Friday, July 03, 2015

"Terminator Genisys": review

While it was cool to see Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger up close at the big Thursday-night premiere (I videoed his entire appearance on stage), after he and Emilia Clarke left, we still had a movie to look forward to. As I suspected, "Terminator Genisys" (TG) was a messy serving of big, stupid summertime fun. The plot doesn't entirely make sense; the fight editing was sloppy in places, and it was often hard to keep track of why various characters were doing what they were doing, but I didn't leave the movie angry that I had wasted two hours of my life. No: TG was entertaining—and as top-heavy as Arnold himself.

Because we're talking about a franchise, here, there are certain things you expect to see: a vision of a hellish, machine-dominated future, for example; Arnold intoning "Get out" to a frightened driver; the infamous line "I'll be back"; creative ways to kill people; massive property damage; weird discussions about how the past, present, and future interrelate. Actually, this movie was far talkier than I'd anticipated; it's freighted with a bit too much expository dialogue. I was also frustrated because the dialogue often covered what I felt were the wrong topics: too much relationship banter, not enough time-travel metaphysics.

Basically, TG takes the criticism of its predecessors seriously. That criticism? "Hey, if the machines fail at sending one Terminator back, they can just keep sending more back." This is the fatal flaw of most time-travel-related cinematic science fiction, to wit: as long as there's a time machine, or at least the ability to build one, the problems are never really solved. TG says, "Hey—let's see what happens when several Terminators, good and bad, all end up back in the past!" The result is a glorious mess.

Throughout the movie, I noticed little hints and references to other artistic works: one character calls a Terminator a "skin job," for instance—a reference to "Blade Runner" and the rebooted "Battlestar Galactica" (which was itself referencing "Blade Runner"). At another point in the movie, a nanoswarm-based Terminator gets stymied by the magnetic field of an MRI—a nod to Michael Crichton's nanotech-thriller novel Prey, in which almost exactly the same thing happens. In another salute to other sci-fi productions, the incarnation of Skynet is portrayed by British actor Matt Smith, whom many fans (I'm not one) will immediately recognize as the Eleventh Doctor on "Doctor Who." This film also makes huge references to the very first movie in the series, James Cameron's 1984 "The Terminator"—right down to shot-for-shot recreations of some of the original scenes which then diverge, representing a divergent timeline, in this newest addition to the franchise. It was sad not to see Bill Paxton as the blue-haired punk who jokes that Arnold's "a couple cans short of a six-pack."

What little glimpse we do get of time-travel metaphysics in this film is a bit disappointing. We're told, for example, that history "has a momentum," something that many of us have long suspected but have been unable to prove. The idea, here, is that certain crucial historical events are bound to happen, one way or another. If someone travels back in time and plucks Jesus off the cross before he dies, then lightning will strike Jesus dead, or the Savior will have his skull drilled by a seemingly random meteor because Jesus simply has to die. That's what "momentum" refers to. The cosmic power that decides which events in history are important, and thus deserving of momentum, is left unnamed and undiscussed, a sort of deus absconditus. In a different TG exchange about alternate timelines and, obliquely, about the many-worlds hypothesis, we learn that a "nexus" can appear inside a time traveler's consciousness, allowing that person to experience alternate timelines simultaneously (and this put me in mind of Frank Herbert's Dune, with its notion of the Kwisatz Haderach, a being that stands at the nexus of all possibilities and is able to see along all worldlines). Again, it's the importance of the events that causes the nexus to appear, but we're never told what determines an event's importance.

The metaphysics of the movie might be sketchy and sloppy, but the social commentary is loud and clear. TG preaches that we're becoming too interconnected as a global human culture, and too dependent on the technology that facilitates that interconnection. The "Genisys" of the title refers to software that, at an appointed time, will automatically integrate pretty much the entire Internet of Things all around the planet, up to and including military hardware. How this happens and what this means isn't explained all that well, but the movie's message is clear: get out and do something independent for a change. Don't remain anchored to the hive mind. Of course, such technology-related moral exhortations often fall victim to their own irony, and there's irony aplenty here as well: TG might preach a mildly anti-tech gospel, but the movie itself is brought to you by amazing special-effects technology and has been marketed through the very social media that the story warns against. But perhaps such irony is integral to the message and can't be avoided. Who's to say?

"Terminator Genisys" isn't a very brainy movie, but it brings the brawn. We meet, I think, at least four different Terminators: the original T-800—a young Arnold, thanks to the miracle of CGI—the current, aged T-800 (nicknamed "Pops" by Emilia Clarke's Sarah Connor); a new T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun, who isn't in the movie for very long); and the aforementioned nanoswarm-Terminator (Jason Clarke). Each Terminator fits nicely into its part of the movie, so there's nothing to confuse the viewer. It really was a shame, though, to see the T-1000 taken out of the equation so early, and after such a brief run. Actor Lee Byung-hun does a very good job, during his short time on screen, of channeling Robert Patrick's feline/insectile T-1000 from the 1991 movie. Among us guys who watched the movie Thursday evening, we all agreed that Lee's T-1000 was far more menacing than Jason Clarke's nanoswarm-Terminator.

As 2015 action flicks go, there's just no way that "Terminator Genisys" could ever hold a candle to the magnificence that is "Mad Max: Fury Road." Lucky for me, I had dialed my expectations down very low, and TG proved entertaining enough by the low-IQ standards of big summertime Hollywood action flicks. It was cool to see Arnold back in the driver's seat, and to watch a bunch of non-Americans all speaking with perfect American accents (Jai Courtney, who plays Kyle Reese in this film, is an Aussie; Jason Clarke is also an Aussie; Emilia Clarke—no relation, I think—is English). I understand that TG is the first movie in a trilogy; I'll be morbidly curious to see what comes next.


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1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

The last two entries into this franchise have been terrible. Terminator is just a franchise that can only go so far.