‘Terminator: Genisys’: Franchise reboot uneven but interesting

‘Terminator: Genisys’: Franchise reboot uneven but interesting

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If nothing else, director Alan Taylor seemed determined to get the specific look and feel of the earlier “Terminator.”

Still image from official trailer for Paramount's "Terminator: Genisys"

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30, 2015 – Franchises are the name of the game in the summer cinematic landscape. They dominate critical and popular reviews, articles, discussions and comments for at least a quarter of the calendar year each. As they get bigger – and rake in more money – the space they occupy in the public and financial eye gets even bigger.

The “Terminator” franchise might not have been the first one of its kind. But it was one of the early examples of what modern franchise blockbusters could look like if they took off.

The latest entry in that franchise, “Terminator: Genisys,” is a continuation of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which launched all the way back in 1991. This 2015 installment has been uneven during its domestic box office run, but seems to be doing considerably better overseas, where the film’s profitability has now been established. According to Deadline, this weekend’s international box office returns have been impressive:

After opening in China last Sunday, Terminator: Genisys made a big return to the offshore charts, landing at No. 1 for the second weekend in a row. With $23.6M from 25 markets total this frame, the overseas cume is now $320.1M.

This most recent “Terminator” film, still playing in many U.S. theaters, essentially serves as a soft reboot for the franchise. That’s a term that action moviegoers should get used to if they’re not already familiar with it, as it’s not only occurring in this franchise but in others.

The basic story in play here is a fairly simple one, and it’s a well the “Terminator” series continues to go back to. Why? Because, while it is a franchise about killer robots, “the machines” also happen to be killer robots from the future, so the headaches that result from time travel have deep roots in this structure.

The overarching storyline actually begins in the future, when human resistance leader John Connor leads the final charge of humanity against an unknown target that is beneficial to Skynet, the evil Artificial Intelligence that takes over Earth. They soon that not only is that target a time machine, but that Skynet has already sent a terminator back in time, presumably to stop John Connor from existing.

With no other options – and to ensure his own creation – Connor sends his second in command, Kyle Reese, back in time to protect John’s mother, Sarah. Thus, the plot of the original 1984 “Terminator” begins in earnest.

Kyle goes through the motions that fans of the original “Terminator” are already familiar with, with the current film re-creating the original shots for the most part while generally avoiding its dingy, B-movie feel. Everything is following a familiar plot arc – albeit with the T-1000 model from “Judgment Day” rather than the Arnold T-800 model—until Kyle is saved by Sarah driving an armored truck. We later discover she’s being assisted by a T-800 named “Pops.”

It’s at this point where things diverge greatly from the early series. At the same time, we also begin to catch the first bits of 2015 technical wizardry used to re-create the 1984-era atmosphere of the original “Terminator.”

Not only do the filmmakers use motion capture to resurrect body builder-era Arnold Schwarzenegger in their re-creation of the T-800 model terminator. They also use the same technique to recapture the T-1000 model that chases Kyle around at this point. Not surprisingly, it, too, looks remarkably like Robert Patrick, the actor who portrayed that terminator model, Arnold’s nemesis in “Judgment Day.”

If nothing else, director Alan Taylor seemed determined to get the specific look and feel of these earlier characters right, even if our current technology wasn’t evolved enough to actually allow them to actually go backwards in real time.

There’s a lot of focus on time travel in this movie, more so than in any other installment of this series. This is, at least in part, because a crucial point of the plot hinges on the possibility that the timeline can indeed be altered.

That’s why we’re now told that instead of Skynet’s becoming active in 1997 as a defense apparatus against a nuclear holocaust, its functionality is shifted. It’s actually part of an all-encompassing operating system called Genisys, a complex construct that takes all individuals’ actions online and combines them into essentially a single, comprehensive package.

Then, in 2017, Skynet gains sentience, becomes aware, and proceeds to wreak havoc on humans everywhere. Now, Sarah and Kyle have their general objective, albeit somewhat refined. It’s the same only different.

Another of the underlying themes that drive the “Terminator” franchise, continued in “Genisys,” is the surprising fear of technology that pervades each of these films. It’s ironic and actually anachronistic compared to the actual technological advancements in film the series itself has pioneered over the years, primarily in “Judgment Day” but to a lesser but still impressive extent in “Genisys.” But there’s an historically valid reason for this.

