Monday, 25 January 2016

Terminator Genisys, by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier (Paramount) | review

Tirmynator Genisys: the best misspelling since slyced bred.

Yes, let’s start with the obvious gripe: Genisys. Originally the film was titled Genesis, then someone made the executive decision (absolute power corrupting absolutely) to change/distort/pervert it, presumably working under the delusion that misspelling something makes it stand out in a good way. One wonders how the original Terminator would have fared had Sarah Connor been misspelled in Skynet’s records. The T-1000 would have opened up the phone directory and had a meltdown. Where is S’air-a Conher? Target cannot be acquired. And why? (We bang our heads against the nearest busborne billboard.) Why subscribe to this wanton degradation of language? The only explanation that doesn’t leave the producers hanging their heads in shame is that the alphabetic disparity between Genesis and Genisys is intended to mirror the narrative disparity between the events of the first Terminator movie and their retrofitting in this latest offering. In which case, well played… but a propensity for randomising still seems the more likely cause! Watch out for Terminator 6, where Skynet, unable to destroy humanity by conventional means, sends a T-3000 back to 12 May 1754 to kill Samuel Johnson. Without his dictionary to unite them, the Resistance of the future is torn apart by wilful misspellings.

The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) were near perfect films, whose cult appeal gave rise to a cinematic catch-22: fans desperately craved more, yet no escalation was possible; the only way to avoid the disappointment of absence was to fill it with disappointment. Thus we were given Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009), neither of which failed to float post-drowning to the surface of low expectations. For all that viewers might have hoped, thematically there was just nowhere for these sequels to go. Without any form of progression, all that remained was nostalgia. By the time the closing credits rolled, the verdict in both cases was that nostalgia could better be sought by re-watching the originals! Yet, the conundrum remained: how to satisfy the cult craving for more Terminator when the first two films already had achieved everything the genre could offer. Terminator Genisys supplies the obvious answer: change genres.

The movie begins as if it is nothing more than a remake of James Cameron’s first film, dumbed down slightly and slicked up to allow for thirty years’ worth of devolution within the industry. This, however, proves not to be the case. As 1984 is recreated and The Terminator begins to play out again, suddenly, playfully, the expected events are subverted and Terminator Genisys breaks free of its lineage, reinventing itself as an action comedy. It’s a creative decision that no doubt will outrage Terminator purists just as much as films three and four’s inability to recapture the emotional effect of their predecessors. Arnie had to be incorporated, so his iconic T-1000 is allowed to age like Schwarzenegger himself. The paradox element of Skynet versus John and Sarah Connor had become so complex as to evolve into an independent lifeform capable of defying both continuity and genuine fear for the future. Solution: treat this aspect with tongue-in-cheek flippancy. Thus, Terminators are no longer a source of nightmares; but what Genisys lacks in cold menace and the adrenaline of relentless pursuit, it makes up for (at least to some extent) by being enjoyable. This doesn’t make it a classic – there can never be another Terminator classic – but it does afford the movie a raison d’être, and hence a legitimacy, that Rise of the Machines and Salvation lacked. Yes, the camera has to be discreet in not showing up how short Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is compared to Linda Hamilton’s. True, there are motivations that defy reason and plot points left deliberately without explanation. But whereas this would demand censure in SF suspense (and from those who believe they should be watching such), in action comedy the deficiencies can be plastered over with humour.

Even within this genre, of course, Terminator Genisys is not without its faults. After all, we are living in a future where CGI technology came online and wiped out all but a handful of good filmmakers. Please, would somebody send a message back through time and warn them: any action sequence that could not be achieved without CGI is not going to be exciting with it, capisce? Computer game helicopters? Olympic gymnast buses? Nobody can be expected to take a Terminator seriously as a killing machine when anyone it sets its sights on immediately becomes impervious to injury by any other means. But at least this isn’t the crux of the film. Terminator Genisys really does play on the humorous potential of the scenario, and for those who might raise a sceptical eyebrow, look no further than J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Detective O’Brien, who as a rookie was caught up in the carnage of 1984 and thirty years on is still obsessing over what he witnessed, a subject of ridicule for his highflying, unimaginative young colleagues. Okay, that doesn’t actually sound particularly funny on paper, but on screen, in the moment, it works.

And if you buy into the film’s exuberance less as a critical advocate of Terminators I and II and more as someone who finds release in the madness (O’Brien: “I know what’s going on here has to be really, really complicated.” Sarah Connor: “We’re here to stop the end of the world.” O’Brien: “I can work with that.”) then so too does Terminator Genisys… regardless of how it’s spelt. Jacob Edwards

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