Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I Saw This!!: Rhyming Titles

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Here are two films whose titles rhyme.  They're also both genre films, and probably the last entries in each of their a particular franchises.

Star Trek: Nemesis - 2002, d. Stuard Baird - Netflix
Terminator Genisys - 2015, d. Alan Taylor - Netflix

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If forced to choose I'm taking Star Wars over Star Trek every time.  It's more escapist, immersive and exciting, in my opinion.   But when nobody's forcing me to choose, I will choose me some Star Trek when Star Trek is available.  I like it just fine, but it's not quite the same experience.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was my Star Trek.  Kirk and Spock were always around in my youth; in the cinemas, on videocassette, and in repeats, but it had felt like I'd already missed out on most of it.  Plus, it wasn't Star Wars, and when I was a kid, I wanted everything to be Star WarsNext Generation started when I was 11, so it hit me right in the sweet spot, where I was old enough to get why it wasn't Star Wars and to eventually come to understand the social and political criticism it was allegorically bringing to the table.

I watched every episode of that show, and loved the first two movies (particularly First Contact which seemed like the first real Star Trek space opera/action movie) but for some reason, by the time Nemesis hit the theatres, I was just totally and completely done with the franchise.  I had put it away.  I wasn't following whatever was on TV at the time (I don't recall if Voyager or Enterprise were the flavour of the day), and Nemesis as a film looked...disappointing for a Star Trek motion picture.  It needed to be an event... I remember thinking, why isn't this film a collision of TNG, Deep Space 9 and Voyager?  I understand now that having the full cast of three different series in one film is a logistical and scripting nightmare, but at the time that was what a Star Trek movie event should be.

A decade and a half later, seeing a Next Generation film I've never seen before felt like a reunion.  It didn't matter so much that the film wasn't particularly very good.  I was just happy to see these characters again, even Wesley Crusher put in an appearance at Deanna and Riker's wedding at the start.  The whole plot stems around the fact that the Romulans had cloned Picard, discarded him to their Siberia-like prison camps, and now that clone has risen up, usurped the Romulan government and is waging war with the Federation.  The thrust is a "nature vs nurture" argument that's done somewhat thoughtfully, but it doesn't feel any grander than your average two-part TNG episode.  In fact it doesn't even stack up remotely against the best episodes of that show.

There's a sub-plot where they discover another android who predates Data, a Beta model if you will, and once again it's a story of nature vs nurture, in that they both share similar programming but with encouragement Data has advanced where the Beta hasn't had the opportunity.  The script nicely dovetails the B-plot into the A-plot, making Data's heroic sacrifice pretty badass...well, as badass as anyone can look in a Starfleet uniform anyway.

The main problem with big-screen Star Trek (up until the JJ Abrams films) is that the very set-up of the series is one of peace, so everything is designed around peace and exploration.  This means that it's ill equipped to handle action really, really well (the desert dune buggy sequence was painful if only because it just didn't fit the Star Trek mold).  The characters, after getting to know them for 7 or more years, are pretty well defined, and "badass action hero" was never in the offing for them.  It also doesn't help that so many of these performers don't have big screen presence (Patrick Stewart the most obvious exception).  Amidst an ensemble on TV there's some forgiveness but it doesn't extend to the big budget spectacle.

But as I said, it was good to see them again.  I wouldn't object to another Next Generation reunion, but it feels like it should be a Netflix thing, or a short run like the recent X-Files reunion, and not another motion picture.

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I've probably said this before, but I'll repeat myself because it's relevant.  I don't have much love for the Terminator franchise.  My favourite installment was probably The Sarah Connor Chronicles that ran on Fox for two half seasons (Lena Headey + Garrett Dillahunt + Summer Glau, it was a nice cast), but even then it was the character drama that I enjoyed.  The whole premise of The Terminator has worn kind of thin.  Skynet sends killing machines back in time to kill their future opponent, while their opposition sends someone (or something) back to stop them, rinse, repeat.  It gets a little ridiculous after a while the chicken and the egg thing of who went back in time first... to the point that in this latest entry a character jumps back in time to 1984, only to, ten minutes later, jump forward in time to 2017.  I like time travel movies, but these aren't time travel stories, they're a unified one-note take on man vs machine.

Terminator Genisys (I can never spell that right on the first try) is the latest in a spate of JJ Abrams-style soft remakes/reboots (aka "requel") wherein it doesn't entirely eradicate the past stories but it fan-servicingly uses the established canon to build its new story.  It spends its dire opening minutes reiterating the premise of Terminator...Earth getting nuked when Skynet awakens, the robots take over, humanity resists with John Connor in the lead, etc.  Then we spend some time in the future where the battles still happen...a bloated, meaningless action sequence finds Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) and John Connor (Jason Clarke) leading one final assault against some place important where I guess John know's they're going to send a terminator back to kill his mother (why only one, they had time to send at least a few).  As the story goes, Reese follows it back.  John has told Kyle all about his mother for years, so Reese's already deified this woman and loves her (John securing his own future since Kyle is his father).  As Reese is getting sent back he witnesses an attack on John by the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith, who was obviously promised a larger role in subsequent entries that will never happen).  Again, a lengthy sequence that tells us very little new information, instead retelling it with new actors and a few differences to hopefully make a new franchise out of.

