THE WHOLE PICTURE: Trying to Crack the Post-Cameron TERMINATOR

wholepicture-terminator

Franchises are a part of the cinematic landscape. Some series grow more complex and change throughout their run while others just keep doing what’s expected of them. Now, I am happy to announce another ongoing series of our own. Every so often on Moviocrity, I will be looking at each film in a given franchise. One by one they will be reviewed and hopefully give a clear view of how certain franchises survived and how others fell apart. You’ll be able to read all about it in a column I’m calling THE WHOLE PICTURE!


The 1990s were a relatively quiet time for the TERMINATOR franchise. Repeated attempts to reunite James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger for more robot action ultimately went nowhere (And let’s face it, TRUE LIES just wasn’t satisfying by any stretch.). This all changed once the 21st century rolled around. Once the usual rights issues were taken care of, THE TERMINATOR was back in all sorts of media. There was an internet series through Machima and the television series, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES.

On screen, things were more ambitious still. A pattern emerged where every six years, they would try to revamp the series and take it in a new, bold direction. In 2003, RISE OF THE MACHINES was supposed to be the first part of a two-part film. But while the film didn’t bomb, audiences weren’t overly enthusiastic. In 2009, SALVATION was to be the first part in a “Future War Trilogy” that imagined the war against Skynet following Judgement Day. People were even less interested in that. Now comes GENESYS, which also attempts to set up a new trilogy by wildly altering the previously established timeline. And despite some impressive international dollars, the prospects for more of this storyline aren’t very bright.

But apart from the box office dollars, how does the post-Cameron series hold up on its own merits?

RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003). Director: Jonathan Mostow. Cinematographer: Don Burgess.
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003). Director: Jonathan Mostow. Cinematographer: Don Burgess.

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003) – Although a third TERMINATOR had been teased for years, Arnold Schwarzenegger was reluctant to jump back into the franchise unless James Cameron could direct. But Cameron felt that when TERMINATOR 2 wrapped up, he had pretty much told the entire story. He encouraged Schwarzenegger to do the film anyway, reportedly telling him to take the money and run. And that’s exactly what Schwarzenegger did. Earning a paycheck that was somewhere around $30 million, give or take seven figures, TERMINATOR 3 gets rolling and boy does it ever feel like a shameless cash grab.

The year is 2004 and Judgement Day has not occurred. But there’s at least something wonky in the future because yet another Terminator has been sent back in time. The T-X takes the form of a woman (Kristanna Loken) and is a modified version from other models. She too has liquid metal capabilities, this time over the old metal exoskeleton which not only should limit the shapes she can emulate, but also makes her a less formidable foe than the previous film’s T-1000. One thing she does possess is Wi-Fi, which means she can communicate with computer systems and machines. She’s even able to operate multiple vehicles and utilize them in a car chase because… emergency vehicles can all drive themselves? No, nothing about the character makes sense.

The T-X’s mission is to eliminate John Connor’s future lieutenants, thereby making it more difficult for him to mobilize his forces. In other words, “destroy the future of mankind before he can destroy us,” becomes “give him more busywork before he does.” No wonder they sent a lesser model. Fortunately for the T-X, all of them seem to live in the Los Angeles area.

This includes Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a veterinarian and daughter of the man involved in the Skynet program. The T-X goes after Brewster, only to alter its mission when it stumbles upon the previously difficult to locate John Connor (Nick Stahl). But don’t worry, as another Terminator (Schwarzenegger) has been sent back to protect the two. John and Kate (Wow, I’m about five years late for a lame reality show joke, aren’t I?) on the other hand try to prevent Skynet’s takeover, which is scheduled to happen that day.

But wait! As Connor points out, these machines shouldn’t even exist. “We stopped Judgement Day,” he complains. “You only postponed it,” the Terminator tells him flatly, “Judgement Day is inevitable.”

You hear that, audience? That’s right, forget the message of the previous two films. Anything you do, no matter what, is already set in stone. There is no escaping the future and it’s foolhardy to even try and change it for something better. Sorry to waste your time.