In 1984, when the first “Terminator” was released and when Skynet supposedly came to life, this seemingly startling fear of advanced technology and systems didn’t just come out of thin air. People today already seem to have forgotten that it was during the 1980s that the Reagan administration announced its space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to counter what was perceived as the ongoing Soviet threat to this country.

Ironically dubbed “Star Wars” by skeptics and administration opponents—who were referring, of course, to that famous, earlier tech-war film—SDI conjured up visions of a very real technological threat, the potential transformation of satellites into weapons turned against people.

This became a very real future-technology fear—the idea that ever more sophisticated computers and machines could actually achieve consciousness and weaponization—even if the media at the time ridiculed the idea. To filmgoers and average, technically aware citizens, this notion didn’t seem ridiculous or far-fetched at all

“Genisys” plays up to that same fear, but in a manner that differs from the earlier franchise films. For most people today, life is about being able to be connected to everyone and everything at a moment’s notice. With today’s portable devices, we have gained virtually instant access to everyone else. So it’s not far-fetched to imagine that, with so many devices involved, that those devices and their functionality could slowly coalesce, little by little, to the point where a single operating system could theoretically control them all.

Now what would happen if that single operating system started to dictate and enforce everything concerning our lives, our culture, and our society? In so doing, it would just about control everything in existence. That’s indeed a terrifying concept, were such a methodology to suddenly run amok. It’s exactly this kind of control that the characters are and always have been fighting against in the movies of the “Terminator” franchise.

Genisys takes this fear one step further in its evolution of the Skynet/Genisys concept. “Terminator: Genisys” actually gives Skynet/Genisys a concrete form for the first time, transforming artificial intelligence from a theoretical batch of computing code into an actual entity. It’s an interesting idea. But it comes up short, exposing some of the general flaws in this series.

In previous movies, Skynet has been an ominous but unseen force, constantly attacking our heroes through proxies of the various time-traveling terminators. It’s always been more of an idea than actual, tangible threat. Now, in this film, Skynet is an entity, even if the filmmakers’ concept of AI is still shockingly limited.

Roughly halfway through the film Skynet/Genisys is presented as a child, which then proceeds to get older as the countdown to Genisys’ release date looms closer. At first, this just seems like a fun trick that’s played on the audience. But as the movie moves toward its conclusion, Skynet/Genisys actually interacts with Sarah and Kyle as they attempt to stop it.

This exposes Skynet/Genisys as a hollow villain. That’s always been true, of course, but not the way it is here. Skynet was always treated as an AI or at the very least, as a complex computer program that gains sentience. Similar to “Nomad” in the original “Star Trek” TV series, Skynet’s entire purpose is self-preservation. At some point, of course, that means eliminating humans because, if they see their creation moving away from their control, they will ultimately want to destroy it.

Suddenly, humans find they are basically fighting a force of nature, which in a way means they can never win. In the current film, however, Genisys tries to do all things and comes up short. It attempts to give Skynet a face. But the evolving Skynet has no real motivation, allowing its human creators to detach themselves from Skynet and their apparent fate. That’s the scientific, philosophical and social flaw that limits “Terminator: Genisys.”

Despite all its time-travel kookiness, the current “Terminator” effort is a fairly straightforward movie, with the path from point A to point B clearly mapped out for the audience once all the faux science jargon is tossed aside.

There are a few points where this film tries to incorporate an ‘80s sci-fi, new wave feel with 2015 big budget aesthetics. At times this even works. But ultimately, “Terminator: Genisys” is still a fairly drab film, redeemed with the visual saving grace of action sequences that are remarkably clear.

Despite the film’s flaws, it’s still fascinating to observe Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robot as it tries to appear as human as possible. Similarly, the notion of a T-800 dealing with the age process is an interesting and unexpected angle.

Also on the plus side, Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor gives the film an emotional backbone that it’s lacked in the past by exploring some her grievances about being the mother of a revolution whether she wants that for herself or not. The major characters’ interaction and rapport keeps this movie afloat for most of its running time, also giving the audience some real characters to root for as they move from one action sequence to another.

As a film, “Terminator: Genisys” is far from being a smashing success. But it’s tolerable and at times quite enjoyable in interesting if uneven ways.

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