Friday, July 3, 2015

Reprogrammed: "Terminator Genisys" diverting as summer spectacle, too messy as canon entry

Terminator Genisys (2015) 
125 min., rated PG-13.

There are summer movies that expect viewers to just check their brains at the door. "Terminator Genisys" is a special case, as this fifth entry in the series rewrites the history of the previous films, while ignoring its last two sequels, that trying to decipher the goings-on of the plot will just be overly taxing to one's noggin. Basically, forget everything you know that happened in 1984's "The Terminator" and 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day"—tight, genuinely thrilling, expertly made ultra-violent sci-fi action pictures that still remain groundbreakers—and you might get along just fine. With that said, "Terminator Genisys" doesn't reinvigorate the series as much as it plays like in-name-only "Terminator" fan fiction, altering a plot through wonky alternate timelines as if it were homework. "X-Men: Days of Future Past," this is not, and it will no doubt divide fans like the much-maligned "Spider-Man 3" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" did, but as a summer diversion, you could probably do worse.

Before the war against the machines, Skynet's computer program was supposed to protect humanity but destroyed it instead. Now, in 2029, Los Angeles, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is a soldier who was born after Judgment Day and a scarred John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads the resistance against Skynet to take back the world. When Connor and his team find a time machine in Skynet, Kyle volunteers to travel back to 1984 to protect John's mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) from being killed. When Kyle lands in the past and finds himself running from another bad-cop T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee), Sarah is not whom he thought she would be, a scared waitress incapable of taking care of herself, but instead a heat-packing badass who doesn't need saving. She also has a protector in the old-but-not-obsolete form of "Pops" (Arnold Schwarzenegger). John and Sarah end up traveling to San Francisco in 2017, the new date of Judgment Day, which will be brought on by Skynet's soon-to-be-unleashed cloud-like operating system called Genisys. The past can be changed, so why not the future? Lest one forget, Kyle must mate with Sarah, so John can be born. Comprende?

Proficiently directed by Alan Taylor (2014's "Thor: The Dark World"), "Terminator Genisys" is reasonably entertaining in the early going with all of the callbacks before both the plotting and action grow exhaustingly mechanical. It's comforting to see a virtual remake of the first film that plays with our own memories, as director Taylor milks suspense and excitement in a few recreated sequences, one of which has Reese running around stark-naked and hiding out in a closed department store from shape-shifting, liquid-metal cyborg cop (Byung-hun Lee, in Robert Patrick mode). Concurrently, it's a nostalgic kick to see a waxy but pretty impressive CG creation of Arnie as the bad T-800 cyborg arriving nude in the City of Angels once again and confronting a gang of mohawked, switchblade-wielding thugs (none of them being Bill Paxton this time) at Griffith Observatory to steal their clothes. Before this 2.0 version kills any of them, "Pops" shows up to do away with his evil twin in a crowd-pleasing face-off. Also, by this film's own merit, there are several cool action set-pieces, including a school bus flipping and hanging off the Golden Gate Bridge. However, when Laeta Kalogridis (2010's "Shutter Island") and Patrick Lussier's (2011's "Drive Angry") screenplay starts going sideways and repurposing the once-streamlined mythos with the help of time travel and alternate timelines, the film becomes a mess. When one character asks what is going on, Sarah simply replies, "We're here to stop the end of the world." If that is the case, then why must the plot get so head-spinningly convoluted and yet underplotted as it goes along? Characters even have downtime to spill a lot of exposition while driving, and it still comes out nonsensical.

Over thirty years after the iconic role that made him an action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the one constant in all five "Terminator" pictures and the only actor who seems to be having any real fun. He's still an intimidating presence, even as Sarah Connor sees "Guardian" as a father figure, but also in touch with his hammier side. It's amusing to watch him force a big cheesy, toothy grin in his attempt to fit in and utter a couple of catchphrases (you can probably guess one of them). Easy-on-the-eyes but usually bland Jai Courtney keeps being positioned as the next action star. Not that it was all his fault, but if he failed to impress in the negligible "A Good Day to Die Hard" (a nail in the coffin for the "Die Hard" series), he's more solid here as Kyle Reese, once played by Michael Biehn. Before Linda Hamilton lost her baby fat and bulked up in a tank top for "T2," Emilia Clarke (HBO's "Game of Thrones") definitely channels Hamilton. She seems a little in over her head in convincing us of Sarah Connor's toughness, but the actress at least tries putting her own spin on the role. Unfortunately, the relationship that blossoms between Kyle and Sarah is too clunkily handled to care about. Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia) steps into the role of John Connor, played previously by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl and Christian Bale, and he brings the same intensity he brings to any character. When J.K. Simmons shows up in 2017 as Detective O'Brien, a crackpot who's always been convinced of time-traveling cyborgs since 1984, one is happy to see him. Once O'Brien is gone, one gets to thinking that this so-called "reboot" should have been from his point-of-view.

No matter how hard the filmmakers try to take risks, "Terminator Genisys" can't help but pale in comparison to James Cameron's first two films and arguably 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," a lean, fun, satisfying sequel no matter what anyone else says. On the plus side, if it's any consolation, this one is less of a dreary drag than 2009's "Terminator Salvation." The logic of the paradoxical timelines is far from airtight when held up to close scrutiny that one's suspension of disbelief is absolutely required throughout. Like this year's "Jupiter Ascending," you either go with the claptrap the filmmakers are trying to sell or you're out. The emotional center is functional but missing actual dramatic gravitas and the stakes don't seem to be as high as they were in the previous films. The effects are also slick, if nothing groundbreaking, but some of the CG work in the final third seems more like something seen in any of the cheesy reboots of the "The Mummy." In the final analysis, "Terminator Genisys" acceptably does its job as a mostly diverting action spectacle more than a successful addition to its brand. Unlike Arnie's "Pops," perhaps these movies are growing old and obsolete, and it's just time to finally say, "Hasta la vista, baby."

Grade: C + 

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