(Note: This article contains spoilers for “Terminator: Genisys,” although not nearly as many as the trailers do.)
The summer of 2015 is not off to a great start, but its blockbusters are doing an excellent job of diagnosing what’s wrong with contemporary blockbusters. First, “Jurassic World” built its plot around an extended metaphor for its own superfluousness, and now “Terminator: Genisys” serves as a potent, if unwitting, condemnation of the endless-reboot era. “Genisys” both overlaps with and rewrites other movies in the series, especially James Cameron’s 1984 original. “Genisys” director Alan Taylor recreates some “Terminator” sequences shot for shot, but the script, by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, profoundly rewrites the series’ chronology, so that instead of a helpless waitress who learns to be a warrior, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is already a gun-toting badass, having had her first encounter with a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), whom she calls “Pops,” in 1973. Her son, John, played as a battle-scarred adult by Jason Clarke, is still the leader of the anti-machine resistance in 2029, and he still sends his most trusted lieutenant, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, or maybe Sam Worthington or Liam Hemsworth or a sack of meat with a wig on it) back to 1984 to protect her, but it’s not clear she needs protecting, or if, in this altered timeline, either of them — or anything that happened in the previous movies — still matters at all. It’s the perfect encapsulation of how popular culture in 2015 is obsessed with recreating the surfaces of past successes while ignoring or outright perverting their substance. It doesn’t matter if “Genisys” taps into any of the factors that allow both “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” to hold up decades later; as long as “Genisys” looks like a “Terminator” movie, people will show up on opening weekend, and that’s all that matters.
That’s not the only way “Genisys” embodies what’s wrong with Hollywood movies. In fact, the more you think about it — or the more I do, since I don’t advise wasting your own precious gray matter — the more its faults seem emblematic. It’s not a good movie in any way at all, but it’s a perfect representation of why movies aren’t better. Here are some of the ways in which what’s wrong with “Terminator: Genisys” is what’s wrong with everything else.
It’s been argued that you can’t spoil a good movie: I knew the plot twists in “Citizen Kane” and “Psycho” for years before I saw them, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that knowledge diminished even my initial viewing. But “Terminator: Genisys” is not a good movie, and giving away a major turn that occurs well over an hour into the movie takes a big chunk out of whatever is to be had from watching it in the first place. I suppose you can sympathize with Paramount’s marketing department, who had the difficult task of making a new “Terminator” movie seem both comfortingly familiar and excitingly new, but even as someone who finds “Genisys” barely worth watching at best, giving away the movie’s biggest twist in advance rankles.
The Twist Is There Is No Twist
The reason that twist is in the trailer in the first place is that audiences have come to expect them, not just in movies but in OMG-driven shows like “How to Get Away With Murder.” But the very expectation of a plot twist diminishes its force, or else forces a movie into increasingly absurd and arbitrary convolutions. In a sense, “Genisys” spoils its own twist by foreshadowing it early in the movie; we don’t know precisely what’s going on with John Connor, but we know something is, so when that other shoe drops, it can’t help but be anticlimactic. The most effective twists in recent studio movies — think “Iron Man 3” or “Brave” or “A Perfect Getaway” — aren’t telegraphed at all, and the studios behind them had the confidence and the respect to sell other aspects of the films.
Fan Service a Go-Go
It’s not surprising Paramount’s marketing department was worried about “Genisys” seeming too familiar, since its reverence for the first two films in the series verges on the fetishistic. There’s no better example of the studios’ current obsession with revisiting the past than “Genisys'” decision to painstakingly restage scenes from the first “Terminator,” beginning with the T-800’s materialization in a Los Angeles alley. There’s an admitted kick to seeing the present-day Schwarzenegger do battle with a digital facsimile of his 1983 self, but the novelty wears off fast, and the callbacks to previous movies — Sarah Connor’s “Come with me if you want to live” is actually a callback to a callback — feel more dutiful than affectionate. Taylor does stage, for the first time, several moments that we’ve heard about but never seen, but he doesn’t seem to consider that Cameron didn’t previously show us those moments because they’re not very interesting. “Genisys” takes 20 minutes to accomplish what “The Terminator” got across in a few lines of dialogue.
Disrespecting the Franchise
“Genisys'” nods to Cameron’s movies might come off as more than mere lip service if the new movie showed the slightest understanding of or interest in what the first two “Terminators” were about. But even as “Genisys” slavishly homages the first two movies, it takes a giant dump on their foundational mythology by — again, spoiler for the three people on earth who have not seen the trailers — turning John Connor into a Terminator. Every “Terminator” movie has been predicated on the idea that the human race needs John Connor to survive. What “Genisys” presupposes is, maybe we don’t?
Go back and watch “The Terminator” and “T2,” and you’ll see that they’re full of little touches that subtly drive home what they’re about. In the first movie, machines are the enemy: not just the T-800, but the Walkman that prevents Sarah’s roommate from hearing the Terminator break into her house, the pager that interrupts Kyle Reese as he’s warning humanity of their imminent doom. In “T2,” it turns out that the real danger is not machines but the humans who make them, the rush toward scientific discovery untempered by morality or common sense. We’ll always find a way to destroy ourselves, unless we can change course. It’s an environmental parable (prefiguring “Avatar”) wrapped in an action blockbuster. In “Genisys,” the danger comes from the wired world — Skynet is just another name for Google — but there’s no sense it’s linked to any larger social flaw. It’s just a monster to be slain so we can go back to the way things were. When the “killer app” is stopped, we’re saved for good. (Update: Apparently “Genisys” has a post-credits scene that suggests otherwise and lays the groundwork for a potential new trilogy. But that’s a whole ‘nother thing that’s wrong with movies.)
