Not… That Bad? “Terminator Genysis” Benefits From Diminished Expectations

Review, “Terminator: Genysis” – *** stars (out of ****)

Released July 1, 2015
Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons For Some Reason
Running Time: 126 minutes
Budget: $155 million
Worldwide Box Office (as of 9/10/15): $435.9 million

I was practically dragged to the Davis Theater in Lincoln Square to see “Terminator: Genysis.” After one mediocre sequel and one flat-out awful follow-up, and with critical notices being overwhelmingly negative, can you blame me? Like almost everyone else, I’m a huge fan of the first two James Cameron “Terminator” movies, “Terminator 2” is in my all-time top 10. In my youth, I wore out both flicks on VHS. We had a fuck-ton of “Terminator” action figures, “Terminator” t-shirts, “Terminator” Halloween masks, we experienced the “Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time” ride/movie at Universal Studios Orlando a few months after it was unspooled. This was an interactive audience experience combined with a $36 million, 12-minute 3D short (here’s the stand-alone short, and here’s the entire ride experience), directed by Cameron and featuring “Terminator 2” stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, Robert Patrick as the T-1000, and Edward Furlong as John Connor, and is handily the second-best “Terminator” sequel to date. Point being: I love “Terminator,” and I was scared of being disappointed once again.

BUT I WASN’T. Granted, I went in with almost zero expectations, so there was nowhere for this to go but up. I just didn’t think it would really do that. So here we are, with a good-but-not-great “Terminator” sequel that really is worth “Terminator” fans’ time nevertheless. I can’t believe I’m saying this about ANOTHER PG-13 “Terminator” retread with ANOTHER Australian mannequin at its center (Jai Courtney this time, playing Kyle Reese – slightly less cardboard than Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright in 2009’s “Terminator: Salvation”).

This movie, intended as part of a new alternate-timeline “Terminator” trilogy (much as its predecessor tried and failed to be), was more or less doomed at the box office from the moment the first publicity stills were released; its whole promotional campaign was utterly tone-deaf. Finally, its second trailer, snuck in maybe a month before the flick dropped, actually played up its finer qualities. Of course, the trailer (and, fine, the poster art, and fine the magazine covers) also GAVE AWAY THE MOVIE’S BIG PLOT TWIST (which Taylor also hated), which is revealed at least an hour and change into the proceedings. If you’re trying to kill audience interest in what turned out to be a pretty fun movie anyway, at least give some more violence, sex and swearing and go all-in for an R rating. “Terminator” fans, having been burned quite badly by the awful “Terminator: Salvation” (which actually had some really sweet trailers), were backing away slowly as they saw more promo material.

But damn it, “Terminator Genysis” is actually pretty good! Any fan of the first two (or even three) “Terminator” series entries should really check this out. It’s actually pretty fun. Its biggest sins? Some boring choreography and coverage, especially early on; Courtney’s wooden acting (he’s okay and has a good physical presence, but his emotive range is quite finite – really, he’d make a good terminator, now that I think of it); an occasionally muddied plot that lacks urgency until we start to care about people about 45 minutes into it.

Emilia Clarke and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the lynchpins of this thing for me. Arnie, tongue planted firmly in cheek, plays himself circa the original “Terminator,” and then the warmer, fuzzier protector T-800 of its first two sequels. He’s got a lot of great dialogue to work with here, and he makes the most of it. Emilia Clarke is great as Linda Hamilton’s replacement, a gorgeous, smart, strong heroine with a real personality and charisma. Her relationship with the T-800 is very familial (they’ll explain why when you see it), and it’s something that I could see being cloying or saccharine, but both actors handle it really well so that it becomes sweet and endearing. Jason Clarke is sufficiently glowering and intense as John Connor. He’s a vast improvement over Christian Bale; the character is so different from the hurt, lost kid Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl played in earlier incarnations that it’s tough to compare.

But, fine, I will.
TANGENTIAL LIST – John Connor Performance Power Rankings (I’m not counting the “Sarah Connor Chronicles” moppet as canon):

1. Edward Furlong – Looking back, it’s weird that “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) a hard-R movie was so blatantly marketed towards kids, but when 6 year-old me saw this on VHS for the first time, there was nobody cooler than Edward Furlong. Well, at least, nobody cooler this side of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

2. Nick Stahl – Stahl, a one-time child-acting peer of Furlong’s who probably auditioned for the original role in “Terminator 2,” was really good in the 2003 “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” as a weaker JC (John Connor, I mean. Not, you know, Jesus or James Cameron). It’s a bummer that drug problems have befallen both Stahl and Furlong, there was a time when each was briefly The Next Big Thing.

3. Jason Clarke – Clarke affected a nice strain of zealous, kind-of-bad-ass craziness in this one; that’d be the third time he’s been a solid bad-ass in the last four years at the movies. The other two were “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2012 and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” last summer. His John Connor is painted in fairly two-dimensional, broad strokes. I understand that he’s written mainly as an expository function. Clarke reminds me a lot of the original adult incarnation of John Connor.

4. Christian Bale – CHRISTIAN BALE REMIX. That rant was the best thing about his “Terminator: Salvation” edition of John Connor. So flat and dull, his constant low-key glowering was possibly a symptom of McG’s non-direction — but even still, there’s no excusing his total apathy for the part.

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