Best of 2015: Our Top 10
January 3, 2016
Movie Curiosities: The Disappointments of 2015
January 4, 2016

Doomsday Reels: Terminator Genisys

Doomsday Reels
Terminator Genisys (2015)

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THE TRAILER

THE DIRECTOR
Alan Taylor

THE ACTORS
Jai Courtney (Kyle Reese), Emilia Clarke (Sarah Connor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Pops”), Jason Clarke (John Connor), Matt Smith (Genisys), J.K. Simmons (O’Brien), Byung-hun Lee (T-1000)

THE CAUSE
Sentient Robots

THE STORY
“Before they died, my parents told me stories about how the world once was; what it was like long before I was born; before the war with the machines.  They remembered a green world, vast and beautiful, filled with laughter and hope for the future.  It’s a world I never knew.  By the time I was born, all this was gone.  “Skynet,” a computer program designed to automate missile defense.  It was supposed to protect us, but that’s not what happened.  August 29th, 1997, Skynet woke up.  It decided all of humanity was a threat to its existence.   It used our own bombs against us.  Three billion people died of nuclear fire.  Survivors called it Judgement Day.  People lived like rats in shadows, hiding, starving, or worse, captured and put into camps for extermination.  I was born after Judgement Day, into a broken world ruled by the machines.  The worst were infiltration units that posed as humans.  We called them Terminators.  And then one man found me. His name was John Connor, and he changed everything. John showed us how to fight back; how to rise up. He freed prisoners. He taught us how to slash the machines to scrap. People whisper about John and wonder how he can know the things he does. They use words like prophet. But John’s more. We’re here because tonight, he’s going to lead us to crush Skynet for good.” – Kyle Reese, opening narration.

THE RUNDOWN
It’s a hell of a time to be alive, late-period sequels to old ’80s and ’90s movies are the new hotness.  Mad Max, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Tremors, Evil Dead, Phantasm, even deep cuts like Slime City, Deadly Prey, and Samurai Cop have gotten the revival treatment.  What’s more amazing is that most of these sequels have been the product of the original creators or people who have a similarly reverent drive to put out the best installment that they can; it’s the difference between Mad Max: Fury Road and Tron: Legacy.  It’s one thing to revive a series but to make it worth watching is its own miracle (your enjoyment of Jurassic World will vary a great deal depending on whether you liked the first one as a hard sci-fi thriller or as an especially competent b-movie about dinosaurs eating people.)

Terminator Genisys is a soft reboot of the franchise; quite possibly the softest of its kind because it uses the franchises’ in-canon retcon machine to press the reset button on everything.  We open with Kyle Reese (A Good Day to Die Hard’s Jai Courtney) and John Connor (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Jason Clarke) on the night of Skynet’s downfall, invading the facility where the time machine which is used to send the T-800 back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor is housed.  As is tradition, our heroes are moments too late and Kyle volunteers to go back in time to save John’s mother from certain death.  But as the time machine spins up, a new Terminator (Doctor Who’s Matt Smith) grabs Connor and says “Did you really think it would be this easy?”  As if that’s not enough new information to take in, he has a memory of himself as a child living in an unapocalypsed past repeating to himself in a mirror that “Genisys is Skynet” and a date in 2017 when Skynet comes online.

John pops up in 1984 for a nearly scene-for-scene recreation of the first movie, but the police officer who happens upon him stealing crusty pants in an alleyway turns out to be a T-1000 (played by I Saw the Devil’s Byung-hun Lee, moonlighting as the finest Asian Robert Patrick look-alike I’ve ever seen; I don’t even think he’s meant to be the same T-1000 but the resemblance is uncanny.)  Meanwhile the T-800 arrives as planned and accosts the worst excuses for Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson ever, only to be interrupted by another older-looking T-800 who promptly attacks and kills the younger-looking model.

Back in the department store where Kyle finds his iconic army jacket and bomb-ass velcro sneakers, he’s caught by two human cops.  The T-1000 kills one of the officers but the other, O’Brien releases him from his cuffs after Kyle explains that the T-1000 is a robot assassin from the future.  It is at this point that Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke) drives an armored car through the front window and hits the T-1000, extending an arm to Kyle and saying, “Come with me if you want to live.”

It seems that Skynet finally asked itself the question that fans have been asking since the first movie: if it has access to a time machine then why isn’t it just sending robots back further and further in time to sever John Connor’s bloodline until something sticks? So Skynet sent a T-1000 back to the 1970s to kill Sarah Connor when she was a little girl but some unknown party has sent a T-800 back to the same time period to stop it.  Sarah’s parents were killed by the T-1000 and she’s been on the run with her android protector ever since, the two have imprinted on one another as the other T-800 and young John Connor did in the second film and have adapted a sort of father-daughter relationship; she even calls him “Pops.”

After dispatching the T-1000 in a creative but scientifically improbable manner, they use the processor chip from the original T-800 to operate a makeshift time machine.  Sarah wants to go forward to 1997 to stop Skynet from coming online, but Kyle convinces her that the timeline has changed and they need to go to 2017.  Pops stays behind to make sure there is no evidence of future tech found.

