Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Future, Postponed

Terminator: Genisys

Terminator: Genisys (2015, directed by Alan Taylor) is not as bad as you may have heard. It's certainly no worse than any given city-destroying blockbuster of current vintage, but then again, it's also not really any better. It's kind of fun, if you're in the right frame of mind. At the bare minimum, it's anonymous and professional. In spite of all that, its existence in the first place is fundamentally immoral, in so far as it robs the audience of something new for their money almost to the point of self-parody. It's easy to hate the film for that. Looking at it as a critical observer involves a certain amount of double vision, because this is a case when the text of the movie and the meta-text of the movie are two entirely different animals. There's some cognitive dissonance involved.

The story here finds the human resistance defeating Skynet and capturing the time displacement facility through which Skynet has sent terminators into the past. Human leader John Connor recruits Kyle Reese to travel to 1984. His mission is to save his mother, with the unspoken and unknown (to Reese) intention of fathering Connor himself. As Reese is sent into the past, he glimpses a final attack on John, and then has a series of visions as he's transported into 1984. The past he expects is not the past where he arrives. He's ambushed by a T-1000 liquid metal cyborg and is rescued by Sarah Connor, who is already fully aware of her role in the future and is fully prepared for it. At her side is "Pops," an aging terminator who has already dispatched the model originally sent for Sarah. Pops was originally sent by persons unknown into the past to save a 9 year old Sarah from a T-1000. Clearly, Reese soon discovers, things have come unstuck from the timeline he knows. Sarah and Pops have been building a time machine of their own, with the intention of heading off Judgement Day in 1997, but that timeline is irrevocably changed, and Reese, realizing his time-traveling visions are memories from an alternate timeline, convinces them to travel to 2017 instead, where a new computer operating system that links everything in the world will become Skynet. Sarah and Kyle travel forward while Pops takes the long way in order to prep for their arrival. Unfortunately for them, Skynet itself has sent an unexpected agent to protect its own birth in the form of John Connor himself, who has been absorbed by the nano-particles of an even more advanced terminator model, one that might be impossible for Sarah and Kyle to destroy...

Emilia Clarke, Arnold Scwarzenegger, and Jai Courtney in Terminator: Genisys

There's a dialectic between the first two Terminator movies. The first film is purely deterministic. It's a closed loop in which time and the flow of events are unstoppable. The future, in the first film, is fixed. The second film, with its mantra of "there is no future but what we make," is a free will movie, one in which the future is not set and can be changed, in which changing the present diverts the stream of time. The films after Terminator 2 don't know what to do about this, because the end of Terminator 2 would seem to forestall the possibility of sequels. The subsequent films--and a TV series--have spent a lot of energy retconning the story to allow Skynet to exist and to allow Judgement Day to happen. Without those two things, there is no franchise, and no money to be made. Movie studios prefer a deterministic universe where there is only limited free will, where the events that must happen will happen. I find this a little depressing.

Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney in Terminator: Genisys

The concept of the ret-con is one of Marvel Comics' enduring, um, gifts to pop culture. The version here adopts the J. J. Abrams model of time-traveling ret-con which not only extends the franchise, it excises the memory of less well-loved entries in the series as canon. In the case of Terminator: Genisys, it also excises Terminator 2, which is foolish, given that T2, for all its flaws, is one of the cinema's keystone works. This film is a gnat in comparison. This is, instead, an assertion by the controlling studio of the primacy of the franchise over the individual film, another enduring gift from Marvel Comics, who have been in the business of decentering their films from the creative primacy of the director. Mind you, The Terminator was at least partially inspired by the old X-Men story, "Days of Future Past," so it's an ongoing influence. It's an influence that reaches its natural conclusion in a franchise-building credit cookie of the sort that Marvel's Avengers movies have so thoroughly  popularized. The conversion of art to product is here completed. Part of the process of converting The Terminator to product is a mad desire to sell the audience something they've already consumed. Great whacks of this film are shot for shot recreations of the 1984 film, with only Schwarzenegger as the connecting element. This is pop eating itself. In truth, I find this more than a little bit immoral, as I've already said, but I have the same opinion of Jurassic World and the Marvel movies, too.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Genisys

