Movie review: Terminator Genisys

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

Movie franchises have a curiously complicated relationship with the moviegoing public.

While there is an almost universal desire to see new instalments as quickly as the slow-moving development behemoth of Hollywood will allow – the near religious mania over the upcoming new instalment in the Star Wars saga is evidence of this – the response to any new material that comes down the cinematic pike is often met with a contradictorily passionate love-hate dynamic.

This mixed response explains why movies like the recently-released Jurassic World, and now Terminator Genisys, though news of their impending existence is initially acclaimed with feverish anticipation, go on to attract so much vitriol and derision once they’re playing in front of moviegoers.

What is so interesting about fandom’s embrace, or rather non-embrace of these franchise johnny-come-latelys is that well-made, well-told films are often treated as if they are cast-offs from an amateur weekend filmmaking course in the backwaters of Alabama.

And many times that is inherently unfair as is the case with Terminator Genisys, directed by Alan Taylor (Palookaville, Thor: Dark World) which has been both hailed for its visionary, narrative-pushing premise and reviled in equal measure for what many see as an overly-complicated fifth instalment in the franchise, that struggles to make the case for its existence clear.

A retcon of sorts for the franchise, that is a film that resets the established mythos of the films, Genisys manages that enormously tricky balancing act of being both an agent of great change, shaking things up in ways that established fans of the franchise clearly find objectionable, and paying tribute to everything that has gone before it.

Arnie is of course back as the good old T-800 model, now affectionately known as “Pops”, doing double duty both as the protective Terminator of the second film, and as the newly-arrived, much-younger CGI-enhanced Model 101 of old, as much of a tip of the hat to the franchise as any fan could possibly hope for.

Pops’, ahem, chronologically-advanced appearance is explained neatly with a quick reference to the biological skin not faring as well as the mechanics within – the phrase “Old but not obsolete” is repeated over and over, as much a commentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s changed looks and hopefully enduring movie star appeal, as the antique nature of his Terminator model – and it’s made abundantly clear that he is more than up to the task of looking after Sarah Connor, as he did in the first films.

 

 

But this is where things get very interesting indeed.

Unlike in the first films, where all manner of time travel trickery and Skynet manipulation did little to affect the eventual outcome – Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese fight off a succession of pesky Terminators, fall in love, make a baby who grows up to be humanity’s hero, John Connor, who leads a liberating fight against the machines – in the altered timeline of Terminator Genisys, all bets are off and all the old certainties are gleefully, and largely successfully, tossed out the temporal window, to a greater or lesser extent.

While the first part of the film shows a triumphant John Connor vanquishing Skynet once and for all, events quickly take a less positive turn when Skynet pulls one last ace out of its mechanical sleeve and sends a young, muscular Arnie back to 1984 as the last of its memory core supposedly falls to the tenacious humans.

He is quickly followed by eager volunteer and John Connor’s righthand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) who disappears naked as the day he was born just as Skynet makes one last play to forestall its own demise by corrupting Connor into a half-human, half-machine T-3000 monstrosity ( this clanger of a spoiler is liberally folded, oddly enough, into the trailer for reasons unknown).

He arrives back in the era that was home to the original films to find Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones), all grown up and trained as a kickass fighter since the age of 9 by Pops who rescued her from another Terminator sent back way earlier than had previously been the case, a liquid-metal, shape-shifting T-1000 played by Lee Byung-hun hot on their trail and the events of 1997, when Skynet originally unleashed nuclear armageddon, pushed out to 2017.

All the old players in the franchise are presented and accounted for but all in different configurations and timelines, their motivations thrown into a blender to brilliantly refreshing effect.

 

 

Dismissed by some as over-complicated tinkering with the time line, the script by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, is one of those rare instances where moving the long-established chess pieces around the franchise board actually works.

Humanity is still very much in peril, Skynet, now known as Genisys, is still plotting humanity’s oblivion but it’s all taking place in the hyper-interconnected year of 2017 when the ability to have each and every device turn against humanity in one nightmarishly realised uprising is more plausible than ever.

John Connor is now very much the bad guy with Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, and the seemingly indestructible Pops, who falls and rise many times over, now fighting for the salvation of humanity’s machine-addicted soul.

As is the way of these time travel epics, there are plot holes and narrative omissions big enough to thrown multiple Arnies through simultaneously side-by-side – who for instance sent the earlier Arnie through to rescue Sarah aged 9 and why, and how did Skynet not know? – but they are largely papered over by the relentless action of Terminator Genisys which also manages to inject some real humanity into proceedings in some emotionally-evocative interludes.

Granted, this may not be your grandmother’s Terminator franchise, but then neither it is a craven, wanton reboot or reimagining, stripped of everything we remember fondly of its predecessors.

Rather, it is an imaginative, enormously clever shake-up of the franchise, a reminder for rusted-on fans of every pop culture franchise out there, that revering what we love is an admirable and understandable thing but that everything, yes even Terminators, need an injection of newness now and then to keep things fresh, appealing and relevant.

 

 

 

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