Wooden leads weigh down the dynamic script and direction of ‘Terminator Genisys’

December 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 15, 2017

Terminator Genisys, the would-be 2015 blockbuster, does its best to invigorate an action-adventure franchise that James Cameron unwittingly launched back in 1984. Alas, the movie falls flat — an immense soufflé prepared by a chef who lacked just one or two vital ingredients.

The plot is complex but holds up as long as the viewer simply accepts it as the necessary mishegas that propels the movie from one set piece to another. The action opens in the year 2029, just as John Connor (Jason Clarke of Zero Dark Thirty, Everest and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is on the brink of leading humanity to a decisive victory over the evil computer Skynet and its legion of murderous Terminator robots.

As the last battle is seemingly won, humans seize a large machine-built device that the near-prescient Connor somehow knows is capable of sending people (and flesh-covered machines) back in time. Connor uses it to dispatch his right-hand man, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, Bruce Willis’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard and a key character in the Divergent movies), to the year 1984. Reese’s mission is to protect John’s mother from a Terminator that’s been dispatched to kill her and thus crush humanity’s rebellion even before it can reach the cradle.

So far, we’ve been watching the oft-related but never-seen setup for The Terminator, which director Cameron wrote with his producer and then-wife, Gale Ann Hurd. (At least, I’ve never seen this tale depicted on screen before; then again, I haven’t watched the 2008–09 TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.)

The first twist comes the instant before the time machine whisks Reese into the past, as he notices something sinister threaten John’s life. When Reese arrives in the past, he finds himself being stalked by a version of the nigh-indestructible liquid-metal T-1000 from 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

That’s far from the only change in the timeline. Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke of the romance Me Before You and HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones; no relation to Jason, as far as I can tell), is now being protected by “Pops” (labeled Guardian in the credits), one of the series of reprogrammed T-800 Terminators that Arnold Schwarzenegger also played in T2 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Also, Reese has inexplicable memories of a childhood he never had, which include his child self fervidly telling a mirror that he must travel to 2017 to destroy a mysterious entity called Genisys.

Reese must persuade Sarah and Pops to use their jury-rigged time travel device to journey to the 21st century rather than to 1997, the year that the machine-initiated holocaust started in the mythology of the first two Terminator movies. When they reach the future, the trio discover a novel menace that’s just as resilient and even more resourceful than the shape-shifting T-1000 and T-X antagonists from T2 and T3.

Terminator Genisys was co-scripted by Laeta Kalogridis, a producer on Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar who co-wrote the 2004 cult thriller Night Watch and who later adapted Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island for director Martin Scorsese. Her writing partner this time out is Patrick Lussier, a prolific editor who directed the 2009 horror remake My Bloody Valentine and who co-wrote and directed the 2011 Nicholas Cage vehicle Drive Angry. (Get it — vehicle?)

The duo do an admirable job of borrowing ingredients from previous Terminator outings, and they make it seem more plausible than the ostentatious silliness that was the plot of 2009’s Terminator Salvation. Also to their credit: Kalogridis and Lussier have concocted a bunch of fun violent encounters. They’re handled well by director Alan Taylor, a TV director who directed and helped script the 2001 historical comedy The Emperor’s New Clothes but is presumably better known for helming the 2013 Marvel Comics picture Thor: The Dark World.

Unfortunately, the venture is fatally hampered by poor casting decisions. The snag isn’t that the franchise’s trio of iconic future American freedom fighters are portrayed by foreigners, although that doesn’t help. (Jason Clarke and Courtney are Australian by birth, while Emilia Clarke is an Englishwoman.) The primary problem is that there is absolutely zero romantic chemistry between Courtney and Emilia Clarke.

Nearly as serious an issue is the fact that Courtney and the Clarkes seem more like actors in an action movie than people who have been through hell on earth — or a person who, in Sarah’s case, has been raised by Pops to prepare for hell on earth since a T-1000 slaughtered her parents when she was a little girl in the 1970s.

As a result, I found it hard to buy into the importance of the events on the screen. I never got too concerned about the immediate dangers facing the protagonists or the looming threat to human civilization.

In the end, the best I can say about Terminator Genisys is that it’s superior to Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation but inferior to Terminator or Terminator 2. Granted, the third and fourth entries in this series are weak tea, while the first two are classic action-adventure movies (particularly the second, for my money). So this is a bit like saying that Ronald Reagan was a better leader than Neville Chamberlain or Jimmy Carter but not as good as Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill.

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