Review – Terminator Genisys

He said he’d be back, and sure enough Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the franchise that made his name for this convoluted and confounding exercise in everything-and-the-kitchen-sink filmmaking.

This is the start of a supposed trilogy - on the basis of Terminator Genisys, Judgement Day can't come soon enough

This is the start of a supposed trilogy – on the basis of Terminator Genisys, Judgement Day can’t come soon enough

James Cameron may not be everyone’s favourite director, but in The Terminator (1984) and its game-changing sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) he kept the narratives straightforward, the characters interesting and the action eye-popping.

Cameron was smart enough to avoid getting bogged down by the head-scratching ins and outs of time travel; instead using it as a device to drive the action rather than the other way around.

I'll be back...again: 'Pops' (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Terminator Genisys

I’ll be back…again: ‘Pops’ (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Terminator Genisys

Alas, the same cannot be said of Terminator Genisys, which ignores the events of Rise Of The Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009) – no bad thing – and instead tries to have its cake and eat it by invoking Cameron’s first two installments whilst rebooting the franchise.

It’s a tactic that is becoming increasingly popular in Hollywood following the success of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), which cleverly took the Trek franchise down an alternate timeline whilst still keeping everything that made the series so successful in the first place.

John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) take the war to the machines in Terminator Genisys

John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) take the war to the machines in Terminator Genisys

Here, director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) faced an uphill task from the word go, working from a nonsensical script by Shutter Island scribe Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, whose most recent credit is, er, Drive Angry, and delivering a movie that has the whiff of studio interference all over it.

The messy trailers didn’t exactly sell the film and a later trailer (not the one I’ve linked to in my review) stupidly gave away a crucial plot twist – a sign that usually signals a studio’s lack of belief in a product.

Genisys follows resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), who is sent from a 2029 ravaged by Skynet’s apocalyptic destruction back to 1984 by leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) to protect his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke – no relation) from a Terminator, or Terminators as it turns out. However, Kyle gets a shock when it emerges that Sarah isn’t the defenceless waitress he’s been expecting, but rather a kick-ass soldier who has been protected from childhood by a reprogrammed T-800 model Terminator (Schwarzenegger).

Hanging out: Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) in Terminator Genisys

Hanging out: Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) in Terminator Genisys

That just about covers the first 20-30 minutes, which actually promises much before the shark gets truly jumped over and the time travel-laden plot goes off the deep end.

The method behind Skynet’s ploy to achieve world domination is at least relevant to the digital age, but by treading over Cameron’s original the film ties itself up in a ridiculous amount of plot threads to get to where it needs to; with lazy waffle about time nexuses and dual realities served up as creaky bridging points to keep the whole thing from crashing and burning (and failing in the process).

Whilst the script goes off in a multitude of head-scratching tangents, the film attempts to divert the audience’s attention away from picking black hole-sized holes in the plot (who sent Arnie back to protect a young Sarah? Actually, who cares) by piling in action set piece after action set piece. Machines that Cameron’s movies built up to be near unstoppable killers are disposed of with relative ease early doors to make way for the central villain, whose identity is the film’s supposed ace card but only serves to undermine the first two, far superior, installments.

Can you guess which Terminator this is? Nope, neither can I.

Can you guess which Terminator this is? Nope, neither can I.

Arnie is clearly having a good time as everyone’s favourite cyborg. Although the explanation for an ageing Terminator isn’t entirely convincing, it does allow him to point out to all the haters that he is “old, not obsolete”. Emilia Clarke is given a rather thankless task in an underwritten role and the chemistry she shares with a very average Courtney is, at best, tepid.

Jason Clarke, meanwhile, looks like he’s treading water waiting for the next Apes picture, while JK Simmons gets to loosen up in a fun role as a police officer who’s lucky to be alive and Matt Smith, like so many others, gets virtually nothing to do.

This is the start of a supposed trilogy – on the basis of Terminator Genisys, Judgement Day can’t come soon enough.

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Review – Ex Machina

The irony cannot be lost on Alex Garland that the release of his efficiently tense sci-fi parable about the dangers of playing god should follow Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic warnings that mankind is ushering in its own doom with its unquenchable drive towards creating thinking machines.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

While Hawking is more inclined to go down the road of judgement day when the moment of so-called ‘singularity’ arrives and machines finally gain conscious thought and the ability to reproduce, Garland has been quoted as saying that his sympathies ultimately lie with the robots rather than their creators.

It’s a philosophy that courses through the circuits of his low-key directorial debut Ex Machina, wherein computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire owner of Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine.

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Nathan has brought Caleb out to his wayward mountain estate in order to perform the Turing Test on his experimental humanoid cyborg Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she/it can exhibit intelligent behaviour and pass herself/itself off as human.

In spite of the glass wall between them, Caleb and Ava form a bond that both troubles and allures the young programmer and this soon evolves into something far more complicated as questions over Nathan’s real motives start to emerge.

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

Ever since Dr Frankenstein brought life to his creation in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, writers and filmmakers have been fascinated by the dangers and enticements of playing god. This took the form of robots in Fritz Lang’s masterful Metropolis (1927) and has been spelling our doom ever since, most notably in The Terminator (1984); the film Hawking possibly most thinks reflects where we’re headed.

