Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2015

Terminator Genisys

Terminator: The Remix

As stupid as it is badly spelled, 'Genisys' is a magnificently concise argument against itself - and retconning in general

Terminator Genisys
Paramount Pictures
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Matt Smith and Byung-hun Lee
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 6 minutes
July 1, 2015
(out of four)

Let's just get this out of the way: Retconning is stupid. And pointless. And, frankly, it's the coward's way out. It's the direction you go when you want to restart but don't have the courage to actually press that bright red restart button. A way to start over while pretending you're not starting over.

Now that the Terminator franchise has reached its unnecessary fifth installment (following its unnecessary third installment and its unnecessary fourth installment), it has gone the way of the retcon. Becuase there's nowhere else for the story to go. But let's make no mistake - there is one, only one and exactly one reason for doing so, and that is to keep the face of the franchise intact, despite the broader desire to create something new for a modern audience.

And look, there's no bigger fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger than yours truly, and no one more eager to see him lead another great Terminator movie. But Terminator Genisys, you see, is not a movie at all. It is 126 minutes of cinematic defibrillation ... actually, no, it's more extreme than that. It's a desperate attempt to save the patient by having every internal organ surgically transplanted under the false hope that he'll be good as new, and everything will be the same as it was.

After the failure of McG's Salvation in 2009, the franchise was dead in the water ... except, instead of realizing that it had runs its course, the rights-holders attempted to regain credibility by bringing back Schwarzenegger and scrambling around all the narrative details from the series' first two entries into a steaming heap of nonsense. And they've given us this steaming heap of nonsense all for ... what, just to placate the fans (like myself) who like seeing a leather jacket-clad, shotgun-wielding Arnold kick cyborg ass? Guilty as charged, but I can't imagine a worse salute to James Cameron's original films than this warmed-over fan fiction.

I question not just the crassness of the attempt, but the purpose of the endeavor. For the life of me, I can't understand the reason - or even the appeal - for using retroactive continuity (accomplished here, as is common practice, through time-travel loopholes) to revitalize something that could just be flat-out remade and reimagined. I've never been presented with a good argument in favor of retconning. In general, I'm not even big on reboots - but it's not like remaking a movie, or a series of movies, makes the originals disappear from existence. Better a full-on remake than this split-the-difference nonsense. Kill your friggin' darlings.

Genisys has one, only one and exactly one new idea to add to the mix, and that is John Connor (Jason Clarke) going back to the past as a human/machine hybrid trying to stop his mother Sarah's (Emilia Clarke) attempts to prevent Judgment Day. Everything else is just a convoluted attempt to rewrite the series' existing narrative, and then relentlessly justify and explain each new wrinkle to pretend it makes some sort of sense even when it clearly does not. We're constantly bombarded with reference points to the previous (superior) films, like a new incarnation of the T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) showing up (in 1984, no less) for no reason other than to wink at Terminator 2.

Half the movie is essentially a remix of the older movies, to the extent that it mixes actual footage from the first movie with new stuff, messily stitching together a CGI-reliant fight scene between old 2015 Schwarzenegger and young 1984 Schwarzenegger. (I couldn't help but interpret it as a giant metaphorical battle between Cameron's The Terminator and Alan Taylor's Terminator Genisys, and it's not hard to determine who wins that fight.)

But what's most conspicuous as we watch this all play out is what an anachronism Schwarzenegger's T-800 is this time around. He's the only connective tissue between this movie and the previous entries. Watching Genisys is like getting front-row seats to the reunion tour of an old band that only has one original member remaining, half-heartedly banging through weak new versions of the old hits with a bunch of younger, less talented alternates in tow. Imagine seeing a "Led Zeppelin" concert, but only Jimmy Page remains; Robert Plant has been replaced by, say, Adam Levine; John Bonham has been replaced by a drum machine; and John Paul Jones has been replaced by ... I don't know, Jai Courtney? And make no mistake, the casting here is every bit as uninspired. I like Emilia Clarke as an actress, but she doesn't have the same action-heroine presence or physicality of Linda Hamilton. Clarke is adequate and forgettable. And Courtney, as Kyle Reese, is sensationally dull, especially because it's so clear that the character should have been played by Timothy Olyphant. (I mean, come on. Olyphant looks kinda like Michael Biehn, he sounds kinda like Michael Biehn, he's a good actor, he's a badass ... what am I missing? And what in the hell is a Jai Courtney? Why is he happening?)

If this sounds like a depressing experience, it is. The very conceit of Genisys is an admission that there are no ideas left here to exploit. All Taylor and screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier can do is play around with what we already know - and as it turns out, their playfulness is neither smart nor creative nor particularly interesting.

Similarly, there's very little in cinema I find more disheartening than a movie with no directorial vision, aesthetic or purpose. It's pretty damning when a sequel by McG, of all people, retroactively comes across like a deeply coherent piece of work. Taylor does a passable job managing the technical aspects, but his film as a whole is worthless garbage that serves only to remind us how special the first two incarnations really were. When a movie spends two hours overtly inviting comparisons to its predecessors, it can't blame us for finding the comparison lopsided. But it's not just that it doesn't hold up - few sci-fi actioners do - it's that its entire reason for being is to directly engage those original films, to be a part of them, and to use those ideas to kickstart the franchise back to relevance. But The Terminator and Terminator 2 don't need any halfwit sequel to play with; they were just fine on their own. If these filmmakers really were inspired by the earlier movies, they would have used that inspiration to create something new, not just nonsensically plunder old material.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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