In 2017, our heroes encounter a much older Officer O’Brien (J.K. Simmons) who has become a bit of Fox Mulderish nut about conspiracies involving time traveling robots, a white-haired Pops (since his cloned skin is legitimate human tissue, it ages in the same manner as that of a human), and a time-displaced John Connor who is actually the newest breed of Terminator.

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I missed this film while it was in theaters in 2015.  I covered the four prior entries in the series leading up the premiere but my schedule, a dearth of funds, and some lukewarm to absolutely negative reviews kept me away.  I’m actually glad I didn’t this in theaters and not for the reason you’re thinking.  I think I would’ve been as harsh on this as everyone else is, I would have picked at every little loose thread, called the action sequences hollow, likely dismissed it as nostalgia bait garbage.  But some movies play a lot better on the small screen that than they do on the big one, there’s something about the movies that gives the experience of watching a film an epic feel that really enhances movies but when a movie fails to live up to that arbitrary and completely personal metric of epicness it just comes across as disappointing.  It’s why I like to give movies a little time to air out before I give them the Doomsday Reels treatment, the other reason is marketing.

The marketing campaign for Terminator Genisys was a fiasco, first far too vague in a “hey there’s a new Terminator movie” kind of way, but then they just decided to give us the big surprises, and then they just decided to give us ALL the big surprises.  The failure of this movie is percieved to be based on two fronts: 1) The masturbatory call-backs to previous films, 2) The reveal that John Connor was a Terminator being spoiled in trailers and on promotional posters.  This is nothing new, studios have very little idea how to market these later movies (the trailer for Terminator: Salvation famously spoiled that Sam Worthington’s Marcus was a machine) and Genisys is kind of hard to summarize in a way that doesn’t give away the whole thing but in regards to John Connor’s status as a terminator, I don’t believe it was ever meant to be a big surprise to begin with.

Let’s look at the facts here: We all know that time travel in this universe is a one-way street, so why would John send himself back when he knows he’s got a world to rebuild after the fall of Skynet?  The, I believe intentionally, weak logic is that the Matt Smith-Terminator killed all of the other resistance fighters in proximity to the machine in the future except John and he sent himself back because he had no time but that’s stupid because he has a time machine that can go to any time down to the minute, if time travel worked like he thought it did he would already be nonexistent.  There’s also the fact that the Matt Smith Terminator had him about the face and neck, we’ve seen how lethal the early models alone are and there’s a weird glowly thing coming from its hand so there’s no way John didn’t eat it before all his fellow soldiers.

The other reason we’re meant to think the reveal is a surprise is because we see Pops coming at John with a gun, leading us to believe that the elderly T-800 is going to kill Sarah, Kyle, and future-John all at once to fulfill its mission but that’s stupid as shit.  By virtue of not sexing each other up and leaving a baby John Connor back in 1984, Sarah and Kyle have already ensured that the war of the machines can’t happen like it has in previous timelines.  Kyle Reese is already a pre-teen in 2017 so even if they do have a baby John it’s going to be a lot harder for this charismatic leader to affect this older soldier in the way he did the much younger Kyle of previous timelines and it’s less likely that an older Kyle Reese would handle himself as well nor attract Sarah’s affections like his younger counterpart, there’s no need to kill Sarah and Kyle because that John Connor is already dead.  There’s also no reason to kill future John Connor, it would literally serve no purpose.

So while Connor’s Terminator-fication has meaning to Sarah and to Kyle, it means nothing to us as an audience because this John is no longer relevant, he’s already from a dead timeline and is thus expendable.  The twist is meant to be important to our characters, not to us.  Of course you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise had you seen the trailers, because they really oversold the significance of John Connor (also a sin of Terminator Salvation) and made it feel like the entire film would be an amusement park attraction type reel of scenes cherry picked from the first two films with different actors and slightly different events.  I don’t like a marketing campaign tainting a viewing of a film with preconceived notions, because marketing people can completely misjudge the tone of a piece.

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Despite how slavishly this movie devotes itself to recreating set-pieces, lines, random actions, and jokes from the first two films, it actually is doing the exact opposite of trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  The familiar is presented as a sort of contextual baseline to play off of, the message of Terminator and Terminator 2 was that the future is already written and it’s important to fulfill our destined paths.  The message of Terminator Genisys is “fuck you, no it isn’t.”  My theory of infinite John Connors who are all literally different people in an ever looping corkscrew of divergent timelines (a handy explanation for the different actors) is vindicated here as T-John straight up confirms it when he says he isn’t worried about killing John and Kyle because they’re all from a different timeline.  That alone would be wonderful to me but the film plays with that concept even more.

Our two lead actors have gotten some grief for being pale imitations of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, which is fair but it kind of misses the point.  This Kyle and Sarah are entirely different people.  Sarah lost her loved ones at a young age and was immediately given a cold but protective caretaker who shaped her outlook on the world, directly reflecting the John/T-800 relationship from T2 but in a much more organic way since this relationship has developed over several years rather than a few days.  The PTSD survivalist from Terminator 2 doesn’t exist, nor the lady-mulleted party girl from Terminator 1, she’s tough but more girlish because she’s effectively been in a state of arrested development since childhood.