While acknowledging the tech fear of The Terminator et al, Garland’s chamber piece is more concerned with exploring the impact Ava’s behaviour has on the two men. When Ava subtly flirts with Caleb, he cannot help responding in kind in spite of himself. Likewise, when Caleb asks his boss why he’s sexualised his robot, Nathan the computer scientist gives a suitably technical response, while Nathan the red-blooded male follows it up with a playful shrug and an explanation that sex serves a primary purpose.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) - not replacing a contact lens - in Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) – not replacing a contact lens – in Ex Machina

Cooped up for all intents and purposes in a glass prison, we inevitably start to feel sympathy for Ava and it’s to the film’s credit that as it morphs into a tech-thriller and tries to throw us off the scent, that emotional engagement is maintained.

Vikander gives a wholly convincing performance as Ava and invests the cyborg with a complexity befitting such a well-rounded character. Her movement is both graceful and artificial and brings to mind Haley Joel Osment’s underrated turn as David, the robot who just wants to be a boy in A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

The chameleonic Isaac is typically excellent as Nathan, whose arrogance and petulance are matched by his pathetic weirdness, not least during a drunken disco dance with his mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) which is as odd as it is amusing. Meanwhile, Gleeson (who will be teaming up again with Isaac in that other sci-fi movie later this year) builds upon his recent good work in Frank and Unbroken with another solid turn as the somewhat overwhelmed programmer who starts to question his own humanity as the truth of what is happening takes hold.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon.

Great Films You Need To See – Hardware (1990)

As part of the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder Sci-fi season, The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context, is running a series of sci-fi-related features. My contribution is a piece about Richard Stanley’s cult 1990 sci-fi horror Hardware. It was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Richard Stanley’s grim and gory debut may never be counted among the greats of science fiction, but that hasn’t stopped it chiseling out a place among the affections of a loyal band of cult followers.

Richard Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992's Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It's a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved bette

Richard Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992’s Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It’s a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved bette

Squabbles over the rights to Hardware meant the only way to check it out for a good few years was through a less-than-ideal VHS copy and it wasn’t until 2009 that it finally made it onto DVD. The shenanigans surrounding the film following its modestly successful 1990 release have lent Hardware an edge in keeping with a down and dirty punk attitude.

A nomadic scavenger wanders the apocalyptic wastelands in Hardware

A nomadic scavenger wanders the apocalyptic wastelands in Hardware

Ex-soldier ‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott in one of his first starring roles) buys a nasty-looking robot head from a nomadic scavenger and gives it to his metal sculptor girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), not realising his gift has the ability to reassemble itself to become a machine whose only purpose is to kill.

Despite the meagre budget, Hardware‘s doom-laden industrial world, scarred by nuclear war and controlled by a government that isn’t exactly looking out for its citizens, is impressively realised on screen thanks to solid production design and vivid lighting (the heavy use of red throughout to symbolise the bloodbath that’s to come is especially evocative).

'Hard Mo' Baxter (Dylan McDermott) presents a gift of a robot head to girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in Hardware

‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott) presents a gift of a robot head to girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in Hardware

The killer robot premise is hardly original and the nods to genre stablemates The Terminator (1984) and Demon Seed (1977) are clear to see, but the film rises above the schlock-fest it could so easily have become thanks to the vision of its one-of-a-kind writer/director.

Stanley started work on the film in the immediate aftermath of a terrifying stint in war-ravaged Afghanistan where he had been making his documentary Voice Of The Moon. The horrors he no doubt witnessed are channelled into Hardware, particularly in the freakiness of the TV footage we get to see – grainy images of the Holocaust sitting alongside dystopian news footage, footage of thrash metal merchants Gwar and Robocop-style satirical adverts (“radiation free reindeer steaks”). As if that wasn’t enough, the robot head is painted with the Stars and Stripes to make a none-too-subtle observation about American imperialism.

The impassive killer robot in Hardware

The impassive killer robot in Hardware

He had originally intended to set the film in Britain, but decided to make the location non-specific following the addition of American leads at the studio’s insistence. It’s a smart move that works to the movie’s advantage as the multi-national flavour is entirely in keeping with the world created.

This being a killer robot movie, it’s necessary to buy in to threat posed by the machine and it’s here where Hardware amps up the gore. The scenes within Jill’s apartment, which take up a good chunk of the film’s running time, exude a real menace as the robot impassively goes after anyone it can.

'Hard Mo' Baxter (Dylan McDermott) with his robot hand in Hardware

‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott) with his robot hand in Hardware

While Simon Boswell’s soundtrack doesn’t do the film any favours, Stanley makes better use of musicians in other capacities, with Motörhead frontman Lemmy playing a taxi driver who recommends Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades to Mo; and Iggy Pop as DJ Angry Bob, “the guy with the industrial dick” whose at one point says: “As for the good news… there is no fucking good news! So let’s just play some music!”

Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992’s Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It’s a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved better.