Which is all completely ridiculous because of course you can change your fate. If the future could not be changed, why would Skynet have sent any Terminators back at all? When even the machines recognize that you can actually alter the future, the Terminator’s dismissive line makes no sense. So why would this message even be put forth?

In short, money. Cameron was right. The story of THE TERMINATOR did wrap up with the previous film. What we have here is just a pathetic attempt to keep the gravy train rolling, even if it has a negative impact of the series’ overall narrative. Some of TERMINATOR 2’s producers are back on board, but it’s clear that none of the filmmakers have a real understanding or respect for the material. It should be clear when John Connor opens the film with the “no fate” message the film will eventually undo, and he gets the quote wrong.

I generally like Kristanna Loken, but not in this role. Her Terminator shows emotion, such as when she gasps upon discovering Connor. It’s strange that she would be required to emote since the film doesn’t give her any personality. There’s no denying that Loken looks good, but unfortunately that’s all the film asks of her. My Keurig coffee maker has more depth than the T-X. Even the idea of “a girl Terminator,” as Schwarzenegger calls her in the commentary is meaningless. After all, the ability to take the appearance of anyone essentially means the post-Schwarzenegger machines have no gender. Much like his cinematic adversary, Schwarzenegger plays what is little more than a blunt instrument. He gets one late-in-the-game moment in which he attempts to fight his programming but by this time it’s too little too late. No matter how good the special effects are, the bombastic action sequences take the form of a Chuck Jones cartoon with Loken as Wile E. Coyote and Schwarzenegger as the Road Runner.

TERMINATOR 3 is worse than a bad movie; it’s a cynical movie that is happy to undo everything that came before it just to make a few extra bucks. A twist ending cannot save what is still an empty film lacking any of the elements that made the other films worth watching.  Awful.

TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009). Director: McG. Cinematographer: Shane Hurlbut.
TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009). Director: McG. Cinematographer: Shane Hurlbut.

TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009) – Before being put to death, convicted killer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) signs papers with Cyberdine, allowing them to use his body after his lethal injection. Many years later, he wakes up and tries to piece together why he’s alive and what has happened to the world.

What has happened to the world is Judgement Day as TERMINATOR: SALVATION takes place after the nuclear apocalypse with resistance fighters continuing their war against the machines. John Connor (Christian Bale) is a respected leader who has gained a following since his prophecies regarding Skynet have all come true. And yet, he is not the head of the resistance yet. He runs one of many factions that answer to old generals who operate out of a moving submarine base.

When Connor discovers that Skynet is taking prisoners and that one of those prisoners is a young Kyle Reese (Anton Chelkin), he knows he needs to rescue him or risk never being born. Unfortunately, the key to his survival may be the disoriented Marcus Wright who is unsure what his purpose in this war truly is.

I actually like the conceit of TERMINATOR: SALVATION. While I’m not thrilled the sequels continued after TERMINATOR 2, I acknowledge the extended franchise as a reality. People complained about how this film was so radically different than the three that preceded it. But I contend that you can have a TERMINATOR film without Schwarzenegger and without time travel.

Director McG does offer plenty for the viewer to get excited about. The action sequences all feature humans fighting off robotic enemies, as the cybernetic organisms are still in the planning stages at this point. McG shoots the action in a compelling manner, making every fight and chase seem big, loud, fast and overwhelming for the fragile people placed in the middle. Clever usage of tracking shots makes it seem like we’re down there in the mud with the resistance fighters.

Where the film falters is in its failure to create a panorama of compelling characters. In our collection of world-weary and battle hardened warriors, we don’t get any real nuance into anything that would make each character their own. Bale and Worthington give seemingly identical performances, each speaking in gruff whispers. It was nice seeing Moon Bloodgood in a better film than 2009’s unintentionally hilarious STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI, but she has still hasn’t been given an action film where she can shine. Other characters must have seen most of their scenes end up on the cutting room floor. Bryce Dallas Howard is a fine actress, but she is given absolutely nothing to do here and Common doesn’t fare much better.

TERMINATOR: SALVATION is a decent idea that doesn’t grab the viewer like it should. The third act is full of problems and the interaction between characters is unsatisfying. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the early parts of the film. But if you don’t have a way of making your human characters seem human, the film itself becomes an emotionless machine.

