Culture

The defiant archetype. A review of the film “Terminator: Genisys”, directed by Alan Taylor

Tomasz Bagiński · 7 July 2015

I enjoyed watching the latest Terminator movie. And I don’t say that just to sound humble, because the film has already gathered a lot of bad reviews, while we – filmmakers – are never fans of what critics say. One could also accuse me of siding with my profession, seeing as I personally know a few people who were involved in its making. Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t slate your own kind, and yet, it so happens that the Terminator series has been an important part of my life. Hence, it is easy for me to react with a certain degree of nostalgia.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator in Terminator Genisys from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator in Terminator Genisys from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

The latest offering from the series is a perfect target for critical maulings, but I leave that to knights who wield their pens with greater might than mine. It is worth mentioning, however, that the plot is more convoluted than a Cracow pretzel, the young stars don’t always cut the mustard, and the action scenes are ill-conceived and feel oh-so-last-decade. This is plenty to be getting on with, should one want to be cruel. Besides, it seems viewers have also failed to get behind the film. As I am writing these words, the 4th of July weekend in the US is over and the new Pixar movie Inside Out, as well as Jurassic World, have given the new Terminator a mean run for its money, even though they came out in cinemas a few weeks earlier.

A summer of singularity  

Thankfully, I am not a professional critic. This piece will not be a film review. And, in spite of all I have said so far, I will try to convince everyone to see this new Terminator. Both to go against the grain and out of sentiment. And also so we can see one of the greatest stars of our screens, Arnold Schwarzenegger, back in his most famous incarnation. Which, in this case, he does with true aplomb. This, for me, is the first key reason why you should see this film. 

The second reason is the noticeable shift in the way the enemy that is artificial intelligence (AI) is presented. When AI, nanotechnology and the concept of technological singularity becomes one of the heroes of a summer blockbuster, this is a sign that it has, once and for all, shifted from the edges of minor hard Sci-Fi to the mainstream of our pop culture. In the past year, we have seen films such as Transcendence, Lucy and She, while in 2015 Chappie, Ex-Machina and the new Avengers appeared in our cinemas. Technological singularity has become part of our everyday narrative. If we also add that the tycoons of contemporary tech, such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and the owners of Google, are taking the risk posed by the inception of AI seriously, while research into its dangers is costing all our nations millions, we really have entered into a new era.

Series T-800 Robot in Terminator Genisys from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions

Series T-800 Robot in Terminator Genisys from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions

The Terminator series has always made use of the AI theme, but up until now this has been in a relatively basic format, based more on fear of an artificially created human being, a Frankenstein’s monster. In the latest Terminator installment, things are different. Here, AI considers humanity not so much a risk to itself as to life full stop, and the featuring of advanced nanotechnology (shown here in a truly interesting way – as an old and worn out fan of hard SF, I could wear a t-shirt with the slogan “I knew about nano before it was cool”) is no longer a rehashing of the old “battling robots” scenario. The film contains a scene in which characters appear in our contemporary reality and are shocked at how easily we have given control over to machines, in exchange for a life of ease. The theme is how we fail to see the danger of everything being linked to the internet, that we are all wired up, that this form of connectivity/connection is not a solution. We see it around us each day, in the commonplace, but in this film it has been taken out of context, seen through retro glasses, through the eyes of people transported from the past, and so it suddenly hits us with its inhumanity. We have become little more than strands of a vast web. In many ways, this is a picture far more terrifying than those riddled with nuclear explosions or other conventional cataclysms. This danger is far more real. The film only hints at these developments, but it’s enough to notice how the narrative focus has shifted.

terminator-genysis-3

 The third reason I am a fan of this film is, of course, nostalgia. Terminator: Genisys in some way erases memories of Terminator: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation, the two previous, flawed chapters of the franchise. Having said that, it goes overboard in referencing the first two films: Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Reheated dishes? Sure, but it somehow works. When, in the year 1984, in a sequence which is almost a carbon copy of the original, the young Arnie arrives from the future (recreated ably by the special effects team), I smiled, involuntarily. The film is full of such entertaining moments.

Come with me, if you want to remember

In fact, nostalgia defines this film. In the past few years, we have become witnesses of a trend for the rehashing of old themes, with films of genres previously seen as frivolous and disposable now being revisited. Twenty odd years ago, I would never have thought that the Terminator series would still be going, and that the line between action and drama will be this blurred. The internet has managed to blend populist and elitist cultures to the extent that culture itself has become like plasma, alive, ever mutating, shifting and active, in which all that counts is that which moves us emotionally. Categories, definitions and classifications have become obsolete, though I suspect I am wrong here too, for grey-haired experts at universities all over the world have been pondering for decades how to tidy and lock away in encyclopedias the world of entertainment, of superheroes, of explosions – and where, in all that, will we ever find room for Beverly Hills Chihuahua? 

I respond to films emotionally. Terminator: Genisys could have disappointed me. A few years ago, Prometheus taught me not to expect too much for classic reboots and grand franchises. Therefore, new reissues of old products don’t arouse that much excitement and expectation. A pleasant surprise came in the shape of Mad Max: Fury Road, an energetic and adrenaline-fuelled sequel, though this is an exception rather than the rule. And so I went to see Terminator relaxed, without much hope, expecting old, rubbery steak to be served up – which is more or less what I got. But I also got something else.

Scene in Terminator Genisys from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

Scene in Terminator Genisys from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

Arnold, as I have said, is great in this film. And this adjective – great – really fits for once. It shows a little of what we have lost in our action films, what is wrong with almost all new films about superheroes. It will sound strange, coming from the lips of someone who works in computer animation, but somewhere along the way, between one digitally enhanced chase and another, we have lost the human element. And here this rather silly, aged bodybuilder who then became an actor, then the governor of California, who 30 years ago was given little hope of success, suddenly, in a film which can be accused of many failings, becomes a mighty figure, an archetype. The same as in the first Terminator, where he played the perfect anti-hero, the embodiment of death, soulless, unstoppable, he is now a different sort of archetype. He has become a father figure, one who has to become used to the idea of his own passing, and leaves room for younger generations. And in playing this new role, he is both funny and touching and not a little frightening. I could see by the reaction of the public that even the younger viewers reacted not so much to the movie as to Arnold up on the screen. Almost every scene with him in it seems to work. He was a star and a star he has remained. What is inspiring is that he seems to be unashamed of his age, making no attempt to appear younger, to pretend he is someone he is not. He plays it like he is – an old man, wasted, wrinkled and grey. Accepting the process of passing. Accepting the change of guard. The symbolic stand-off between the digitally created young Arnie and the aged Arnold is in this context only icing on our cake. A little extra for the fans. What counts is that by sheer force of his presence on screen Arnold brings with him more charisma than the rest of the young cast put together, and this is in no way to disparage the other actors. He simply shows us just how irreplaceable a star he is.

Terminator 2, directed by James Cameron, is a film which, along with Akira, Alien 3 (yes, yes, that is the film which has stuck in my mind the most) and Predator, are all responsible for my fascination with movies, as well as the decision to make them myself. The Terminator series will always have a lot of goodwill credit in my bank. This most recent film is for me a sort of closure. A farewell. If the ticket sales do not improve, it might be the last of the line, though after the credits finish rolling, the producers serve up a little teaser of what else might be to come. The few hours I gave to this film were well spent and I suggest you do the same. So be warned.

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Translated from the Polish by Marek Kazmierski