Still, I had fun watching this. Schwarzenegger is game, resurrecting a screen persona that's been absent in most of his post-governator films. There's an essential goofiness to his performance in this film, which surprisingly allows his character--listed as "The Guardian" rather than as "The Terminator" in the end credits--to age and make light of his age. The film employs expensive and mostly convincing computer effects to depict Schwarzenegger at various ages. There's a new relationship dynamic between the terminator and Sarah Connor in this film, as he acts as something of a father figure to her. This results in one of the longest and most awkward "date" movies I can remember, with Schwarzenegger becoming a parody of the tough, disapproving father to Emilia Clarke's daughter. This would work better if Jai Courtney were a better actor instead of a sucking void as Kyle Reese. Courtney is badly miscast; he doesn't have the world-weariness of Michael Biehn's performance, nor the rangy physique of a man who's been through a death camp and a war of shocking privations. Courtney is buff, well-fed, the product of long days at the gym. The centering of this film on Reese as the ostensible protagonist bothers me a little, too, given that the first couple of Terminator films are rare examples of movies about badass women. Emilia Clarke is a game Sarah Connor, and I wish the film had been more centered on her. At the very least, I wish the film had killed Kyle Reese, a la the first film, so that I wouldn't have to watch Courtnay take up space on screen. Hell, J. K. Simmons has no business being in this film in the first place and I have no qualms with watching him.

Emilia Clarke in Terminator: Genisys

The second half of this film regirgitates the second half of Terminator 2, in which our heroes must destroy Cyberdyne Systems before Skynet comes online and precipitates Judgement Day. The John Connor terminator is yet another variant of the T-1000. It all mostly plays out as the audience expects, given that this film is generous with the placement of various iterations of "Chekhov's Gun." This is embellished by the film's addition of a personality to both the John Connor terminator (played by Jason Clarke), and to Skynet itself. Skynet is played by Matt Smith, a metacinematic touch placing one of The Doctors from Doctor Who in a a film about time travel. This all plays out with an obvious inevitability, but it's executed well-enough to enjoy in the moment of watching it. Director Alan Taylor's approach to action is almost classical. It's a film that has studied James Cameron's approach to action filmmaking rather than the more indigestible run and gun style that supplanted it in the intervening years. This is a film where the geography of the actors is always clear, where the movement of elements within the frame is always purposeful. This is sometimes spectacular. The bus chase over the Golden Gate bridge compares favorably with the truck chase at the beginning of Terminator 2.

Terminator: Genisys

The end of this film is a problem, though. Instead of the existential ending of Terminator 2, with Sarah speculating about an unknown future in which there is hope, this film lays the groundwork for future films. It panders not to the audience's desire to keep watching, but to the studio's need to keep making familiar products rather than take a risk on something that's genuinely new. Was there an audience clamoring for a new Terminator movie? I submit that there was not.

Terminator: Genisys

For all its concessions to the market realities that created it, it's hard to completely expunge the DNA of so iconic a film series. This is still a heavy metal version of Frankenstein, though perhaps not to the extent that The Terminator was. It's a film that's informed and haunted by the contemporary immanence of The AI Singularity and by the sheer ubiquity of computers and technology in ordinary life circa 2015. Genisys, which is Skynet's user-friendly shell, is The Cloud, and if you distrust cloud computing, then this is a film that will play to your fears. Along with Ex Machina and Avengers: Age of Ultron, two other films about a post-human future, this forms a loose trilogy that asserts The AI Singularity as the central theme of contemporary sci fi, and The Terninator series is one of the key cinematic cyberpunk dystopias. It's weird watching a Terminator film in which the two adult leads weren't born when the first film was made. It's a reminder that we live in a stranger future than anything imagined by science fiction all those years ago. The future wasn't postponed when it wasn't destroyed by the bogies that so haunted the original film's heavy metal apocalypse. Those fears have been displaced by new fears and new cultural institutions. While Terminator: Genisys retains an apocalyptic vision--now distilled partially from 9/11 and the masochistic city-wrecking fantasies that have followed it--this also functions as a sly satire of Apple and as a Terminator film for the era of Edward Snowden. It's a Terminator film for anyone who fears the intrusion of too much connectivity at the expense of privacy or humanity. That charge of unease is undeniably present in Terminator: Genisys, however low-watt that charge may be.

So The Terminator films have become homogenized and cynical, it's true. The evidence is there on the screen when Skynet, defeated in the text of the movie, flickers back to life during the credit cookie. In spite of this there's still some pleasure to be had in watching The Terminator's brand of cultural unease take shape in the form of an entertainment. It's a stunted kind of pleasure, sure, but I don't take any kind of pleasure for granted even if I wish it weren't so conflicted and meager a thing.

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