Saturday, 25 July 2015

Why Terminator Genisys didn't work (and why Terminator 3 was grossly underrated)

Terminator Genisys is the kind of film that people wrongly said the third film was. I should say that I'm a lot more tolerant of the Terminator franchise than a lot of people have been since James Cameron moved on. I loved the first two films, but I also loved the third film and the TV series. I was particularly annoyed when Mark Kermode described Genisys as "marginally better" than T3. I'll get on to the reasons why I feel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a worthy sequel and a fine film throughout this piece. The TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles obviously doesn't have the compact cinematic structure of the first three films, but was sometimes able to produce a strange poetry from the concepts. The fourth film was until now the series's only dud, but thanks to Genisys I have to concede its future looks bleak.

To my mind, T3 had only one weakness, which the series is still struggling with: how do you top the Terminator and the T1000 as creations? Adam Roberts has pointed out that they are both excellent metaphors for death as pursuer:

What is the Terminator? The Terminator is death; his grinning titanium skull the latest incarnation of an ancient western tradition of iconic momento mori. The first film dramatised, straightforwardly and therefore effectively, life’s struggles and attempted flight from the implacable pursuit of death. The simplicity of the narrative served the story perfectly, because our own mortality is, on one level, wholly linear and perfectly simple: it will come; it will come straight, it will come straight for you; it will not stop. Without exception, that’s the fate of everybody in the world. This unsettling existential truth is at the heart of the original movie’s enduring resonance. In a nutshell, the first Terminator movie said: death is singular, implacable and after you. That’s true. (What I mean when I say this is that although we know, intellectually, that death is general, not singular--that although we die individually others live on--nevertheless that’s not how it feels. Our impending deaths, as the end of our world, feel like the end of the world).

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) told the same story with one wrinkle. It was a text that said: death is still singular, still coming for you personally, still implacable. But it is also protean. That still works, as a core metaphor; and the chase-narrative line of that film was as linear as the first, which is good.

 The Terminator is hardness personified:  heavy metal beneath the flesh of a bodybuilder, implacable, unfeeling, remorseless, not held back by fire, bullets or explosives. The T1000 was softness personified: malleability, mimeticism, unpredictability, polymorphousness, adaptability. T3 couldn't follow this, so its antagonist, the TX, is just a combination of both (and Kristanna Loken, while adequate, is also too conventional a piece of casting, lacking the uncanny, inhuman screen presence that Schwarzenegger, Robert Patrick and the underappreciated trio of Summer Glau, Garret Dillahunt and Shirley Manson from The Sarah Connor Chronicles had in spades). Genisys begins by producing another T1000 (although I've no idea how he ended up in the first film's timeline), then replaces him with an antagonist who isn't significantly different in visual terms, but merely another variation on the death-as-protean metaphor Roberts described.

   The fourth film, 2009's Terminator Salvation, was actually the first one to let the side down. Roberts wrote of Salvation in the same piece:

Terminator: Salvation ditches the eloquence of its own core metaphor. It can’t resist the opportunity to throw all manner of ingenious terminator-types at the screen: robot jets, giant robots, robot motorcycles (which are also the giant robot’s knees), robot half-men-half-biscuits, robot mini flying saucers, robot 1984-vintage Schwarzeneggers, robot conga eels, robot Helena Bonham Carter hologrammatic heads, robot gun emplacements and robot concentration camps. A lot of these realisations are ingenious, and fun to watch, but they mean that the film is, at its heart, saying: death is a whole bunch of stuff, and the notable thing about death is that it is cool. It is saying: death is a futuristic obstacle course. 

The same criticism can be applied to Genisys. The Terminator films are about movement. The Terminator is coming for you. And when you shoot, burn or blow him up, he still keeps coming for you. The first three films are in two senses chase narratives: running away from the Terminator, and running away from humanity's fate. As the chase progresses, we learn more about the future. Just as the Terminator is not merely a cool cyborg but a metaphor for the Reaper, so Skynet is not merely a warning against artificial intelligence and Cold War automated Mutually Assured Destruction - both of which are dated concerns - but a metaphor for Fate, hence Judgement Day. These three narratives are honed, sharpened, thinned: not too much scenes set in the future; a sense of intrigue as to how these characters will clash before the first cathartic chase (Who is Kyle? Is the Terminator human? What do they want with Sarah? Has the Terminator been reprogrammed? What is the T1000? What does the TX want with Kate?); the first battle - which combines action, mystery and exposition - and a solid three-act structure to the setpieces.

   The action in Genisys, by contrast, gets off to a jarring start. The scene where the Terminator returns to his first scene from the first film to fight his younger self - interrupting him before he can murder three loitering punks - has been promoted as if it were the film's biggest selling point, yet this curiously redundant, dramatically inert scene is a striking example of how the script fails to understand the patterns, shapes and rhythms that drive the central metaphors behind the Terminator series. We aren't rooting for the three thugs the younger Terminator approaches - who are sinister and potentially murderous figures - and we know they won't appear in any other scenes and are of no importance to the plot. Consequently, the older Schwarzenegger's entrance carries no sense of relief, and does nothing for the narrative. It doesn't even begin to compare with the excitement of the Terminator saving John in T2's first setpiece, or Kyle saving Sarah in the first film. Someone has simply said "wouldn't it be cool if Arnold fought himself?" and the FX team indulge him. An elaborate action sequence with school buses twirling through the air and then dangling over the edge of the Golden Gate bridge isn't built up to, but is sandwiched between equally elaborate FX-fests only a few minutes before or after in which cyborgs smash into each other and vehicles are hurled at the screen. The amount of time Terminator 2 was prepared to spend between its second and third setpieces, allowing the tension to build up and giving us breathing space to get to know these characters and make the climax a far more emotional experience, seems unthinkable in the age of thunk thunk THUNK movies like Genisys and Man of Steel.

