Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: "Terminator: Genisys"

Here's a surefire hint on gauging Terminator movies: Was it directed by James Cameron? If not, then it's not worth your time.

"Terminator: Genisys" takes us back to the roots of the iconic killer-robots-from-the-future franchise, and then proceeds to trample all over those roots. It removes all the paranoid dread of the first two movies along with every drop of emotional punch, and replaces them with a loopy retcon narrative that feels pulled straight out of a cheap comic book spinoff.

Suddenly, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are jumping through time portals willy-nilly, and are soon joined by their son John Connor, who becomes the future leader of the resistance against the tyranny of machines trying to crush out human existence. Different timelines with different alternate realities run up against each other, and yet somehow the characters have knowledge about the different iterations and use it to their advantage.

At one point they actually get into a testy argument about where they should go next. 1997? 2017? Who's on first?

You could lay out the plot of this movie on one of those big cork boards like you see cinematic detectives using to puzzle out a complex criminal case, with little notes and photographs linking up the different elements, and you still couldn't make sense of it all. Alan Taylor directs, from a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier.

At times it nearly turns into a full-on spoof, with Sarah and Kyle (Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney, respectively) bickering like it's a schmaltzy romantic comedy, and classic lines from the first two flicks bantered around back and forth for cheap effect -- "Nice to see you," "I'll be back," etc.

The early going includes exact reenactments of shots from the 1984 sci-fi classic, with similar-looking actors playing the alley bum, the garbage truck driver, and the trio of punk rock hoodlums.

Except, of course, the Terminator himself, who you might have heard is again played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He gets plenty of help from body doubles and CGI trickery to portray himself as a youngster again in 1984, but reverts to something close to his actual age when the action jumps into the future.

Why would a cyborg get old, you ask? Well, since it's real human tissue surrounding a mean metal skeleton, it ages exactly as a person would. This is all patiently explained for us by various characters, of course, who often seem like they're talking past each other to address expected confusion from the audience.

It's undeniably a hoot to see Arnie back in Terminator mode, speaking monotone and trying to puzzle out human emotions while laying down the badassery. You've probably guessed that he's playing the good guy again in this one, protecting the Connors rather than trying to eliminate them.

If you'll recall, one human and Terminator were sent back to 1984 to protect and kill Sarah, then we learned another pair of antagonists went to 1994 for John as a boy. Now we're told yet another good Terminator showed up in 1973, when Sarah's parents were killed.

Her cyborg savior, whom she dubbed Pops, became her protector/parent figure. Fast forward to the future, and they've got a crotchety Sanford & Son thing going on. In this altered timeline, she's no longer the wilting wallflower when Reese shows up, but a tuned-up leader.

We also get to see a new iteration of the T-1000, the super-advanced Terminator made of liquid metal who can take on various shapes and impersonate humans. And an even newer model, who has the amazing power to... well, wait and see.

There's plenty of good action scenes, and if there's a reason to buy a ticket for this movie, that's it. There are a couple of nifty chases, including one on helicopters and aboard a bus, but the best stuff is saved for when the Terminators go to town on each other. Pops shows he's still got the stuff, despite some parts that aren't functioning quite like they used to. "I'm old, not obsolete," he insists.

J.K. Simmons, fresh off an Oscar win, seems ill-used here as a broken-down cop with a personal connection to the Terminator saga. It's one of those roles that should've been built way up or dumped entirely. Courtney B. Vance plays inventor Miles Dyson, whom you'll recall everyone was trying to kill at one point in these movies, and Dayo Okeniyi plays his son, now grown up.

If you're wondering about the title, it refers to some amazing new software that's about to be launched to link up every computer and device on the planet, but is really nasty ol' Skynet in disguise.

After two great Terminator movies and a pair of lackluster ones, I was really hoping to see something fresh that married the energy of the original films with the high-tech trickery of modern moviemaking. Instead we got something old, a bit of something new, a whole bunch of borrowed quips, and that's left me feeling blue.

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