Similarly Kyle encounters John as a child rather than an Anton Yelchin-y young man and his hero worship of the resistance leader is that much more exaggerated.  OG and Salvation Kyle saw John as a wise and charismatic leader, Genisys Kyle sees him as a superhero.  Similar to Sarah, this Kyle is less battle-hardened than his counterparts and more immature.  He’s also thrust into a situation that completely takes him off guard where he isn’t the hero and instead is the fish out of water dragged along for the ride as Sarah was in the first film.  I really like this dynamic and while Jai Courtney is often rather dull in other things I found him to be fine if unremarkable here.  The way he always seems to be out of his comfort zone was a nice touch and I appreciated the approach to the character that seemingly everyone else hated.

I expected to hate Pops a lot more than I do.  The simple fact is that the T-800 has been used for eyerolling cornball humor in every film save the first and Salvation and “It’s nice to meet you” is a lot funnier to me than “Hasta la vista, baby” and “Talk to the hand.”  Of course we have the obligatory “I’ll be back” (thankfully only used once) as well as “Get out”, and they overuse the goofy unnatural smile joke from T2 but I generally found his attempts at comedy relief to be better than prior attempts.  I like the design of the character as he ages (though the white hair is a bit of a bridge too far) and the way they play the Terminator imprinting on his charge over time was handled very well,  I thought.

Jason Clarke plays the best John Connor yet by far, which is to say that he’s only mildly interesting.  Clarke’s talents are much more wisely used after Connor has been turned into a swarm of nanites (interestingly the “gas state” nanite Terminator, it’s invasion of John Connor, and Connor’s status as a silicon valley innovator were all shamelessly stolen from a rejected early draft of Terminator 3 done by the people who wrote the previous two films) and I love the idea of a Terminator with human emotions because it still retains the thought patterns and memories of John Connor.  He’s not as menacing as he could or probably should be, but the mind of a revolutionary turned toward suppressing the kind of ideology he once represented is a nice take on a villain.

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I actually love the overarching plot here and the way you’re left to put the pieces together like a puzzle.  For those who don’t feel like doing the legwork:  Skynet, which was born of Genisys in 2017 in this timeline has fooled John Connor into believing that it will still come into being in 1997 as a defense network and has sent the original T-800 back in time not to kill Sarah Connor, but to trick John into sending his father back to 1984 while it has already sent a T-1000 back to the 1970s to kill Sarah as a little girl, making John’s sending of Kyle to 1984 completely futile.  Someone has sent Pops back to circumvent this turn of events so that Kyle can deliver a message to his past self about Genisys and its evils so his self from the old timeline can hear that message in the time stream through a sort of shared memory experience, allowing Kyle to stop Genisys but leaving the protector Terminator with an erased memory so that Skynet can only guess at who needs to dealt with next round.  This has effectively gone from a game of Checkers to a game of Chess between Skynet and John Connor that will likely stretch on to infinity and I love that concept.  For that alone I refused to dismiss this movie as everyone else has.

But don’t let my rain of praise dissuade from Genisys‘ real mistakes.  First of all, there’s the film’s obnoxious title which never fails to engender anger in me every time I look at it.  I get that “Genisys” is the name of the computer software in the film but they still should have spelled it correctly in the title.  Genisys is also a problem as it’s basically a system that links all electronic devices together, making the overarching message of the film an Andy Rooney-esque doomsday screed about how smart phones and The Cloud will be the death of humanity.

At one point near the end of the second act, after a harrowing and rather amazing action scene, our characters are arrested and booked in a “comical” scene as the theme from Fox’s “COPS” plays, it does not fit in this scene or the movie at all and I hated every second of its extremely brief runtime.  Also, while the callbacks provide a baseline and a statement about how things remain similar even as they change, they also serve as perfectly serviceable nostalgia bait for all the popcorn and Coca Cola slurping mouth breathers looking to clap and giggle in delight when Arnold says “I’ll be back.”

This movie is the very picture of trying to have its cake and eat it too and I can see the telltale signs of studio fuckery all over this thing.  But I still feel like the filmmakers got away with something amazing amidst the lowest-common-denominator-pleasing junk.  For the first time since maybe the first one I was actually left wanting more and while the movie ends on a perfectly serviceable ending for this story as well as the franchise as a whole, there’s a tease of more.  Will we get more?  Who knows, the movie was a massive flop domestically but as is becoming more and more the case, China brought the box office up into the black.

The action beats are all pretty great and the CG is all amazingly well done (except for one bit) and I felt the characters were better fleshed out than many other reviewers did.  This movie has problems but far fewer than people have made it out to have, I think re-evaluation is going to soften the public perception of Terminator: Genisys and I invite everyone who didn’t dig it to maybe give it another shot or for those who skipped it to try and go in fresh.  Fury Road this wasn’t, but if we’re trying anything this radical in this franchise then I think it’s worthy of accolades.

THE SHILL
Terminator: Genisys is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant.

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“Witness me, Blood Bag!”

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