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Terminator Genisys

Entry updated 12 April 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2015). Paramount Pictures/Skydance Productions. Directed by Alan Taylor. Written by Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussler. Cast includes Wayne Bastrup, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, Byung-hun Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, J K Simmons. 125 minutes. Colour.

Terminator Genisys is a remake/reboot of The Terminator (1984), which initiated the original Terminator sequence, plus Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), both directed by James Cameron, with shots and shout-outs traceable to later episodes as well. Before its release, Paramount Pictures had already greenlighted two sequels, so the current effort can be seen as a strategic reconfiguring of (and near-certain market obliteration for) the previous series, preparing the way for the full-bore follow-ups to come; it is claimed that Cameron has approved this twenty-first century take on his much earlier inspiration. This approval may have been based on kindly sight of the script alone.

Certainly, in the event, a heavy discharge of CGI-dominated gigantism porn conceals the petitely embedded closet drama that Terminator Genisys unfolds within its San Francisco setting, which is destroyed at least twice in different timelines (see California). Too much money is clearly the root of this evil, if a budget exceeding $150,000,000 can be seen as too much money (it is here). In this case not only does that huge budget grotesquely inflate a thin if complicated story – during the course of which the original Terminator (now re-Christened the Guardian) (Schwarzenegger) continues its/his transformation into a doggy loyal-unto-death Stepin Fetchit – but its deployment within the constraints necessary to gain the PG13 certificate Terminator Genisys's producers clearly wanted amplifies and distorts those constraints in ways those responsible cannot have intended. Bloodless mayhem in PG13 style may have always been unrealistic, even in the best of circumstances; but contemporary CGI effects can magnify, bloodlessly, the destruction of a car or two, or the elimination of a posse of Red Shirts, into the elimination of an entire city: the analogy to drone warfare, which enables the decimation of populations at the touch of a button, is not perhaps far-fetched.

The action of Terminator Genisys consequently includes a great deal of heart-sickening collateral damage, moving from an inevitable loss of life through car crashes up to the hecatombs attendant upon the evisceration of a city like San Francisco, but without a single human casualty in sight; there is in this film even a homage to the seemingly mandatory Second Unit Cliché where a vehicle, in this occasion metastasized into an enormous school bus, escapes pursuit by going the wrong direction down a freeway, causing untold (which is to say unseen) mayhem and human anguish en route. Intimately tied to this affect-free savagery is the totally uninhibited but PG13-compliant presence of a vast armamentarium of devastating weapons of war placed in the hands of children, who fire at will and at random at almost anything in sight, though nobody is ever seen getting hurt. Also gaining a to-die-for PG13 Values Star is the film's disheartening sexual prurience (coy hints of photoshoppish nudity without point or, for that matter, rude bits), plus some randomly inserted Family-Is-Best Precious Moments played out against a sugary retro-ruralized suburban backdrop (no Hispanic gardeners visible) that would make Ray Bradbury blush. The PG13 mandate moreover allows the film's producers to shape this story, about the End of the World through inconceivable violence, in a manner consistent with Young Adult marketing directives: everything from time-outs for spats up to the climax of the film where the budding protagonists realize they love one another just in time to demolish (with further unseen loss of life) a five-tower complex occupied by Silicon Valley-style all-night workers, a cascade of collapsing skyscrapers filmed with such exquisite tact that the fall of the Twin Towers is inevitably evoked.

A further problem for the makers of Terminator Genisys lies in the fact that the traditional slipperiness of Time Travel as a plot mover has clearly defeated any attempts to make coherent sense of a tale whose Jonbar Point lies in the future of at least one of the Alternate Worlds that bifurcate or trifurcate from that point as the Changewar intensifies. In a sense, however, the makers of this movie may have benefited from the fact that the events it depicts cannot really be comprehended, because their primary task, almost certainly undoable with any plausibility, was to reboot the original 1984-1991 movies from the perspective of 2015, two eras and film-technology epistemes which do not marry easily. A little obfuscation might help paper over the chaos within.

