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‘Terminator: Genisys’ has prejudgment day

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”
(Robert Zuckerman / Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Terminator: Genisys,” the fifth film in the blockbuster sci-fi franchise, isn’t scheduled to hit theaters until July 2015, and if there’s one thing its predecessors taught us, it’s that the future is uncertain.

But even though “Genisys” is months away and not a frame of footage has been shown, it’s already being scrutinized by a vocal subset of fans in the wake of revelations about the film’s plot and characters.

Last week Entertainment Weekly unveiled a first look at the Alan Taylor-directed film, which new studio Paramount Pictures hopes will reboot the $1.4-billion “Terminator” franchise. Along with offering glimpses of the cast in character — including Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor, Jason Clarke as John Connor and Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese — the story teases a retooled origin for the series’ iconic heroine.

According to EW, the “Genisys” version of Sarah Connor — mother to humanity’s leader in a future war against machines — has been orphaned by a Terminator at age 9. She’s also been raised by a different, older Terminator, played by franchise veteran Arnold Schwarzenegger to become “a highly trained antisocial recluse.” Oh, and she calls him “Pops.”

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The story is a significant shift from the original, in which Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is an everywoman waitress who knows nothing of Terminators and Skynet until Kyle Reese shows up to warn her she is under threat from same. In this one, far from a naif who learns suddenly she will birth humanity’s savior, she’s told exactly what’s supposed to happen from an early age and wrestles with how much she wants to participate in these fatalistic events.

“Since she was 9 years old, she has been told everything that was supposed to happen,” producer David Ellison said in the EW piece. “But Sarah fundamentally rejects that destiny. She says, ‘That’s not what I want to do.’ It’s her decision that drives the story in a very different direction.”

Response to the report was merciless on Twitter, where many fans and pundits groused that the “Genisys” photos looked cheesy and the plot sounded silly — particularly the “raised-by-a-Terminator” hook that so radically reorganized the architecture of the 1984 original. As Drew McWeeny summarized on the popular HitFix site: “The reason fandom is up in arms today is because they’re getting their first real taste of what this film has in store for them, and they do not like what they’re tasting. Nope. Not at all.”

One the one hand, it’s understandable that people would be protective of the beloved sci-fi mythos, and in particular of Sarah Connor, one of moviedom’s great maverick heroes. Re-imagining Connor as a Terminator’s adoptive daughter is a gamble that opens up any number of narrative possibilities and echoes elements of “T2" (with her taking John Connor’s place), but it also threatens to undermine the character’s strengths, eliminating the transformation from ordinary citizen to muscled warrior that proved so compelling over the course of two films — and, indeed, suggesting it never happened. (EW describes the revamped Connor as, from the outset, “great with a sniper rifle but not so skilled at the nuances of human emotion.”)

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Perhaps more troubling would be if “Genisys” were to usher in a gooey father-daughter dynamic that feels out of place in a gritty genre tale. Even if it turns out to be meant ironically, a nickname like “Pops” doesn’t augur well — and it’s not clear it’s meant ironically. As Clarke describes her character, she’s “just a normal girl growing up in a world with a Terminator for a dad.”

Clarke also muses, “What was her first date like? Did he kill many of the dates she brought home?” She may well be joking, or dropping a red herring, but putting a lethal cyborg into a domestic tableau sounds more befitting of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than a “Terminator” movie.

Yet for all the concern about the fate of “Terminator,” it’s hard not to wonder if this is all premature and even off-base. Movies shift direction all the time, and movies that come three decades after the original have to shift direction a little more than most. Sure, altering the basic gene code of the movie we knew  — as opposed to just branching it in a different direction — can be a dangerous proposition. But it’s not the first time it’s being done, and it doesn’t really alter our experience of the first film — not in any substantive sense, anyway.

You can ask whether it’s worth doing these reboots in the first place (as McWeeny writes, “James Cameron told the entire story he wanted to tell in two movies. Everything since then feels reverse-engineered to me, designed to somehow extend the life of a franchise that organically came to a conclusion.”) But given that it’s being done, it’s not surprising or even inherently a bad thing to take a new direction.

In today’s climate, judging a movie as the best or worst thing ever has become a fashionable online parlor game, even if it doesn’t do justice or give fair hearing to, you know, the film itself. It used to be that first screenings elicited such a verdict, then it moved to first trailers. The new “Terminator” is part of a wave of movies that generate outcries at plot description or casting stages (see under: Ben Affleck and “Batman v Superman”).

Yet if we do want to judge by tea leaves, there are other facts to consider, including that the new “Terminator” film is being penned by Laeta Kalogridis and her writing partner Patrick Lussier. Kalogridis is no franchise-messing hack. In fact, she’s written some classics, including with Cameron on the sci-fi master’s “Avatar.” Cheesy is certainly a possibility for the new “Terminator” (see under: the film’s full title). But so are interesting new directions, directions that are impossible to divine months before a film is in the can.

Follow @ogettell and @zeitchiklat for movie news


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