Terminator that people loved from Terminator 2, only an older version.  As such, like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, he has begun to incorporate a smidge of human feeling into his programming.  While this is no real innovation, I think it’s the kind of Terminator people want to see most, and that’s what we get.

The trailers made it seem as though the film would just be a bunch of worn catch-phrases.  In the context of the film, however, the catch-phrases play out quite well.  So when Arnold finally utters the inevitable “I’ll be back”, it feels heroic, sort of like Douglas MacArthur’s famous line “I shall return” from World War II.

The film also introduced a new concept: that the Terminator biological skin has the capability to slowly regenerate.  This allows Pops to get his body chewed up twice, once in 1984 and again in 2017.

The entire plot, like Force Awakens and Rogue One, is designed as if by committee to please fans, and yes I railed against this, and yes this resistance to taking risks does lower it a few pegs, but it was simply more effective in making these familiar riffs entertaining than the other two.

For instance, as I said earlier, the relative ease in which old Arnie crushes young (CGI) Arnie was unexpected.  If the film were completely built in committee, then the battle of young vs. old would probably have been the gratuitous centerpiece.  Instead you get just enough of a fight to whet the appetite and then the plot veers off into (relatively) new territory.

Where the film faltered is how to handle John Connor itself.  Connor is transformed into a hybrid nanobot cyborg.  While this did create a sort of oedipal crisis in whether parents should kill their son or vice versa, I didn’t feel that this was exploited very well.

On the flip side, The Terminator films do ask some intriguing questions about fate vs. freewill.  It played around with the idea that Reese is destined to knock up Connor and die.   It inserted some decent humor over the awkwardness of meeting someone knowing ahead of time that you’re supposed to fall in love with them, and then had fun with the fact that Connor and Reese needed to strip down and huddle together naked in the time-portal.  (I actually thought they could have exploited that situation a bit more.)

Had the film not had any humor, I would have given in a thumbs down, but since it’s willing to sort of wink and nudge at itself, almost to the verge of self-parody, I enjoyed it.  It did drag in parts, but overall, it was a feel-good experience.

Perhaps my favorite role-reversal was the insertion of JK Simmons as a (fictional) extra cop who supposedly was there in 1984 during the original Terminator incident.  It would have been great had they used an actual actor from the original Terminator.

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Paul Winfield is dead by Lance Henricksen and Earl Boen aren’t

Nevertheless, JK Simmons is an excellent character-actor and he “sells” the idea he was in the police station.

The larger issue is, if I’m reading the plot correctly, Simmons couldn’t refer to incidents from the first Terminator’s assault on the police station because in the new timeline, the original Arnie is dispatched by Pops before he’s even had a chance to pursue Connor.  Now, this is after only a single viewing of the film.  I’d have to watch it again to see if I’m missing anything, but mentally what I was doing when Simmons introduced himself is replay the 1984 movie, and it was fun to watch a non-believer archetype who was initially hindering the protagonist flip over to a helper, but now it just feels like another plot-hole.

So yes, the film is a mess.  There’s no getting around it, but hypocrisy or not, I still give it a mild thumbs up due to the likeability of Emilia Clarke and Arnold’s victory-lap as a benevolent Terminator.

–othreviewer

 

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