The modern phenomenon known as “the reboot” has given the Hollywood blockbuster a new shape this year, and “Terminator: Genisys,” despite its flaws, functions as a beacon for that transformation. The 27% tomato meter score for “Terminator: Genisys” doesn’t do the move justice. Admittedly, many of the detractive points critics present are accurate. The plot is convoluted almost beyond comprehension. The action sequences are overly bombastic and drown out what little plot remains. And the characters are borderline cartoon sketches of their former selves. John Connor in particular, as a human/Terminator hybrid, could be taken as something of an insult to James Cameron’s original intentions. But this is precisely where the movie becomes interesting. In taking Cameron’s pre-established mythology and flipping it on its head, the Terminator franchise has boldly, finally, taken a step down a path that no longer requires that mythology. The franchise now has the potential to be born anew. This is not an anomaly, but rather the latest in a trend of Hollywood reboots that serve to realign the relationship between stagnant franchises and their skeptical audiences.
It is now commonplace, particularly this year, for sequels and/or reboots to pay homage to their previous entries, while simultaneously deconstructing their original building blocks. Take “Jurassic World” for example. The movie has many nostalgic moments in reverence of the original film (like “Terminator: Genisys,” it ignores the other two sequels) and of course contains the obligatory dinosaur chase sequences. Yet, many of the action sequences in the film take on a satirical nature, almost a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the genre’s inherent ridiculousness. For instance: the scene in which a group of Pterodactyls (And a giant dinosaur-fish hybrid) slowly eat the most the annoying character in the film. The film’s director, Colin Trevorrow, gleefully showcased the death through continual dramatic teases in which the doomed girl comes just shy of escaping. It was the filmmaker saying – “let’s give the audience what they want, multiply it by ten, and simultaneously mock them for enjoying it.” It showcased a level of self-awareness usually absent in action films/sequels, coupled with a desire to sublimate the audience’s relationship with the film. The result is a sequence that’s both highly entertaining and joyously absurd.
“Terminator: Genisys” isn’t quite as clever in its construction of action sequences as “Jurassic World,” but there is a similar desire at play to present the audience with material that, on the surface, looks like classic Terminator, yet underneath is really just a robot in disguise. This is nowhere more apparent than in an early sequence in which the T-800 (a brilliantly CGI-rendered young Arnold Schwarzenegger) lands in 1984. The scene perfectly recreates the landmark intro from the original film, up until the point where Arnold asks a group of hooligans for their clothes. Then old Arnold shows up, shoots young Arnold with a shotgun, and expectations blow up with balls-to-the-wall insanity. Granted, this scene would have had more impact if it hadn’t been spoiled by the trailers, but that’s a criticism for another discussion. Watching two Arnold Schwarzeneggers smash each other to bits is every bit as ridiculously enjoyable as it sounds.
When John Connor arrives in the past, it disrupts the status quo in several fascinating ways. One, it throws all that we understood about the Terminator timeline out of whack. Two, it displaces our pre-conceived notions of a Terminator’s powers and limitations. Three, it allows for encounters between characters we never thought we’d be allowed to see – adult John and Sarah, John and Kyle. We assumed the Terminator series had self-imposed limitations. But “Genisys” takes the limitations and completely up-heaves them, showing the viewer that possibilities for the series have become numerous. Here the reboot approach proves successful by allowing the film series to be fundamentally altered on a meta-structural level.
Admittedly, director Alan Taylor doesn’t try his hardest with these possibilities. The film never reaches the transcendent level of storytelling achieved by the first two in the franchise. The early films had much deeper philosophical insight into the nature of humanity and fate. But Genisys, in its best moments, has little pretensions about being anything more than a vehicle for entertainment. Like “Jurassic World,” it trades the formalities of layered storytelling for the informality of fun, well-lubricated action sequences. From the Arnold fight to the T-1000 clash, from the bridge chase to the prison breakout to the pulse-pounding confrontation inside Skynet; the action creates a kind of rhythmic narrative for the viewer to ride along in the absence of deeper story. The action IS the narrative.
Following another trend this summer, “Terminator: Genisys” goes old school. There is a difference between the kind of action offered in “Genisys” and the blurred, nonsensical CGI sameness found in say, the “Transformers” franchise. The sequences found in “Terminator: Genisys” are vivid, attention-grabbing and actually give a damn about solid cinematography and editing. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is another example of a sequel that has boldly reinvented its own rules, taking cues from the action movie techniques established in the original “Mad Max” trilogy, then completely deconstructing and rebuilding them from the ground up. The film that results doesn’t take itself at all seriously, playing out as action-parody, but never insulting its audience. “Genisys” follows suit, perhaps not as perfectly, but nevertheless effectively. Both films use the action as their narrative.
Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” set an interesting tone for the franchise movies releasing this summer. Whedon, famous for his uncanny knack for playing with audience expectations, executed a fundamental lesson in narrative trickery when he laid the groundwork for the sacrifice of Hawkeye, only to have Quicksilver come in at the last second and bite the bullet instead. It impressed upon us the importance of a narrative’s relationship with the audience, which, when used effectively, can create alternative methods by which to ensnare the viewer. This was true of “Avengers.” It was true of “Jurassic World,” in its creation of an action-parody structure. It was true of “Mad Max” and its reliance on the action-narrative, in addition to action-parody elements. And it’s true of “Terminator: Genisys,” which offers a bit of all of the above. It subverts the audience’s awareness by fundamentally altering the course of its characters. It streamlines the narrative through a reliance on the action. It has a ton of fun creating a near-parody of the “Terminator” mythology. It does all of these things less effectively than each of the other films. But it’s the only film I’ve seen this summer that attempts them all. The result is a muddled yet entertaining one. “Terminator: Genisys” ultimately becomes the pinnacle of the modern Hollywood reboot. A form which, at its best, shifts both storytelling gears AND the relationship between the story and the audience. “Terminator: Genisys” is a reminder of how the modern action movie has continued to evolve and become an overall more engrossing and less predictable kind of beast.