Franchise issues aside, blockbuster sf Cinema may in a sense reflect an overarching cultural dis-ease with the way we live now, hence retrofit films like this one or Jurassic World (2015) or Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). But the makers of Terminator Genisys faced a particularly tough challenge: James Cameron himself, for the oneiric intensity of his original Terminator films tends to burn, even in memory, through the CGI here on display. Nor could Cameron's 1980s vision of planetary nightmare been easy to repurpose. In the original films, set centrally in 2029, Homo sapiens is on the verge of being destroyed by innumerable deadly Terminator machines under the central control of a vast Computer called Skynet, which wages war on all creatures of flesh just like the USSR was planning to do; Skynet's "motives" are not given, but its totalitarian actions are clearly meant to arouse a Cold War Paranoia already beginning to fade by the 1980s, and by 2015 a subject for nostalgia.

In the original franchise, human resistance in 2029 has been immeasurably strengthened by the strategic genius of the heroic John Connor (not seen in the first film, Edward Furlong in the second); because we do not see this father figure much, and because in 1984 it remained possible to accept the heroism of resistance leaders without demur, Connor remains the lodestone around which the plot turns. To eliminate him, Skynet sends a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton in both films) before she can become his mother. But John himself sends back Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to prevent this; Kyle staves off the Terminator and sleeps with Sarah, begetting John, but dies in a final encounter.

Elements of this story are replicated in the Terminator Genisys rebooting exercise, through a glass darkly. After a broody voiceover from Kyle (Courtney), we are introduced to John Connor (Jason Clarke); Clarke, the only competent actor in the film, subtly impersonates the complex Connor in a performance that uncannily evokes both John Vernon or Bill Murray, sometimes at the same time. In a Young Adult film like Terminator Genisys,where complicatedness in a fatherly American male will – like talking too much – almost certainly unpack as moral turpitude, we soon learn that Connor is about to be "turned" into an extremely advanced Shapeshifting Terminator, who will attempt to persuade Sarah and Kyle to join him because resistance is useless. Before these scenes, alert viewers will have already noted warning signals of Connor's inherent unAmericanness through the demagogic speech he delivers to his human soldiers before they attack the Machine stronghold, where a Time Machine is nearing completion; but before Connor's true nature is revealed, this machine will be used to send Kyle back to 1984, as in the earlier film, to accomplish the same goal: to keep Connor alive.

It is not, however, as simple this time round. In the reboot, Kyle lands in an Alternate History version of 1984 San Francisco, a world in which the Terminator/Guardian has already been reprogrammed to protect Sarah (Emilia Clarke, no relation to Jason), and where Sarah knows all about Kyle. Several semi-comical scenes are required before the young warrior, who is no intellectual, can be persuaded they are all on the same side; and that Connor (now also magically in 1984) is a father they need to fear. En passant, Kyle catches glimpses through time of himself as a young boy (Bastrup) transfixed by an important message implanted (at some other time) by himself as an adult; but by now the story has begun to drown in time-travel intricacies far beyond the cast's (or our) ability to scan. Fragments of a chamber drama do precariously unfold all the same between bouts of noise: based on his own message, which his child self repeats back to him "now", Kyle must persuade Sarah that they must travel to 2017, in a Time Machine constructed out of 1984 tin cans by the Guardian, a point in time when they may be able to nip Skynet in the bud. The message young Kyle has given older Kyle is simple, though they have to reach 2017 to decipher it: "Skynet is Genisys."

Genisys is a new app developed by Cyberdyne, a Google-like search engine corporation based in San Francisco; it is due to go active in May 2017 when – consistent with justified contemporary Paranoia about media megacorps using information to monetize us – it will instantly enslave a billion pre-enrolled users for profit. Though the makers of the film do not make this clear, Genisys is not really a computer in the old sense but a vast distributed computation network linked through a billion smartphones. The phrase "Skynet is Genisys" nevertheless tells us – asks us to believe – that in May 2017 the awakening of billion-headed Genisys will give birth to Skynet, a ponderous super-computer from ages past, programmed with the same goal it had in Cold War 1984: to kill every human in sight. At this point it may have seemed obvious, even to the producers of Terminator Genisys, that committing species genocide might be an inefficient way to enslave that species for profit; and that the contemporary Genisys might seem far more deadly in the minds of contemporary viewers than the 1984 Skynet. But any such realization came too late. The reboot is nonsense. 2015 cannot rewire 1984.

The rest is racket. With the help of the Guardian, and armed with their love plus some tasty new Weapons, Connor's parents-to-be utterly demolish their son and Genisys, along with what remains of San Francisco. They kiss at last. But a post-credits scene strongly suggests that Genisys/Skynet has jumped the sinking ship via yet another Time Machine. Let the carnage begin again and again. [JC]


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