The Empty Balcony: Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys movie posterIt’s incredible how little redundancy is built into Skynet. Not long after Terminator Genisys opens, we see the mythical John Connor leading an assault on Skynet’s time travel facilities. Connor, played by Jason Clarke, has ordered the bulk of his forces to attack Skynet itself, farther north, much to the consternation of Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), who hasn’t been let in on the Terminator series canon at this point. As the battle rages at the time machine, all of Skynet’s killer robots go inactive, signaling that Skynet has been destroyed, and only the war in the past remains undecided.

A viewer is required to engage in a large amount of suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy Terminator films. There’s the whole time travel/killer robots thing to get past, and a plot hole-to-consistency ratio that is weighted too far towards the wrong side. But the idea John Connor’s troops could attack a single location, presumably blow it to smithereens, and a worldwide computer network would collapse, is ludicrous.

This is it. We’re in the future. Thirty years ago, when the first Terminator was released, something like Skynet was as far beyond our comprehension as time travel, making it fine to just make stuff up. But today we live in a world of server farms and off-site backups. Sure, there are still times when an ISP goes offline and millions of people can’t get their email, but those times are rare, and never last all that long (unless it’s a Sony network).

Autonomous drones shooting purple lasers that turn people into dust? I’m not ready to ridicule Terminator’s treatment of the idea just yet (give it a few years before the US has autonomous drones blowing people up in Yemen), but a connection loss resulting in a complete shutdown? No way. Unless the drones are running god-awful, EA-level DRM protection. Even the end of the film, which I won’t spoil here, relies on a level of technology incompetence that some courts might consider criminal negligence. We, as a people, while still largely ignorant of how our technology works, are becoming more tech savvy with every passing year. I imagine that a hundred years from now the Terminator films will look as ridiculous to the denizens of the 22nd century as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea looks to us.

All I want is just a little bit more effort put into the parts of a movie that are plausible.

Still, Terminator Genisys is an action flick. Before the opening credits begin, it’s wise for a viewer to put what they think they know aside, and just have a good time. That’s the point of watching a movie, right? Why tear apart the movie for its lack of information security when there’s Jai Courtney to pick on.

Terminator Genisys, directed by Alan Taylor, from a screenplay by Laeta Kalgoridis and Patrick Lussier, begins shortly before the events of the first Terminator film. In that film, we see the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terminator and Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese in contemporary Los Angeles. A CGI Schwarzenegger makes the same journey in this newest film, with Courtney’s Reese close behind. But, events in 1984 don’t play out as they should. Something happened to the timeline. Instead of being sent back to protect a waitress from a threat of which she has no inkling, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is already a seasoned veteran of the time wars when Reese arrives. And she’s not alone.

Someone in a future timeline sent her back her own terminator (a convincingly de-aged Schwarzenegger) when she was girl, and it has been protecting her from all sorts of terminator models ever since. She even named it Pops.

Sarah, Kyle, and Pops now have to fend off Skynet’s terminators in 1984 and elsewhere, deciding to get proactive against Skynet. It isn’t about making sure Sarah survives long enough to raise John Connor any longer. Skynet is vulnerable in the past, and the trio mean to destroy it.

This story is a bit of a rehash of the narratives in Terminator 2 and 3, but that’s fine. What else are the protagonists in these films supposed to do? Running doesn’t work, because the terminators just keep coming.

One thing that has always worked well in these films is the action. It’s just as reliable in this film, as well, although there is a helicopter chase that was overdone. Time travel as a plot device means there’s all sorts of trickery the writers could get away with. Some films have gotten too bogged down in the idea, but Genisys acknowledges the confusion this can cause by deciding to just go with it.

Where the film doesn’t work is in its casting, unfortunately. Emilia Clarke and Courtney lack chemistry. These two are supposed to fall in love and make little John Connor, but there’s nary a spark between them. Only copious amounts of alcohol can bridge a gulf that wide. Add to that Courtney’s wooden performance, and I can’t help but come to the conclusion that a different pair of leads would have done this film better.

It’s also a squishy film at times. It’s rated PG-13, tailored to fit mass distribution, and sanitized accordingly. It’s a weird contrast for a film where so many bullets are fired. It has to be possible to take more chances and get a PG-13 rating. After all, Red Dawn, the granddaddy of all PG-13 films, managed to show some blood and not get penalized for it. It also goes through massive twists and turns to get viewers a happy ending and a sequel setup at the same time. Whether that happens is an open question, as Genisys, while profitable, did not meet expectations. That’s the business these days.

I liked this film, but not a great deal. It freshened up a franchise that was threatening to get bogged down in those time travel details, but two middling films in a row, taking into account Terminator Salvation, is not going to get fans new entries anytime soon.

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