Terminator recharged?

The character of Sarah Connor is back in the form of Emilia Clarke (left) in Terminator Genisys. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who starred in the first two Terminator films, returns as the protector cyborg in the fifth movie, Terminator Genisys.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who starred in the first two Terminator films, returns as the protector cyborg in the fifth movie, Terminator Genisys.PHOTOS: UIP, SONY PICTURES, STARHUB, COLUMBIA TRISTAR, MEDIACORP
The character of Sarah Connor is back in the form of Emilia Clarke (left) in Terminator Genisys. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who starred in the first two Terminator films, returns as the protector cyborg in the fifth movie, Terminator Genisys.
The character of Sarah Connor is back in the form of Emilia Clarke (above) in Terminator Genisys.PHOTOS: UIP, SONY PICTURES, STARHUB, COLUMBIA TRISTAR, MEDIACORP

Fans of sci-fi franchise hope fifth instalment restores the magic of the first two films

Will five make the franchise come alive? Or will audiences give it a summary execution, saying, "You have been targeted for termination"?

There is much at stake with Terminator Genisys, which opens tomorrow. It comes after movies three and four, both of which were snubbed at the box office and by fans of films one (The Terminator, 1984) and two (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991).

But things have turned a corner, say the two people most intimately connected with the series. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger, the T-800 himself, and James Cameron, cocreator and director of films one and two, have declared in recent interviews that Genisys is the true successor to film two, while at the same time, deriding films three (Terminator 3; Rise Of The Machines, 2003) and four (Terminator Salvation, 2009).

The Austria-born actor is back as the protector cyborg in Genisys, while Cameron is not involved (Alan Taylor, director of 2013's Thor: The Dark World, helms the new instalment).

While fans of the sci-fi classic (myself included) desperately want both of them to be right and not simply parroting public relations poppycock, there are signs that the latest in a line of movies about time-travelling killer robots could arrive with dead batteries.

No advance screenings of Terminator Genisys for Singapore media were arranged - this is usually a sign that the studio wants to keep reviews out of the public eye for as long as possible.

And they do this because they think reviews will be as sharp and cutting as the arm-blades on a T-1000 liquid metal robot (played this time by South Korean actor Lee Byung Hun).

The second hint that things might have gone awry is the last film's long gestation - six years.

The title of the fourth movie, Salvation, carried a load of irony. After the box-office failure of the work - famed, more than anything else, for the Christian Bale on-set rant that went viral on the Internet - one stakeholder after another either went bankrupt or passed.

Salvation, directed by McG, was supposed to be the reboot of the series.

In keeping with current tastes, the revamped franchise was going to focus on leader of the human uprising John Connor, an angsty hero in the vein of Batman. Bale, the ultimate angsty male lead, was Connor. It was to be set in a grimy dystopian future filled with cool killer machines.

That formula failed.

What resulted was a confused tangle featuring too many characters and a story that tries to justify a meandering tale of action and violence with a cynical final act, centred on, for goodness sake, a heart transplant, carried out in a tent open to the elements.

That forced uplift in the ending was completely out of character with the tone set in the first two films.

The other clue that not everything is as it should be lies in its rating. In the United States, the first three movies were given an R rating, which means that those under 17 have to accompanied by an adult.

Salvation, however, in keeping with current summer blockbuster trends, moved it to PG 13 (parents are cautioned about some inappropriate material) and Genisys is following suit.

Can a Terminator movie be a Terminator movie without the machines demonstrating their specific and intimate methods of killing? What would the second film have been like if the shot showing John Connor's legal guardians skewered by the T-1000's arms had been cut to fit PG13 limits?

So what are the magic ingredients that made the first two films special?

For one, there was never any doubt that humans were soft and vulnerable, while their opposition were nightmarishly relentless and indestructible.

Even after Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) had grown into a super-soldier by film two, she would need all her wits and the help of the now-friendly T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to keep herself and her son John (Edward Furlong) alive.

Film three had an antagonist, the new-model T-X (Kristanna Loken), a machine that never carried the same sense of threat, while film four turned the malevolent Skynet artificial intelligence network and its robots into a sham force resembling the Star Wars Imperial Army - lots of impressive hardware, but easy to destroy en masse and with no one able to shoot straight.

The other ingredient is the balance of characters. Films one and two had people the audience cared about because they were a family (mother Sarah and son John, with father figure the T-800) forced to meet an insurmountable challenge.

That was changed in film three, when the studio decided that family was out, and the love story of sulky loner Connor (Nick Stahl) and bratty veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) was worth caring about. The fourth movie opted to throw characters out in favour of five-storey-tall computer-drawn robots going smashy-smashy.

If there is one heartening bit about the new movie, it is that Sarah Connor is back, in the form of Emilia Clarke (from HBO's Game Of Thrones). Sarah, the link between the world we live in now and the horrible future to come, has always been the audience's point of contact.

Let's hope they treat her with respect this time, or it's hasta la vista, baby.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Terminator Genisys opens tomorrow.


