Friday, July 3, 2015

Terminator Genisys: Out of time

Terminator Genisys (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for relentless sci-fi violence and gunplay, partial nudity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.15

Not since the original five-cycle Planet of the Apes films, between 1968 and ’73, has a franchise attempted to cycle itself so intricately. Terminator scripters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier deserve credit for an ambitious attempt here, tackling multiple time periods — and alternate timeline realities — in an effort to slot this newest entry into What Has Gone Before, while also (more or less) re-telling the whole wild ’n’ crazy story from the beginning.

Surrounded by an impressive cache of military weaponry they'll never get to use, our
heroes — from left, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), "Pops" (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle (Jai
Courtney) — concoct a half-baked scheme to destroy an evil master computer complex
before it can wreak havoc on the entire world.
Sadly — and as often is the case, with sloppy time travel sagas — things get so convoluted that the result becomes confusing and, ultimately, pointless. The situation clearly has gotten out of hand when characters spend the entire third act explaining each new twist to each other (and, by extension, to us). Rarely has a film indulged in so much blatant, tedious said-bookism.

Part of the problem is the labyrinthine degree to which this franchise has been expanded (often not for the better) by outside parties, most notably extended story arcs by six different comic book publishers, dating back to 1988. No single new film could satisfy a mythos that has grown so convoluted.

On top of which, director Alan Taylor has absolutely no sense of pacing. He simply yanks his cast from one deafening CGI action scene to the next, with no attempt to build suspense or inject any sense of actual drama. The result is massive, messy and noisy: a 125-minute cartoon that has none of the heart — or intelligence — that made director James Cameron’s first two films so memorable, back in 1984 and ’91.

This is simply a pinball machine, with its little spheres — our heroes — whacked and bounced from one crazed menace to another, somehow (miraculously!) surviving each encounter, physical laws and human frailty be damned.

That said, this new big-screen Terminator chapter — the fifth — does have one secret weapon: the same bright, shining star who also highlighted Cameron’s entries: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Far from the over-the-hill relic that many fans may have feared, the big guy owns this film. He’s well employed, granted some droll one-liners and sight gags, and has solid camera presence.

On top of which, Kalogridis and Lussier come up with a genuinely clever explanation for why Schwarzenegger’s good-guy T-800 android has aged so much, since its first appearance in 1991.

So ... take a deep breath, and pay attention. Ready?

In the devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape of an Earth ruined by the AI Skynet and its massive army of Terminator soldiers, the human resistance led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his best friend Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) mount a final assault to defeat their evil computer overlord once and for all. The sortie appears successful, but Skynet pulls a last-minute Hail Mary play: John and the others discover a time machine, which has been used to send a humanoid Terminator (the original one, I think) back in time to 1984, tasked with killing John’s mother, Sarah, so that he’ll never be born to lead the resistance.

John therefore uses the time machine to send Kyle back as well, to protect his own existence. All seems well — we’ve seen all this before, after a fashion — until the final second before Kyle winks out, as he sees something attack John.

Now in the Los Angeles of 1984, that original humanoid Terminator makes his dramatic entrance — a sequence more or less re-created from the first film — with an eerie sense of déjà vu, thanks to 28-year-old bodybuilder Brett Azar, his face digitally replaced by Schwarzenegger’s younger features. But before this Terminator can casually kill his first innocent bystanders, he’s stopped (albeit not without effort) by Schwarzenegger’s circa 1991 (good guy) T-800, with an assault weapon assist from ... Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke).

But wait, I hear you cry. That’s not the way it happened!

No kidding. And Kalogridis and Lussier have only gotten started.

Kyle, meanwhile, has problems of his own. His arrival has been anticipated by the way-creepy, liquid metal T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) that menaced Sarah and John’s adolescent self in the 1991 film. By the time Kyle finally catches up to Sarah, he finds her far from the helpless waitress he was expecting; she’s already a hardened fighter, having been orphaned at age 9 by that same T-1000 (in the late 1960s?) and rescued by Schwarzenegger’s good-guy Terminator. They’ve been fleeing the T-1000 ever since.

She calls her unlikely guardian Pops. Kyle has trouble adjusting to that, just as he questions the notion of a benevolent Terminator. This is what they do, he cautions Sarah; they infiltrate. How do you know he won’t suddenly turn on us?

(Well, because he’s good-guy Arnie, silly boy ... but Sarah can’t break the fourth wall to explain that.)