   The beauty of the first three films' time travel narratives (vivid but short glimpses of the future, taut narratives set in the present) has been replaced with a much less potent narrative involving alternative timelines, time-travelling from the 1980s to the near present, and an overly long-winded beginning set in the future. It took days for me to realise why Judgement Day is postponed from 1997 to 2017: I think it's because the remains of the 1984  Terminator no longer get left in that factory seen at the end of the first film for Cyberdyne to find and subsequently use to invent Skynet: a point totally unexplained onscreen. Yet while this is often hard to follow, it brings nothing new to the Terminator mythos. The Genisys (how peculiarly irritating to spell it wrong for no reason) storyline is a rehash of bland science fiction from Stormbreaker to Rise of the Cybermen, and while T3 had the slow realisation that the virus Skynet was on the verge of being unleashed to tackle was actually Skynet itself, and T2 had the strong presence of Joe Morton as Miles Dyson, here Genisys is created purely so that we can be told it is Skynet from its first mention (reminiscent of the crap disguises adopted by 60s Batman villains). JK Simmons's character seems to appear purely in order to be kept alive for the sequel, and Matt Smith has no more gravitas playing the personification of Skynet itself than he did as Doctor Who.

   T3 was much more interesting because it had a nasty shock for its audience: despite what T2 had led us to believe, Judgement Day is not preventable. The idea that humanity's ultimate task will not be to prevent Judgement Day but to survive it is a genuinely different take on the story, putting the previous 2 films in a different light, which is precisely what Genisys doesn't have. And notice how this horrifying climax sees all the narrative strands - John and Kate's awkwardness at the idea of their predestined relationship, only to find unexpected strength together, John's realisation at what the Terminator was trying to tell them all along and his realisation that his task as leader will be a lot less triumphant but no less crucial - come together. This is drama.

   Another criticism that might well be offered of Terminator Genisys is that it sentimentalises the Terminator himself, but to be fair, that was hardly less true of the second film. T3, on the other hand, did something cleverer, building on the twist that T2 brought to the character. At first, it seems to be a reprise of the T2 relationship, with John even acknowledging that the Terminator is the only father figure he has ever had. Then we get the immensely powerful moment in which the Terminator reveals that before the resistance captured him, reprogrammed him and sent him through time, he terminated John. Similarly, the Terminator isn't here to save humanity from Judgement Day: he's here to help us prepare for it. Here he is something less cutesy than in T2 or Genisys: he is the friendly face of the Grim Reaper, something not dissimilar to Terry Pratchett's Death. There is a marvellous moment when John and Kate manage to share a joke together, and the Terminator comments "Your levity is good, it relieves tension and the fear of death." It's poignant, it's funny, it's a nice character moment for all three, and it's slightly creepy.

   Those kind of moments are missing from Genisys due to the convoluted nature of the rebooted versions of Sarah, Kyle and John. Compare the famous line in the first film: "for the few hours we were together we loved a lifetimes worth." That line has a good, simple emotional kick to it. In the first three films, first Sarah than John than John and Kate are ordinary people told that they will become humanity's only hope. This too is a good, simple idea to run with. In Genisys by contrast we have a Sarah and Kyle who haven't time to become lovers, yet know that they will become lovers and parents of the saviour of humanity, a Sarah who already knows about Skynet and who has been raised by the Terminator (offscreen, in contrast to T2's Sarah who has become a warrior in response to events the audience got to see in the first film) from childhood, and a John that Sarah meets before she has conceived him only to find out he is now a Terminator set upon the destruction of humanity. It's hard to identify with such characters, and this means the frenetic action isn't countered by emotion as it was in the first three films. As CS Lewis put it, to tell how odd things struck odd people is an oddity too many.

   Then there's the problem of the male leads. Michael Biehn, as Kyle Reese in the first film, looked liked someone who had spent his entire life in pain, in the run, and underground. Nick Stahl - present-day John Connor in T3 - looked like someone who actually had spent the last few years "off the grid", breaking into a vet's when he needed painkillers, and who couldn't understand how a mess like him could be mankind's saviour. Jai Courtney, by contrast, is a deeply bland Kyle Reese, a generic, vaguely hunky bore. Jason Clarke is an even more absurd casting choice: called upon to play first the leader of humanity and then the film's antagonist, he turns in such a charisma-free performance that in the first role one wonders if anyone in the future would have listened to him, and in the second role one gets irritated rather than frightened every time he turns up. 

   This was why I found it galling that James Cameron should record an endorsement for Genisys in which he said "it feels to me like the third film...I feel like the franchise has been feels like a renaissance", although this is less stunning when you remember Cameron presumably also thinks True Lies, Titanic and Avatar are good films. Rather than a renaissance, Genisys may deal the series a deathblow. Unlike the blandness of Salvation, it will be hard for the franchise to ignore. The presence of Schwarzenegger and the way the film makes audiences fed up with convoluted  time travel make it unfeasible that yet another sequel ignoring it in turn could be released. What we had here was a modern myth, using the language of modern pop culture to address apocalyptic fears: fate, destiny, love, death and hope. Now we've got something that may be as dead as RoboCop.

So, why don't we all watch the third film again?