THE TERMINATOR FRANCHISE THROUGH THE YEARS

Tay Yek Keak

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

Director: James Cameron

Main characters: Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn)

Story: Los Angeles, 1984. A relentless cyborg assassin known as Terminator T-800 - a metal being covered in human living tissue - is sent from 2029 by an all-conquering artificial intelligence network called Skynet to kill a woman named Sarah Connor. She is destined to become the mother of John Connor, the man who will eventually lead Earth's resistance against the robots.

To protect her, the resistance sends a human named Kyle Reese from the future to stop the Terminator.

Reese sleeps with Sarah, resulting in the conception of John in a fascinating time paradox.

Rating: 5/5

One of the best time-travel sci-fi films ever made. Memorable in so many ways - terrific action, great cast, Schwarzenegger's imposing robotic presence, his iconic lines ("I'll be back") and, of course, the kickbutt concept of present-cause and futuristic-effect which actually seems logical.

Coolest, scariest touch - Since the Terminator does not know who the actual Sarah Connor is, he checks the phone book for addresses and kills every woman with that name.

Fun fact: Schwarzenegger was reportedly supposed to play Reese, the hero, instead of the Terminator. Another person considered for the Terminator role was O.J. Simpson. Ironically, Cameron did not think that Simpson would be believable enough as a killer.

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

Director: James Cameron

Main characters: Good Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), bad Terminator T-1000 (Robert Patrick), Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), John Connor (Edward Furlong)

Story: Los Angeles, 1995. John Connor, destined leader of the resistance against Skynet, is now a 10-year-old boy. Skynet goes after him with a new, updated and more fearsome Terminator called the T-1000. Connor's future self sends a less advanced, reprogrammed cyborg from the original T-800 models to essentially protect himself. Meanwhile, Sarah Conner has become a formidable fighter herself to watch over her son.

Rating: 4/5

Two things stand out - Hamilton transforming into a pecs-and-abs warrior woman and Patrick's T-1000 Terminator showing a spectacular liquid-metal power that allows him to shape-shift and morph into anything. Suddenly, "morphing" became the in-thing in special effects. Schwarzenegger becoming a good Terminator here was hugely popular with audiences who actually shed tears at his final poignant scene of self-sacrifice.

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003)

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Main characters: Good Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), bad Terminator T-X (Kristanna Loken), John Connor (Nick Stahl), Kate Brewster (Claire Danes)

Story: Los Angeles, 2004. Following the death of his mother, Sarah, John Connor is now a young drifter who is aware of an ominous apocalyptic war ahead between man and machine. Skynet sends an even deadlier, female-shaped Terminator - T-X model - to hunt and kill him. To counter this, the resistance sends yet another obsolete cyborg - T-850 - to be Connor's bodyguard. They flee the unstoppable Terminatrix with Connor's girlfriend and future wife, Kate. She is the daughter of the military general in charge of building Skynet, their nemesis in the future.

Rating: 2.5/5

The franchise with a tiring Schwarzenegger, then 56, seemed like it had reached its last legs. The saga turns into a noisy, numbing action flick coming full circle with the nuclear-war Judgment Day (the nuclear holocaust which would pave the way for machines to take over Earth) prophesised in Terminator 2. The Rise Of The Machines was starting to look more like the Rise Of The Boredom.

TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009)

Director: McG

Main characters: John Connor (Christian Bale), Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard)

Story: Los Angeles, 2018. No more

robot Schwarzenegger. No more time travel. It is a new cast as the saga reaches the post-apocalyptic aftermath forewarned earlier with John Connor, leader of the humans, all grown up as a brooding, Bale-class adult. Robots rule as Skynet takes over Earth. In the ruins of a destroyed LA, Connor is aided in his battle against the machines by a human-terminator hybrid, Marcus Wright, who acts more human than robot. Connor meets a teenaged Kyle Reese who, as the man who was sent back to protect him in the first Terminator movie, is actually his dad.

Rating: 2/5

This looks like any other grimy, rubble-filled, outmatched-survivors- straggling-like-cockroaches, unwashed Mad Max wannabe with a pedigree that does not show up. Schwarzenegger's absence here is as big as his 1984 biceps. In the climactic showdown, his face is superimposed on the body of another Austrian bodybuilder-actor, Roland Kickinger, as the Terminator.

TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES (TV SERIES, 2008 TO 2009)

Main characters: Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), John Connor (Thomas Dekker), good Terminator Cameron (Summer Glau), Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green)

Story: New Mexico, 1999. After the good Schwarzenegger Terminator eliminated the T-1000 cyborg and then destroyed itself in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, single mum Sarah Connor and her teenage son, John, are fugitives running from the law. The future John Connor sends a cute, agile female cyborg named Cameron to protect them. To save them, she transports them forward in time to an alternate universe in 2007 where they battle the ascending evil Skynet network and assorted baddies. Derek Reese, older brother of Kyle, is sent back to help them too.

Rating: 2.5/5

Some episodes hit, some missed. What was interesting and infuriating at the same time was the way the story was dragged out into a complex life of its own involving twists, turns, arcs and characters which veered further and further away from the core for Terminator diehards.

Fun fact: With Headey and now Emilia Clarke in Terminator Genisys, this makes two Game Of Thrones actresses to have played the role of Sarah Connor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline 'Terminator recharged?'. Print Edition | Subscribe