Staying ahead of the relentless T-1000 while adjusting to the unexpected dynamic of his new companions is bad enough, but Kyle has other issues: a divergent memory stream of himself, as a boy, living in impossibly peaceful surroundings. This alternate-reality younger self is glimpsed during a birthday party, as he excitedly receives a smart phone mere days before the worldwide unveiling of a highly anticipated, cloud-like app, dubbed Genisys.

At the same time, Kyle remembers his younger self repeatedly warning that Skynet and Genisys are one and the same.

At which point, we unveil another time machine, which sends Sarah and Kyle forward to 2017 San Francisco, a mere two days before Genisys — dubbed, with deliberate irony, the world’s next killer app — goes online.

This is welcome social commentary on the script’s part. It’s easy to imagine worshipful Apple acolytes in 2017’s one billion people, worldwide, who eagerly anticipate the Genisys app. Our world today is one in which Cameron’s imagined Skynet never needs to “break free,” because we all eagerly wait in line for the next software and hardware upgrades, blithely surrendering privacy, freedom and personal information along the way.

That’s actually pretty damn disturbing, and a better film could have done great things with that unsettling bit of real-world paranoia. Alas, it’s merely a sidebar thread on which to hang yet more gun battles and destructive chases. You thought Dwayne Johnson’s speedboat defied basic physics, while climbing the tsunami wave in last month’s San Andreas? Wait’ll you see what Kyle’s helicopter can do in this flick.

We also have to question the basic logic of Kyle and Sarah’s decision to arrive in 2017, giving themselves two short days in which to prevent Genisys/Skynet from going online and initiating the apocalypse that created Kyle’s future. Since they know what’ll eventually happen, wouldn’t it be more logical to arrive a year or two early, to covertly sabotage this here, perhaps arrange a tragic “accident” for that scientist there, in order to more efficiently — and safely — achieve the same goal?

But no; this film doesn’t know from logic or common sense. When in doubt, blow up something else. Taylor and his writers even squander resources. We’re supposed to be impressed by the weapons that Pops has stockpiled, while awaiting Kyle and Sarah’s return in 2017; it’s a massive armory ... and it never gets used. So the point of all that lethal hardware was what, precisely?

Taylor gets a bit of mileage from the prickly Pops/Kyle dynamic, with Schwarzenegger and Courtney trading glowering glances at each other. Taylor is less successful with the Kyle/Sarah relationship, particularly since the script requires the former to fall in love with the latter in less than two days, amid all their perilous escapades. Courtney couldn’t sell that line if his life depended on it, and matters aren’t helped by the zero chemistry he shares with Clarke.

Actually, Courtney is rather bland at the best of times, and not all that involving as a heroic character. The same can be said of Jason Clarke, who was equally unconvincing as the human good guy in last year’s re-booted Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He simply can’t play “fantastic”; his inherent smugness is much better used in straight dramas such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Zero Dark Thirty.

Emilia Clarke, recognized as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones, can’t shake the fact that her 5-foot-2 frame looks ill-equipped to handle the bad-ass behavior demanded of Sarah. Frankly, the very thought is unintentionally comical. (In great contrast, Linda Hamilton was absolutely believable as the resourceful Sarah in Cameron’s two films, particularly when she bulked up for the second one.)

That said, Clarke deserves credit for trying; she does her best with the often ludicrous dialogue supplied by Kalogridis and Lussier.

The always enjoyable J.K. Simmons has a bewildering role as O’Brien, a San Francisco cop who, having encountered Kyle in L.A. in 1984, seems to have figured out at least some of what’s going on (which puts him ahead of the rest of us). But this role is under-written and utterly pointless; O’Brien doesn’t accomplish anything useful.

Even so, Simmons is treated far better than Courtney B. Vance and Dayo Okeniyi, whose eye-blink appearances as Genisys co-creators Miles and Danny Dyson are the epitome of token afterthoughts.

Matt Smith, on the other hand, is deliciously malevolent in a key supporting performance: quite a switch from his larkish work as the 11th Doctor Who.

As is true of so many of today’s mayhem-heavy, script-poor, CGI-enhanced action epics, this newest Terminator quickly becomes boring, and eventually turns into a tedious slog. We’ve no reason to care about any of these characters — except, perhaps, for Arnie’s Pops — and the whole production seems as slapdash as Kyle and Sarah’s “plan” to defeat Skynet in 2017.

On top of which, the post-production (i.e. fake) 3D effects are worthless; as often is the case, this “enhancement” further darkens cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s already gloomy camerawork. Don’t waste your money.

In fact, you’d be better off skipping this film entirely. Taylor may have been hot stuff on TV, having helmed multiple episodes of The Sopranos, Mad Men and the aforementioned Game of Thrones, but he hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle this big-screen franchise.

Hasta la vista, baby.

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