Cue up the rehash of the first Terminator, only instead young naked Arnie is fought off by an older, beclothed Arnie and Sarah Conner (Emilia Clarke).  The older Arnie is also a Terminator , nicknamed "Pops", who saved Sarah as a 9-year old and took her under his protection and tutelage.  After defeating 1984 Arnie, they venture off to save Reese (and an unsuspecting police officer) from a T-1000 (who also morphs into a police officer all the time).  The whole first act is entirely a play off of the first two movies, rehashing so many things, only a little different this time, flipping the Sarah and Reese roles where she's the one in the know and he's scrambling to keep up.

This first act is almost pure tedium.  Jai Courtney is practically a non-existent presence on screen, while Emilia Clarke feels like a shadow as Sarah Connor.  There's no life to either of these two characters.  Their conversations all stem around predestination, and it spells out that there's no agency for these characters to really act, they're just being swept along by the plot.  Beyond that there's zero chemistry between them, and the fact that Sarah knows she's supposed to birth the leader of the resistance against Skynet (and Pops keeps pressuring her to mate with Reese) is perhaps the most underplayed aspect.  What does she feel about it? We never really know.  I think we're supposed to, but either Clarke can't play it or the director can't sell it.

The second and third acts are marginally better once we wind up in 2017.  It's a much different world than 1984 (not that Sarah and Reese seem to notice all that much), and two naked people appearing on a freeway amidst a bright explosion gets them immediately arrested and detained for homeland security.  Pops is supposed to be waiting for them, so they're surprised when it's John Connor who turns up to save them.  Turns out though that John was transformed in to a T-3000 (nanites, I guess) and is there to...I dunno. Reese's had visions during his time travels of another life and he knows what they have to do stop him.  The whole "Genisys" plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, except being yet another "we've got to stop Skynet from coming on line" type event.

The best part of the story is JK Simmons, who was that cop that Sarah inadvertently save when saving Reese from the T1000.  30 years later, he's a crackpot FBI agent who's been investigating the time travelling robot conspiracy while also heavily drinking.  Simmons brings the joint alive every time he's on screen.  What would have been fantastic and far more engaging (and less trite) is if the whole story were told from his outsider perspective.  When the young cop appeared in the first act I even said to the wife, "I hope they take him with them, it would be nice to have an outsider's perspective on this".

Imagine that movie where it starts with Sarah rescuing Reese, and Simmons is saved along the way.  He tries to follow and keeps stumbling in and out of the chase/fight, only to lose them and never find them again.  He's seen the robots and is laughed at by his peers.  Cut to 30 years later and suddenly those same two people emerge again, naked on a freeway and he's got to track them down, witnessing from the outside their very public fight with killer robots (Cloverfield-style).  Meanwhile he's putting the clues together as to what is happening, what they're after, the skynet/Genesys conspiracy.  That would be amazing.  All the action would be indirect, off in the background or witnessed from afar.  It would be thrilling and funny and far more original even though it's presenting roughly the same story.  It's all about perspective.

As is, Simmons flits in and out a couple times, and he's amazing every time, but it's just not enough.  Schwartzenegger is actually pretty fantastic in this (I was for some reason expecting him to be the weak link having been away from acting for so long, which was totally not the case).  For all the lack of chemistry between Courney and Clarke, Schwartzenegger manages to be a stone faced robot and yet the utter heart of this movie.  Taylor does a good job of presenting his T-800 as having aged and matured somewhat as a result.  He's a father by all rights, not just "Pops" in name, and while Clarke contributes to the relationship, it's Arnie that delivers it as something meaningful.  Plus most of the humour comes from Arnie, and it's not rehashed, self-referential bullcrap cliches like in Terminator 3, but it's humour that comes from his character, being an old model robot/paternal figure.

The action in the film, since it's mostly one-on-one fighting (beyond that opening sequence) is pretty good, and quite fun.  They make good use of the settings and of the different Terminator types.  Taylor makes it a really, really good looking film (he would have been and awesome director for that JK Simmons-focussed movie), but the story and script itself is just lacking.

Like David's take, I still quite enjoyed the film, more than its reputation suggested I would.  It had better avenues it could have taken to not be so repetitive, but it's not a badly made movie.  I can understand why Terminator fans haven't taken kindly to it, since it changes almost everything (and everyone) they've know or like about the series.  I also understand why audiences didn't react to it, because it's so inside baseball, you have to really know the series to get a lot of what's happening and why it's fun, or interesting, or funny.