Also, we don’t get any purple lasers. For some reason, that’s a difficult sin to forgive.  Barely Recommended.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015). Director: Alan Taylor. Cinematographer: Kramer Morgenthau.
TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015). Director: Alan Taylor. Cinematographer: Kramer Morgenthau.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015) – If you look back at my review of THE TERMINATOR I noted that according to that film, the resistance was on the verge of defeating Skynet and that the Time Displacement Device used to send the original T-800 back in time was the one and only machine of its type. Well believe it or not, TERMINATOR: GENISYS is the only film since the original to pay attention to this little factoid. In fact, as the film begins we see Skynet send the original Terminator back as the humans take out Skynet’s central core. And just like in the original, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save the mother of the resistance. There’s even a poignant moment beforehand when John tells the still oblivious Kyle that if there was any other way to ensure the survival of the species, he would have chosen a different path.

But from that moment on, you can forget about everything – whether it’s the last of the time machines, whatever guilt or hidden agendas the characters may have been holding back – all that goes away. A previously unseen foe attacks John and alters the timeline. Suddenly, people aren’t who we thought they were and everyone gets downright whimsical with time travel.

By the time Kyle Reese is sent back to 1984, everything is different. While Kyle might have had noble aspirations of going back in time to save Sarah Connor (Emelia Clarke), he finds that she doesn’t need saving and it is he who initially runs to her for protection. As for Sarah, she has been fighting the machines for ten years already, ever since Skynet sent back a T-1000 to 1974 to kill her as a child (I guess they found some older, more precise records after all) and ever since an unknown party sent back a T-800, nicknamed “Pops” to protect her.

Oh, Skynet also sent back another T-1000 to 1984, this time to kill Kyle Reese. Sarah and Pops have also built their own Time Displacement Device which they hope to take to the year 1997 in order to stop Judgement Day. But wait, Kyle knows that the timeline has been altered and Skynet instead comes to power in 2017, disguised as a wireless service called Genisys. Kyle convinces his team to travel to the later date instead, which doesn’t make much sense does it? Why would the time travelers choose to go to a time just before judgement day, instead of say a few years earlier, when they could investigate the source and stop Skynet before its conception? After all, wasn’t that the machines’ original plan with John Connor?

But you see that’s the thing. TERMINATOR: GENISYS moves breathlessly forward, never taking a moment to examine the basic logic of any one moment. If it did, the whole thing would collapse like a house of cards.

The first two TERMINATOR’s, plot holes and all, were still intelligent films that didn’t skimp on the action. GENISYS is what would have happened if they rebooted the film in the 1990s as one of those Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicles. If you know me, this is not necessarily an insult. Films such as MAXIMUM RISK and KNOCK-OFF featured off the hook action sequences that were supported by storylines that were complete nonsense. They don’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny but they were entertaining anyway. Much of GENISYS follows this same basic template.

There are a few problems beyond the sheer gibberish of the whole spectacle. Naturally the relationship between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese has changed and it is interesting to see Kyle’s reaction to this shifting dynamic. However, making them a bickering couple was a mistake, sacrificing an intriguing relationship through lazy screenwriting. Also, the way Skynet/Genisys is presented towards the end is disappointing. The cast assembled runs the gamut from awful to merely unobtrusive.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS is not a good movie. But it is an entertaining bad movie. If you’re the type of person who is going to throw up your arms in impotent rage when a helicopter falls off a skyscraper only to right itself just a few feet from the ground and take part in a ridiculous chase with another helicopter we didn’t even see take off, well obviously the film isn’t for you. If you can say to yourself that this is a remarkably brainless film and still enjoy the ride anyway, then Godspeed humans.  Barely Recommended.


So that’s it for now and it sure looks as though the trilogy that is set up in GENISYS won’t be completed, at least not in movie form. So, the question remains: what is the future of the TERMINATOR franchise? Will we see yet another ambitious reboot in the next six years or possibly sooner? I would have to say yes. Even though the series has never recaptured the magic of Cameron’s arc, Hollywood won’t leave these machines out to rust.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s