Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Terminator In the Cubicle

I decided to catch up with the Eleventh Doctor last night, credited as "Matthew Smith" in the opening of Terminator Genisys. I'm sorry I did. As the Tenth Doctor would say, I'm so, so sorry. All the trailers made the movie look like a cheap, cynical exploitation of the franchise and that's exactly what it turned out to be. I think it says something when a movie has a credit for Hans Zimmer as "Executive Music Producer". I suspect there are more fingers than pie in this movie which would explain why its massive budget yielded special effects not half as convincing as those from Terminator 2.

There is a kind of grim, poetic symmetry--the series depicts a future taken over by machines and now the franchise seems to have been taken over by machines. What does it mean when Obi Wan Kenobi says Darth Vader is "more machine now than man"? Vader has lost his heart, he ruthlessly pushes forward a clean, cold Empire not for people but for the Empire's sake. Similarly, what was once a personal vision of James Cameron's is a cold mill pond for film school kids and flunkies who've paid their dues to go to develop from unimaginative tadpoles into gassy frogs. This isn't a movie about expressing feeling or ideas, Terminator wasn't chosen by these people because it was a story that expressed their point of view. It was chosen because of its proven marketability and availability.

The film continually rehashing bits from the first two films, revisits them in novel ways like having an older Schwarzenegger battle a younger Schwarzenegger, having the good Terminator sent back to rescue the child Sarah Connor instead of the child John Connor. Sarah talks about her whole life being about preparing and running the way child John did in Terminator 2--the superficial elements of the first two films' stories are continually called back to but without the dreams that motivated their creation.

Genisys begins with footage of the world being destroyed but the regular people shown having a picnic have a stock advertising footage quality rather than Sarah Connor's visions in Terminator 2 which conveyed her sense of urgency and hopelessness. To be sure, the absence of Linda Hamilton is a strong reflection of what's missing in Genisys though Emilia Clarke isn't as bad as I thought she was going to be. Clarke might be a decent action star in a different film but here her lack of grim, angry internal struggle between fatalism and determination completely flattens the character. Lena Headey achieved this in her own way on the too soon ended Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, she gives a more interesting performance on Game of Thrones than Clarke, too, for the same reason--her Cersei's sense of being bitterly abused by life while possessing the drive to keep trying is far more interesting than the relatively default fantasy heroine Daenerys generally works out to be.

But that's Terminator 2. The first Terminator was more of a young man's sexual fantasy, its story, which Genisys seems slightly embarrassed for having to deal with, contains several components that seem like metaphors for a male nerd's life--from Reese falling in love with a photograph to turning up naked in the world along with a more physically perfect and more emotionally closed off (and therefore more masculine) competitor. In Genisys, the subtext is Reese having to prove himself to "Pops", Schwarzenegger's Terminator protector of Sarah, now her father figure. Instead of the intimate weirdness of the first film, the characters in Genisys settle into a sitcom formula that talks down to the audience. The makers of Genisys insert many indications of their low estimation of the audience's intelligence, like Kyle and Sarah whining when Pops lapses into technical jargon and both of them having awkward lines acknowledging the necessity of being naked for time travel. Incidentally, this movie is also much more afraid of butts than the first films, every shot of a naked man's back has the buttocks scrupulously hidden by cgi shadow.

As usual, many critics complain about the film being hard to understand but it's not. It's just very, very badly written. Almost every scene has a character doing or saying something that makes no sense. A scene where an adult John Connor shows up suddenly to meet Sarah and Kyle begins with them hugging him and laughing in surprise and joy before a couple minutes later when it occurs to them he might be a T-1000. John and Kyle spend more time talking about beer than briefing Kyle on the situation in 1984--even after Kyle mentions that he doesn't even know what a waitress is.

Matt Smith isn't the only thing borrowed from Doctor Who, the second half of the film lifts much of the plot from the sixth episode of Smith's third season as the Doctor, "The Bells of Saint John", focusing on Skynet as a social media and phone network though without any of the subtext of "Bells of Saint John" and certainly none of the writing quality. Whatever Doctor Who writers are being paid it's not enough. Even all the audio plays are better than Terminator Genisys.

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