It’s a little like how “Jurassic World” deals with that series’ foundation themes of evolution and reproduction. The first “Jurassic Park” subtly plays out human evolution in microcosm by featuring a struggle between two males for the attention of a female and the establishment of a surrogate family unit, a theme extended in “The Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III” through the references to divorced couples and resurgent romances. “Jurassic World” feints in the direction of that core concern by featuring two young boys whose parents are on the verge of getting a divorce, but even though the final scene puts them all in the same frame, it doesn’t bother to suggest that the crisis has alleviated any of the parents’ marital issues. Either you’re meant to assume it, because this is a “Jurassic” movie and that’s how they end, or you’re meant not to care. Say what you will about the broad strokes in Cameron’s or Spielberg’s movies, but at least they believe their own bullshit. Taylor and Trevorrow throw it in because they have to, while mustering the conviction of a seventh grader reading from “King Lear” in English class.
Stakes So Big They’re No Stakes at All
The “Teminator” movies have always been about the imminent, and in some cases, inevitable, destruction of the human race: Sarah Connor may successfully protect the baby in her womb, but at the end of the first “Terminator,” she drives off into the coming storm, with no way to prevent the imminent deaths of 3 billion people in a nuclear holocaust. “Terminator 2” allows them a chance to stave off Judgment Day, but the basic goal is still the same: Protect John Connor. In “Genisys,” the human element has been removed: With the timeline reset, it’s no longer clear that protecting John or Sarah even matters anymore. The only objective is the all-important yet strangely weightless need to Save the World, the same thing that’s at the center of virtually ever superhero movie and most contemporary blockbusters. At a certain point, the stakes become so big they cease to matter: We know an expensive studio movie isn’t going to end with the suggestion that the human race is doomed (unless it’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes“), which means that instead of biting our nails, we’re just killing time. You could, of course, say the same about “Terminator 2,” except that there, the race to stop Judgment Day is wrapped inside an equally important objective: Sarah Connor’s need to prove, to herself and to her son, that she is not insane. Caring about what happens in a movie begins with caring what happens to the people in it, and “Genisys” and “Jurassic World” give us no reason to.
Digital effects have made enormous strides since 1991. But what’s really striking about the effects in “Teminator: Genisys” is how rarely they seem like an improvement. Sure, there’s no more clunky rear projection in the 2029 scenes, and the sequences where present-day Arnold Schwarzenegger faces off against his 1984 self simply couldn’t have been accomplished two decades ago, at least not without being vaguely reminiscent of an Elvis movie. But the liquid-metal T-1000 now looks an awful lot like it did more than two decades ago, and it does most of the same things, too. Remember when Robert Patrick got thrown against a wall, and the back of his head turned into the front? The new T-1000 does that. Remember how he turned his arms into samurai swords and stabbed people in the chest? Yup. Remember how he cut off one of his arms, turned it into a liquid metal javelin, threw it up in the air, caught it and then hurled it at his target? Okay, that one’s all “Genisys,” but I bet that even if 1991’s technology would have allowed James Cameron to pull off this particular stunt, he would have nixed it, and he would have been right. It’s a pointless flourish, and it doesn’t make the the T-1000 a scarier or more formidable opponent; it’s only there because it’s something the studio could put in the trailer to demonstrate that “Genisys” is at least superficially different from the previous movies.
CGI allows movies to create anything, but to paraphrase “Jurassic Park,” just because they can doesn’t meant they should. It’s more impressive for “Genisys” to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge than it was for “Judgment Day” to torch a playground, but it isn’t more effective: Instead of the horrific sight of children’s bodies turned to ash, we get twisted metal and cars flopping into the drink — and not even for the first time this summer. Like the imminent end of the world, this kind of large-scale destruction is so commonplace it’s become banal: Another day, another apocalypse. They can make it look real, but they can’t make it feel like anything at all.
Vulture’s excellent oral history of “Judgment Day’s” liquid-metal effects points out that much of what contemporary audiences assume are digital effects were accomplished with physical models, or with practical techniques that date back to the earliest days of cinema. CGI has is a powerful tool, but for too many directors, it’s become the only tool — the hammer that turns every filmmaking problem into a nail, and leaves every movie feeling pounded flat. “T2” effects supervisor Gary Warren Jr. offers a damning assessment of the contemporary reliance on CGI. The use of computers, he says. “has de-skilled most of the folks that now work in visual effects in the computer world. That’s why half of the movies you watch, these big ones that are effects-driven, look like cartoons.” I would add only one caveat: That’s an insult to cartoons.
As Cracked’s David Christopher Bell points out, CGI is too often used to make “an object or person going where the director needed it to go, instead of where it naturally would,” breaking the laws of physics so regularly that they cease to have meaning. When your movie, robots or no robots, relies on the old-fashioned thrill of watching strong things punch each other, it’s a big problem when they cease to feel like they have weight and mass. Why hire an actor who’s built like a truck when you’re going to toss him down the road like a candy wrapper?
This is really just a pet peeve, but there’s an ongoing debate about whether the title is “Terminator: Genisys” or “Terminator Genisys.” The studio prefers the latter, probably because it makes “Genisys” seem slightly less sequel-ly, but the movie’s title card positions the words on top of each other in what’s generally recognized as title/subtitle format. (It’s the exact same setup as “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”) This doesn’t matter so much until you get to such typographical abominations as “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation,” but it’s a symptom of how repetitive movies have become that we’ve literally had to invent new ways to punctuate them.